This month’s Counseling Today cover story is focused on working with female clients. Susan Lester, a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University, presented on the topic of “Women’s Issues at Midlife and Beyond: Spirituality, Sexuality and Retirement,” at the 2012 ACA Annual Conference, along with Radha Horton-Parker and Carolyn Greer.

Women in middle age and beyond make up the largest client population for general counselors, Lester says. Counseling Today caught up with Lester to get her thoughts on how best to understand and serve them.

Counseling Today: What do women really want at midlife and beyond?
Susan Lester: The presentation was a collaboration from three distinct angles, so I do not wish to answer for all the presenters, but the answer I suggest, based on all our material and extensive reading on adult development and women, is simple: connection. We — I say we because I am a member of this population — seek connection within ourselves as we make sense of and strive to accept our past and present; we seek connection with others by deepening intimate relationships and friendships; and we seek connection with nature and the divine by pursuing personal creative interests and seeking deep and lasting meaning in our actions and ways of being.

CT: Explain the intricate relationship between spirituality and sexuality in mature women and what do counselors need to know in order to help their clients?
SL: Sexuality and spirituality share two important characteristics: Both are considered private and controversial, so [they] are sometimes avoided in conversation, and both hold deep meaning and core emotions for most clients. As counselors, we sometimes leave spiritual and sexual questions for specialists, but we need to recognize them as part of our clients’ holistic wellness. We can help clients address these very private and sacred aspects without special training if we allow clients to “be the experts” on their own sexuality and spirituality. Theorists and philosophers have suggested that spirituality is a foundation for holistic well-being, including sexuality. Women, however, may have difficulty with the connection between the two because of Western religious and philosophical traditions that have separated body and spirit and considered especially women’s sexual selves to be impure or detrimental to spirituality in some way. Life experiences, particularly unpleasant sexual experiences or childhood abuse, can reinforce this judgment and separation for a woman. However, middle-aged women say that they seek spiritual connection in their sexuality. I describe women’s spirituality and sexuality as intricately related in the personhood of a woman. Both spirituality and sexuality are lived out in body, mind, spirit and relationship. A woman who is mature is able to live both sexually and spiritually in each of these areas in a way that is consistent with her genuine person and supported in healthy relationships. As counselors support clients in moving toward maturity, we can facilitate the connection between spirituality and sexuality by providing a safe place for disclosure and discussion, normalizing women’s experiences and encouraging self-understanding.

CT: What unique issues do women deal with during the retirement years?
SL: Issues unique to the “retirement” years are changing. Life after 65 for many American women no longer means the beginning of a work-free life of rest, amusement, playing with grandchildren and freedom of schedule. Retirement more often means simply adjustment to changes in employment and family relationships, often including lower income, higher expenses and greater family responsibilities. Other complicating factors include increased longevity, declining health, changes in social patterns and death of friends. Counselors can help by encouraging clients to consider their individual situations both realistically and creatively, by looking to new social resources and personal habits and interests.

CT: Is there anything counselors might be surprised to learn about this group of clients?
SL: Counselors might be surprised to learn that, although they are beginning to contemplate their mortality, women in midlife and beyond are seeking to begin rather than to end or finish many life tasks, particularly those tasks that are related to individuation, genuineness and connection.

CT: What counseling techniques are most helpful with these clients?
SL: I suggest that using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to talk about clients’ psychodynamic concerns, including intrapersonal processes and integration of past and present, can help women to reach a sense of self-understanding and choose thought patterns and behaviors that support an integrated way of being that will allow them to adjust to the changes that come with increasing age.

To read the August cover story, “Working with women from all walks of life,” click here.