Late Life Trauma & Depression: Un-Packing Our Baggage Of Beliefs

The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat and suffering, struggles, challenges and loss, and have found their way out of the depths.  These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.                        Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

Shaping My World View

At 54 years old, I finally had my own apartment.  It was my pied-à-terre from Monday thru Friday when I went home to my husband for the weekend.  I was going to Nursing School and I was stoked.  Full Time learning and new experiences for 12 intense months.  To set the tone, I began my fourth re-read of  AWAKE  by Jesuit Priest and Buddhist, Anthony  deMellow. Really great books are often worth re-reading. This time, what jumped out at me was the comment that “Most people  do not want to be healed, they want to feel better.”  An interesting thought for one so soon to be a Registered Nurse.  Many factors entered into my decision to return to college for my Open Bookthird degree, but being able to ditch the panty hose, wear pyjamas to work and see naked men, and get paid for it, were all high on my list. And now I had something else to think about.

After this book I read Kitchen Table Wisdom by another one of my heroes, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.  This is a book of stories, hers and those of her hundreds of patients, most facing the end of their lives up close.  This book confirmed my belief that the stories we tell of our own lives are the mirrors of our deeply held beliefs, they are our interpretation of how we relate to others and the world.

Knowing your own story requires having a personal response to life, an inner experience of life. It is possible to live a life without experiencing it.  The best stories have many meanings; their meaning changes as our capacity to understand and appreciate meaning grows.  Revisiting such stories over the years, one wonders how one could not have seen their present meaning all along.                 Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

Stories: One Of My Favorite Things

Oh Yes. I love to listen to people’s stories, from little children to the oldest of the old.  I love to tell stories as well.  And if we listen, really listen, with an open mind and heart, we can begin to see the world through another’s eyes, and understand their beliefs about the world, and themselves.  And if we can listen to the stories we continue to repeat to ourselves, we just may begin to see how we contribute to shaping our own reality.  The Ladder of Inference is an excellent schematic showing how the interpretation of our experiences forms our beliefs.

And This Is What Makes Late Life T&D So Traumatic and Depressing

It’s very hard for me to imagine anyone living for over 60 years who has not lived through potentially traumatic experiences.  from birth to death, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer, through abuse, and loss – of relationships, employment, home, self.  It can be called Home, The Ivory Tower, or Iraq, the potential for trauma is there. Lost childhood, lost health, lost power, lost dreams, lost trust, etc.. Yet, most people go on to function quite well. The others are traumatized and/or depressed.  It is not the event that determines the trauma or depression, it’s the individual’s interpretation of and response to the experience.

And so I ask, what could be so different from any other life experience to date,  among the Late Lifers, that is now rocking their world to crumbling?  Could it be more like the final straw after a lifetime’s accumulation of straws?

A husband and wife approached [Anthony deMello] at the end of a week-long retreat and said: “We absolutely love everything you’ve said! We know a lot of people who could really benefit from what you’ve been teaching.”

Do You Want To Be Better or Feel Better?

From the time I first considered this question, it has remained a filter through which I observe my own challenges, and those with whom I’ve been in therapeutic relationships.  It’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, especially if I’m a bit fuzzy about what each would require of me.

Anna was 91 yrs old and very aware that her approach to death was accelerating. This, on top of her already rapid heart rate related to her chronic anemia, was triggering anxiety which increased it even more.  Given that she had already made the decision that there was No Way she was going back into the hospital, I asked if she willing to try something new.  For 91 yrs Anna has been trying ‘new’ and this was no exception.  Within 5 minutes, Anna learned how to lower her heart rate (from 125 bpm to 80 bpm) by practicing a breathing meditation. And, her anxiety disappeared.  There would be no returning to the hospital.  Anna passed away, peacefully, at 92.


Joe is creeping up on 80 and has been intermittently, chronically depressed for as long as I’ve known him, and before.  He’s my go-to guy for the ‘scoop’ on anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, anti-anxiety meds, and whatever else one might ingest to potentially feel better.  When asked if he thought that he had any control over his moods he responded with a resounding disclaimer that his problems were because of how his body worked.    Was he interested in trying something new?  Of course not.  Does he, perhaps, want to talk about things that may be bothering him?  No, what’s done is done.

Another Slant On The Famous ‘Life Review’ – For The Late Lifers and Not-So-Late-Lifers

  1. How big is my world?  Where do I get information from? What do I read? What do I watch on TV? What do I do on the computer?  Who do I socialize with? Where have I traveled?  This amounts to the sum of my experiences.
  2. What is my relationship to the world?  Where are my prejudices?  Is it friendly or threatening? Do I participate in society? Am I generous?  Have I been bullied?  Have I experienced the prejudices of others?
  3. What are my patterns of behavior?  What do my days look like? What am I eating? Drinking? Do I have good sleep hygiene? Am I critical of others?  Am I more comfortable with the status quo than I am with change? Do I hold strongly to my opinions?  Am I open to considering new ideas?
  4. How did I get through prior potentially traumatizing experiences?  Am I carrying any grudges?  Bitterness?  Fears? What challenges did I face and how did I get through them?
  5. Where is the ‘locus of control’ in my life?  How much do I believe that I have influence over the events of my life? What are the road blocks we face?  Have I been stuck using the same technique(s) over and over, with the same lack of satisfying results?  Is there anything that motivates me. Am I running away from something (pain) or toward something (healing)?

No Wonder So Many Of Us Think We Want To Be Healed

It’s a pretty good bet that most of us know someone who has overcome a huge challenge, or two.  Alcohol or drug addiction, the loss of a limb, violence,  something that threatened them to the core and they worked hard to get beyond the challenge.  There’s also a pretty good chance that we know someone, or other, who has had the same / similar experience and it was traumatizing, and it remains traumatizing.  It takes work to un-pack our baggage and to re-write our story before we run out of time.

Two Excellent Presentations That Resonate

  1.  A Revolutionary Approach To Treating PTSD –  and another terrific Ted Talk video
  2. Can There Be Meaning In Pointless Torment

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