Therapy as a Means of Balancing Loss with Acceptance By Tom Medlar, LMHC on 7/27/23 - 12:34 PM

Arlene felt dismayed by the arrival of her 71st birthday. “It’s not the same as when I was young and carefree, now that I’m getting older,” she said during a psychotherapy session at a nursing home. She has a long history of schizophrenia with mild autistic features, obsessive features, social anxiety, and a chronic yet stable blood condition. Arlene mostly stays in her room, wears hospital gowns, and dresses only on rare occasions, such as when a family member takes her for a shopping and lunch outing.

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Nurses point out to me that she sometimes refuses her meals or her medications. “I always take my medicine if I know the nurse who is giving it to me,” Arlene said. When approached by a new clinician or caregiver, she might clam up, make few or no remarks, or raise her voice and order the person to leave her room, due to paranoid thinking. Arlene clarified to me that she was not purposefully avoiding eating, and that she had no intentions of harming herself or worsening her medical condition. “I’m embarrassed to say it, Tom, but it’s my teeth. They’re broken, you see, and it can hurt if I eat something tough. I just look at the food they bring me, and right away I know if I can eat it or not,” she remarked. “Oh, no, I don’t want them to know about my problem with my teeth.”

After further discussion, though, she agreed that it might be helpful if her care providers understand the reasons for her occasional avoidance of meals. Arlene allowed me to speak with other team members at the facility, and then worked with nursing and speech therapy on the types and textures of foods she might better tolerate and enjoy, but she did not want to have dental care.

Therapy as a Road to Acceptance

In psychotherapy one day, Arlene said, “I thought I was depressed because I’m stuck in a nursing home, and that’s true. Then I thought I’d be happier if I went to a different nursing home, but then I would miss my nurse Jane and my aide Jamie, and the other people and things I like here. Even my fan on the table there, I love that fan. So, I decided to look around and notice the things I do like, and let it be good enough.” I spoke with Arlene about the wisdom of her idea, and about ways we might seek to implement that outlook in her daily life.

Arlene had touched upon a wise and simple conundrum of human life. If you substitute the words nursing home in the above quote with family, marriage, relationship, school, home, job, car, town, etc., you notice the universal applicability of the idea of letting what one has be good enough. Why is it so hard, so much of the time, for many of us to simply look at the things and people we do have in our life and let it be good enough? Is the purpose of psychotherapy always to aspire for more than one already has, or to accept more reasonably and gratefully the people and things and abilities one already has?

Many clients I work with in nursing facilities refer to the well-known Serenity Prayer, and some post it on the wall of their room, as they strive for serenity, courage, and wisdom. The ability to distinguish between what can and cannot be changed might be impacted by cognitive deficits, as well as by psychological denial, or simply the anguish of tolerating an unacceptable situation that must be borne.

Some of the clients I work with in nursing homes suffer from severe medical illnesses or major disability conditions, in addition to psychiatric and mood disorders. They might understandably wish for a return to how things once were in their lives, yet not be able to attain those wishes.

Martine, for example, asked a hundred times why she could not go home from the facility, and a hundred times staff and her husband, Mike, answered her questions with careful explanations of her current conditions and needs (dementia, incontinence, fall risks, bipolar illness, and emotional dyscontrol), yet to no avail, as she would persist in the ineffective mental loop of questions and refusals — or inability — to absorb the answers.

Psychotherapy did help Pamela come to tolerate and accept her needs for daily care at the nursing home. She initially suffered a depressive reaction to the loss of her home, her former roles, and a reduced sense of control over her life. But over time she came to recognize and reconcile to the situation as it was, rather than as she might wish it to be. “As long as I know my kids are okay, I can be okay with this place,” Pam said.

Walter, who is debilitated by the effects of Parkinson’s disease, had suffered many losses in his life and was now learning to adapt to residential care. “I’m lucky to have what I do have. It’s not as wonderful as what I did have before, but I’m still lucky,” he said.

A Requiem for All That Was Lost

Education about medical and psychiatric conditions must be balanced with emotional support to assist understanding and tolerance of the knowledge, and guidance to learn to adapt to changes and limitations.

Many clients focus intently on What This Isn’t. “Living in a nursing home, being dependent on others for daily care, isn’t what I want, what I expected at this time of life or what I can easily tolerate,” they might say. All those things, I point out in therapy, may be true, but intense and sustained attention on the disappointments might simply magnify the realistic distress associated with the situation. To help moderate some of that distress, I therapeutically suggest attending as well to What This Is. While this is not home, and the others are not family, this situation is safe, a place of shelter, with meals, medicine, nursing care, rehab, and some socializing with others.

During a recent therapy conversation with Arlene, I referred to her prior remarks about letting her situation be good enough. “Oh, I said that? I don’t remember,” she said. Progress in therapy with my clients might involve small steps towards goals, or might simply be aimed at sustaining reasonable stability, depending on the disorders and capabilities of the nursing home resident.

Therapy is sometimes provided to persons with fully intact mental and physical capabilities, yet other times psychotherapy is needed to help individuals with varied degrees of impairments and functional limitations, who still need to find ways to cope, tolerate losses and limitations, and still be themselves — even under adverse and challenging conditions.

Meaning and a sense of purpose and security are needed not only by those most self-sufficient, but by all people — even, or most particularly, those groping their way through circumstances they don’t want yet cannot overcome. Psychotherapy can provide a relationship for addressing those existential human needs.

Sometimes psychotherapy can be viewed as striving for the highest and best of human capacities. Yet it can also be a humble undertaking, joining in the depth of troubles to help someone get through a day that will be difficult for them.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

How does the author’s notion of acceptance resonate with you personally? Professionally?

What might you have said to Arlene, or the others mentioned in this essay when they expressed their losses?

How do you work with elderly clients around loss and acceptance of “what is?”   

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist, Musings and Reflections