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The 5 Biggest Lessons I've Learned From My Therapy Clients

How I help them and then how they help me.

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illustration of woman walking on a pathway towards a bright sun surrounded by blooming flowers
Kaitlin Brito
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After marking age 60 with multiple celebrations, I planned on making the next big one — five years out — a quiet one. So long as I’d still have my partner Paul, my sister Barb, amazing friends, my whiny terrier Shea, and fulfilling work as a psychotherapist and writer, nothing elaborate would be required to feel properly feted!

A few months before turning 64, two life-changing events occurred — the pandemic shut New York City down and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My birthday was spent video-chatting with friends and family, wearing a chartreuse beanie perched on my bald head.

A year later, cancer-free, Paul and I celebrated my 65th birthday in Big Sur, toasting the sunset with Aperol Spritzes at Nepenthe, a cliffside restaurant with wraparound views of the Pacific.

Back in the myopia of daily existence, daily creaks and sags were frequent reminders of age. I focused on the grit and grace of my psychotherapy clients whom I am privileged to help grapple with the illnesses, disabilities and losses that are inevitable companions along a long life. Here are some of the lessons they have taught me. Their wisdom is a guide in accepting my lack of invincibility and in creating new beginnings.

Mastering the Art of the Zigzag

Shortly after her 72nd birthday, this retiree called for her initial therapy appointment. Until recently, running and aerobics had been her go-to depression, grief and stress relievers. A year-and-a-half after the death of her husband of 40 years, worsening osteoporosis meant these outlets were bringing more pain than release. Her doctor suggested she stop activities involving high-impact exercise, bending, running or twisting. "I’ve always been someone who could roll with things,” she explained during our first visit. “But at this stage, I’m afraid rolling will cause me to break a hip."

I told her "you’re not off the hook" as the CDC recommends that seniors do moderate-intensity activity for at least 150 minutes a week. She did find new paths to fitness — water aerobics, walking, tai chi and joining a bike riding group. She recently reported: "Yeah, sometimes I miss tennis but when I hit a roadblock instead of feeling defeated, I figure out a zigzag."

The lesson here for me: The only thing totally under my control is a resilient spirit.
 

Taking a Romantic Leap: "It’s Now or Never"

When we began working together 15 years ago, the then 60-year-old author declared an early failed marriage had soured her on creating legal binds to another human being. Initially, my patient proclaimed her purpose for seeking therapy was to appease her adult daughter who didn’t want her mother to spend her golden years alone. However, as she grew more comfortable in our sessions she recalled repeatedly witnessing her father "treat mom like dirt."

Even though, she ended up "marrying a version of dad, which cemented my belief all men suck." The past few years she’d become involved with "a wonderful soul" who had her questioning her commitment to non-commitment. In a whisper, she added, "But I’m afraid."

Finally voicing this truth led to more reckoning: "I’m 75! I have survived and surmounted so much. Why deprive myself in my remaining time of something that can bring joy? That just gives power to my father and ex…"

A few months later came a wedding announcement.

The lesson here for me: On my deathbed, I want to rejoice in the memories of what I accomplished, not mourn opportunities fear of failure kept me from attempting.
 

Learning Grudges Are a Waste of Time

A month after this 68-year-old writer began therapy she requested an emergency session. Her 62-year-old sister Emily had suffered a massive coronary and died on the way to the hospital. To lose a sibling is a tragedy in any circumstance but for my patient, the grief was layered with regret and guilt. The two women hadn’t spoken in over a year, falling out over their late mother bequeathing Emily the sisters’ favorite ring. Between sobs, she told me: "Deep down I knew it wasn’t Emily’s fault but Mom wasn’t there to yell at. Eventually, I was going to reach out."

Slowly, she processed the loss, and one helpful act was writing a letter to her deceased sister. On the first anniversary of Emily’s death, my patient expressed the lesson she wishes someone in a similar stand-off with a loved one had told her: "Never, ever let small stuff obscure the big picture. Every day you spend estranged is a day you’ll never get back."

The lesson here for me: Love means listening to my heart versus my stubborn pride.

 
Responding to Ageism With Reinvention

According to a study sponsored by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, "Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten: A Report on the Movie Roles of Women" 32 of 2019’s top-grossing films from four countries including the United States did not include one female lead. Additionally, 46.8 percent of films depicting women 50 and older showed them as "senile, homebound, feeble or frumpy."

Soon after turning 50 my patient, a working actress since her 20s, found casting directors stopped taking her calls. Initially, she responded with panic attacks, self-blame and an immediate appointment for a facelift. I said: "You are the same amazing person I’ve known for eight years…" We talked about how the ageism of casting directors should not hold her back. She did end up canceling the plastic surgery and putting energy toward creating new income streams related to her field, such as teaching acting and booking voice-overs.

Eventually, she created a one-woman show during which she "treats" the audience to enlarged, projected photos of her wrinkles and sags.

The lesson here for me: My wrinkles are beauty marks full of wisdom earned.


Gaining a Unique Perspective From A Shortened Lifespan

From a young age, this now 51-year-old entrepreneur has battled debilitating autoimmune issues. She began therapy 11 years ago when an unplanned pregnancy threatened her already precarious health. The doctor warned that the toll on her body, if she carried to term, could ultimately shorten her lifespan by 5 to 10 years, a possibility that led her husband to advise abortion.

My client decided to "roll the dice and have the baby," a child now in sixth grade. Each ensuing year brings more health battles, which she responds to with fresh determination to value every moment. As she puts it: "I don’t understand when people bemoan becoming old enough for Medicare — I hope I get there but if I don’t, I’ll have found pockets of joy even when it’s a crappy day."

The lesson here for me: Perspective is everything.


The older you get, what's one thing you know for sure? Let us know in the comments below.
 

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