The Freud Museum

Events Archive

19 October 1996

Psychoanalysis and the Future of Ageing

Conference Report

The conference on Ageing was a timely intervention in what will become an increasingly important political debate. We usually see ageing as a frightening process of rapid deterioration, loss of capacities and a decline into dependency. Recent work in psychoanalysis, associated in Britain with Pearl King and Peter Hildebrand, and the evidence of the conference itself, show there is a different story to be told - one to inspire hope rather than despondency, and curiosity rather than fear.

Peter Hildebrand (one of the few psychoanalysts brave enough to live in the hustle and bustle of London's Soho!) kicked off the conference by recounting his clinical experiences with elderly patients. In criticising Freud's view of the inflexibility of older patients he demonstrated that old age can in fact be a time of great 'psychotherapeutic opportunity'. Creativity continues throughout life, he insisted, with the possibility of profound structural change taking place in old age. Emotions of grief and anger, loss, physical deterioration, acceptance of death - all can be worked through in an analysis to achieve a liberation from the past and thus a new kind of wisdom. He concluded his paper with a plea for a 'life-span developmental theory' to supersede the 'infantomorphic' one we already have.

Valerie Sinason prefaced her talk with a reminder of some of the political consequences of our psychological attitudes to older people. As a culture we fear old age and try to banish it from our thoughts. There is, one might say, a kind of hatred of the old which exacerbates the difficulties and isolation of the elderly. In her deeply moving paper Valerie described psychotherapy with a man suffering terminal Alzheimer's disease. She showed that even with severe organic illnesses, a psycho-therapeutic approach could help unlock capacities to communicate which appeared to be irretrievably lost. As time went on the patient seemed to acquire a kind of serenity in tending his garden, having held on to the thinking process for as long as it was helpful.

After lunch Dinora Pines woke everybody up with her talk 'Sexuality and the Older Woman'. She noted the paradox that hardly anything is written about the subject - it is virtually a taboo area - yet women's magazines are filled with advertisements for anti-ageing creams and other products to increase the allure of the older woman. By using material from her own clinical experience she showed that the menopause may be a relief rather than a loss for some women. Sexual wishes and desires that have previously been split off may become increasingly conscious, while feelings of adolescent yearning may be re-experienced. The themes of reintegration and development were evident in Dinora Pines's paper as they were in Peter Hildebrand's, and she ended her talk with the delightful prospect of taking a risk and 'growing old disgracefully'.

Each of the papers thus far had mentioned childhood myths and fairy stories in their presentations, as if something of the richness of childhood experience was reawakened in old age. Henri Bianchi from Paris, a psychoanalyst and former anthropologist, took these cultural myths as his central focus. In arguing that the clinical point of view had to be linked to the cultural dimension he reminded us that if ageing had a 'future', it also had a past. Everyone who faces death, for instance, has to 'do something' with the cultural representations handed down to them. It was in terms of these basic assumptions about reality - he focused particularly on varying ideas of 'the body' - that we negotiate the enormously difficult processes of mourning and loss which are inevitable for all of us. Beyond the diversity of cultural forms, however, there is a common aim. Looking at the myths of Hinduism, ancient Greece, Egypt, Christianity and Buddhism, Bianchi discerned an unconscious desire 'to never leave the body' (echoing perhaps Fakhry Davids paper at the Religion conference). The inevitable question came to mind: could psychoanalysis provide a different kind of cultural form for helping the individual through this final transition in life? And I recalled Peter Hildebrand's 94 year old patient of whom he had spoken at the start of the day.

Everyone at the conference would agree that it was something quite special. This was in no small measure due to the chairmanship of Pearl King, whose mixture of wisdom and spontaneity was an inspiration for us all.

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