Learning about Aging from Elders: Reflections of a Psychology Trainee at the AgeSong Communities

In Process through Process Work
For the past five months, Troy Piwowarski has been immersed in the philosophy and practice of a psychological theory called “process work” (see Process Oriented Psychology by Arnold Mindell). Process Work emphasizes awareness – both the client’s and the therapist’s – rather than any specific set of interventions (Wikipedia). As Troy explained, “Process work pays attention to what is happening in the present moment. It has to do with seeing people as fluid and constantly changing beings.”

A doctoral student at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, Troy is spending 12 months in the San Francisco Bay area to study with Dr. Nader Shabahangi, whom he met last summer at a presentation by Nader on the basic therapeutic concepts of Existential Humanistic Therapy (American Psychology Association, Humanistic
Division, Chicago). Troy’s motivation for moving to the Bay area for a year was to immerse himself in experiential learning, which he believes is an essential part of his education.

Process work has played out in the various roles Troy has assumed for the past five months, and will continue to assume, through August of 2012. His “externship” has included four tracks: (a) volunteering at a conference, (b) helping with a book project, (c) performing clinical work, and (d) studies.

Poetics of Aging Conference and EHI
Like most conferences, the Poetics of Aging Conference, produced for the first time this Fall by AgeSong Institute, required much work in a very short time. Coordinating speaker book signings, data entry, and preparing speaker material to meet continuing education requirements for residential care facilities for the elderly (RCFEs) were only a
few of the many responsibilities that Troy assumed in preparation for the conference. He also helped in organizing the “Inner Elder” track of the conference offered by the Existential-Humanistic Institute’s new Certificate Program.

Nader Shabahangi helped found and lead the Existential Humanistic Institute (EHI) for the last 15 years. EHI’s Certificate in Existential Humanistic Psychotherapy, the first of its kind in the United States, will have its beginning class of students this year. Except for four days of intensive on-site training, most of the one-year curriculum will be
delivered by distance. Students will need to successfully complete two theory courses, a 50-hour practicum (face-to-face work with a client or clients), and two experiential weekends.  Troy will be playing a role in helping market EHI to potential students, and will later assist with the experiential training component.

At the Poetics of Aging Conference, psychotherapy professionals and students, including Troy, attended EHI classes taught by many leading existentialist therapists of the San Francisco Bay Area. Among those were Kirk Schneider who worked with the existentialist icon Rollo May and Orah Krug and Nader Shabahangi, who worked with well-known existential therapists Irvin Yalom and James Bugental.

The concept of the Inner Elder, first coined by Michael Meade and James Hillman and then reintroduced by Nader Shabahangi in his 2003 book Faces of Aging, presents a key concept of existential thought by emphasizing our authentic core. This authentic core, who we are when we become aware of how we are influenced by parental, social and
cultural givens, is also called the Inner Elder, the wise part in us. This part we can access at any age and time, if only we so choose.

Editing Elders Today
Before he started working with Nader, he didn’t consider working with elders as a serious career focus.  Now he thinks working with this population might be in his future. He helped Nader edit Elders Today:  Opportunities of a Lifetime (Elders Academy Press, 2011), a book about “the freedom and liberation that aging has to offer” (Rhoda Curtis, 93).  Troy said, “I read the material enough times to feel intimate with it.”  He discovered, in the process of editing the book, that each task requires precision – editing copy, helping with content, wording, conceptualization, maintaining consistency, then later going over grammar and organizing the beautiful photos throughout the book.

Performing Clinical Work
Recently Troy started a family support group that meets every other Thursday evening at AgeSong’s Bayside Park elder community in Emeryville. He described the group as “open” to family caretakers of residents. “By open,” he explained, “Some group members participate at every session and others join the group occasionally.”  Generally, what happens in the groups is that members check in about their week, then Troy describes the purpose of the group to give members space to talk about whatever is relevant to them and what is going on for them as family caretakers. What members especially like about  the community is the spiritual and psychological growth orientation.  According to Troy, most members of the support group are adult sons or daughters in their fifties and working.  As he explained, “I do not have all the solutions.  They help each other.”

Family support group members’ biggest praise is for the students because they provide both psychological and spiritual well-being. He said, “The students communicate with the families.  They are advocates for the residents. Some families don’t have a lot of contact with the interns, though others do. Family caretakers seem to want to learn how they might interact with their loved ones more effectively.”

Troy also interacts with the Pacific Institute interns, who apply their learnings to work with individual residents, groups of residents, and families of residents.  According to Troy, “They seem to be happy doing this work with elders. At the beginning, there was an adjustment to figuring out the expectations. It took time to figure out their place, but by now they seem to have hit their stride and know what they are doing.”  He continued, “They engage with each of the residents in a way that is unique to them.  Many of the interns are in the expressive arts. Through expressive arts, they are able to work with residents who cannot engage verbally through song, dance, or other artistic or creative art forms.”

Interns have once-a-week training in San Francisco.  Troy often participates in trainings. Once a month the training is dedicated to a skill set in the creative arts.  Students also learn process work and receive training in techniques to use with people who cannot engage verbally.  They intern different amounts of time, depending upon what their university requires. They receive a couple hours of group supervision and one or two individual supervision sessions a week, which, according to Troy,  is more supervision than student interns usually receive from other programs.

Moving Forward
After he earns his  doctorate, Troy plans to split his time between private practice and a job in the community mental health setting. He would also enjoy teaching down the road.  For the next several months, he wants to work more with the residents and started volunteering on Fridays at Bayside Park.  He attends intern trainings and is working with Nader on a book related to a theoretical foundation of eldercare.

In conclusion, Troy said, “It has been so inspirational to hear the way Nader talks about aging and the reactions he gets from audience – people get so alive, because it’s still such a minority, yet affirming view – ….Everyone has connections to the aging process. For me, being a part of this has changed the way I view my own future aging and the way I value my relationship with my elder relatives.”  Over the holiday break, Troy had a couple really wonderful conversations with his great grandmother, who is 97.  He asked her some basic questions, such as “Tell me about some of your memories of growing up.” Troy noted, “Some of the things she had to say were sad, but she really lit up when she talked about her memories. Everyone likes to be asked, it’s nice to feel important.”  He certainly is an example of being “in process” with his personal and professional development.  AgeSong Bayside Park appears to be a big part of that process.

Dr. Sally Gelardin, AgeSong Reporter

AgeSong Senior at Bayside Park | 1440 40th Street, Emeryville, California 94608 | 510-594-8800 | License # 015601452

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