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Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral Interventions For Late-life Problems

Many older adults who seek help in therapy deal with problems that threaten their well-being, including chronic illness, disability, and the death of loved ones. These problems are not unique to late life, but they are likely to occur more frequently at older ages. Furthermore, the usual difficulties of life, such as disappointments in love, arguments with family, and failure to achieve goals, can also take place in late life. Finally, many persons who struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or psychosis in their younger years continue to do so in their later years.

Chronic illness and disability. Conducting CBT with distressed older adults often means working with a population that is chronically ill, physically disabled, or both, and that struggles to adjust to these problems. In working with this population, it is important to learn about chronic illnesses and their psychological impact, control of chronic pain, adherence to medical treatment, rehabilitation strategies, and assessment of behavioral signs of medication reactions.

A frequent element of treating chronically ill or disabled elders is addressing concurrent depression, since up to 59 percent of this population experiences depression. Although there have been few studies examining the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy with medically ill older adults, results are encouraging for both outpatient and inpatient populations. Rybarczyk et al. (1992) have identified five important issues in applying CBT to chronically ill older adults: (1) solving practical barriers impeding participation, (2) acknowledging that depression is a separate and reversible problem, (3) limiting excess disability, (4) counteracting the loss of important social roles and autonomy, and (5) challenging the thought of being a "burden." For instance, in challenging the belief of being a burden on a family caregiver, the therapist may help the client to recall things he or she has done for the family caregiver in the past, thereby providing the client with a greater sense of equity in the relationship. Breaking down the issues facing the chronically ill older adult is helpful to the therapist in developing a strategy using both cognitive-behavioral techniques and practical considerations.

In addition to treating depression in medically ill or disabled elders, cognitive and behavioral techniques are also effective in managing pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis and delayed healing from injuries. Cognitive pain-management methods include distracting oneself from the pain, reinterpreting pain sensations, using pleasant imagery, using calming self-statements, and increasing daily pleasurable activities.

Depression. As mentioned previously, depression is prevalent in older adults who are chronically ill, disabled, or grieving; although the prevalence of depression in older adults is less than in young adults. Cognitive and behavioral approaches are effective in relieving depression in older adults. In treating depression, CBT focuses on teaching new coping strategies to deal with problems and on challenging those thoughts that interfere with effective coping. The client's participation in daily events that affect mood may also be addressed in therapy. By using a chart to monitor the frequency of these events, the therapist enables the client to see the relationship between pleasant events and moods, so that the frequency of pleasant events can be increased while the frequency of unpleasant events is reduced during the course of therapy. The therapist may also use the dysfunctional-thought record, a technique showing self-talk and negative interpretation of events, to enable the client to recognize distorted thoughts and replace negative and irrational thoughts with more adaptive ones.

Anxiety. Anxiety is fairly common in late life, but it is an understudied problem. Results from various studies indicate that brief courses (less than twenty sessions) of cognitive-behavioral therapy may be effective in treating late-life anxiety. In cognitive therapy, distorted thoughts that may exacerbate anxiety, such as "My heart is beating faster, which means I am about to have a heart attack" are challenged (Wetherell, 1998). Other cognitive restructuring techniques consist of making more accurate risk estimates; "decatastrophizing" by determining ways to cope with the feared situation; stopping thoughts by noticing and eliminating anxiety-provoking thoughts; and replacing automatic, anxious thoughts with positive thoughts. Relaxation training is often combined with diaphragmatic breathing and cognitive restructuring. For a review of treatment of anxiety in older adults, see Wetherell (1998).

Alcohol abuse. Even though alcoholism rates are lower for older adults than for younger adults, older problem drinkers often drink in response to loneliness, depression, and poor social-support networks. Consequently, CBT for the treatment of alcoholism in older adults focuses on improving the client's life in various ways in addition to just abstaining from drinking. Studies indicate that CBT models are effective in treating alcoholism in older adults, although further research is needed because not all studies have included a control group.

Stopping drinking completely, or at least achieving a period of abstinence followed by very limited and controlled drinking is a mandatory goal in treatment. Analysis of the drinking behavior itself also takes place to figure out the maladaptive purpose underlying the drinking behavior. Coping skills and behavior alternatives are then developed and practiced in therapy to handle situations in which the urge to drink arises. Irrational thoughts associated with the drinking are also challenged during therapy to increase the mood and self-esteem of the client, which in turn helps to control drinking behavior.

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