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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Potential Sources Of Change In Psychotherapy With Older Adults

Potential modifications to psychotherapeutic regimens may be necessary due to the various changes inherent in the aging process as a result of development, cohort differences, and the social context of older adults. It is important to keep in mind that these changes represent hypotheses in need of empirical investigation. Outcomes of psychological interventions with older adults indicate that maturational changes with aging have no negative impact upon the use of CBT with older adults.

Development. Slowing in cognitive processes and memory changes may require changes in cognitive-behavioral therapy. For instance, therapeutic conversation may need to be slower and simpler with older clients. Furthermore, it may be necessary for therapists to repeat new material, to ask the client to summarize the information to make sure that he or she understands it, and to ask the client to take notes on important points to increase recall of information and the effectiveness of the therapeutic intervention.

Changes in therapy may also arise as a result of the more positive aspects of maturation. Older adults have many useful strengths and existing skills as a result of the stability of crystallized intelligence and the development of expertise in several life domains. Rediscovering these skills, rather than teaching new ones, may frequently occur in therapy. It is also important to note that the normal decline in fluid intelligence suggests that the therapist may need to guide the older adult to certain conclusions, rather than giving suggestions and expecting the client to infer them.

Emotional changes that come with maturity may also affect the presentation of problems, requiring an adjustment of cognitive interventions. Research on emotion suggests that young adults experience pure and intense emotions, whereas older adults experience both sad and happy emotions in response to the same environmental or cognitive stimulus. Instead of replacing a negative, distorted thought with a more neutral or positive thought, it may be more strategic to have the older client focus on both the positive and negative emotions experienced.

A tendency for older adults to reminisce may make it difficult to focus on the present in CBT. Keeping an exclusively present-oriented focus when working with older adults who want and need to talk about the past is likely to be counterproductive. It is important to allow time for reminiscence, which may be perceived as reinforcement for other therapeutic work.

Cohort differences. In working with older adults, it is important to be aware of cohort differences that may influence the process of therapy. Cohort differences refer to an individual's membership in a birth-year group and the socialization process that shapes the abilities, beliefs, attitudes, and personality aspects of individuals born in a specific cohort. The attributes of a cohort are believed to be stable as the cohort ages, and thus differentiate it from those born earlier and later. For example, later-born cohorts (people who are now younger) have more years of formal education, are superior in reasoning ability and spatial orientation, and are more extroverted. Consequently, it may be necessary to change the wording of scales or assignments to adjust to different education levels of earlier cohorts and to adapt to cohort-specific values or examples in order to increase comfort with written assignments given in CBT. Thus, younger therapists working with older adults need to learn what it was like to grow up before the therapist was born because cohort differences in education level, intellectual skills, and personality may influence the process of therapy.

Social environment. Knowledge of the social context of older adults is crucial for appropriate interventions within both classic behavioral and social learning models of therapy because reinforcement contingencies that create or maintain maladaptive behavior or negative affect often arise from the environmental context. Staff in nursing homes, for example, may reward older adults for passively conforming to scheduled routines, a passivity that may result in reduced activity levels, lowered sense of control, and worsened mood. In order to improve the client's mood, the environment will need to be changed or staff will need to be consulted about possible environmental changes in the client's highly structured residential setting.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy - Potential Sources Of Change In Psychotherapy With Older Adults, Cognitive-behavioral Interventions For Late-life Problems