Working with clients who are post-retirement

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“Most of my clients have been in their 20s-30s. Working with clients who are post-retirement age is new for me. What tips do you have for working with this population?”

In a fast-paced culture that places a high value on youthfulness, technology, and peak performance, the interests, needs, and perspectives of senior clients are easy to misjudge or overlook.

Listen and learn. What everyone needs, no matter what our age, is to be respected, appreciated, and heard. Social connections are vital to keeping us going with a health-giving lifestyle. And, opportunities to connect and engage with people and the world often decrease as we age. Your client’s time with you may become a precious opportunity for social connection in his/her life today.

Slow down, be present, listen, and be genuinely respectful and compassionate. It’s hard to imagine being old when we are young, but do your best because it’s only a matter of time before you will be old too. Each person brings a unique history, stories, wisdom, and knowledge. Honor his/her history, stories, and wisdom, even if they have nothing directly to do with exercise. We all learn important life lessons from spending quality time with our elders.

It is too easy to make assumptions about senior clients: what they can and can’t do, their goals and motivation. Listen first. Keep an open and curious beginner’s mind at all times.

Value and appreciate what they know. Clients who have experienced decades of life have earned decades of life experience, which demands a whole lot of appreciation and respect from younger professionals. A coach’s starting point is to explore, appreciate, and value existing knowledge, skills, and experience well before collaborating on what new knowledge and skills are called for now.

Older clients may have experimented with many diet and exercise fads or programs. They have hard-earned insights on what worked and what didn’t. Explore their memories of physical activities, even ones from decades ago. “What kinds of physical activities have you enjoyed, or worked best for you, even a long while ago?” and “What healthy habits worked for you the most in the past?” Or “what accomplishments have you made in work and life that showcased strengths that you bring to this new adventure?” Having clients recall past successes invigorates their confidence for new opportunities ahead. When you start by calling out and valuing a lifetime of learning, you show you value their wisdom.

Be deeply present, genuine and sincere in your respect. Then your relationship is positioned to help a senior client lead his/her own journey of getting and staying fit, fostering much-desired autonomy in senior years.

Explore meaning and purpose for being fit. One’s deeper, heartfelt purpose for being fit and strong is the most powerful kind of motivation, and particularly relevant to fitness goals for seniors. At this life stage adding life to years, not just years to life, becomes more important. Morbidity and mortality feel real, and who knows, could be just around the corner. Seniors are not looking forward to the inevitable life step-downs to the end, losing independence and freedom at every step.

Spend quality time exploring why getting fit is important now. Get out of sales in and into fishing, as motivational interviewing trainer Robert Rhode advises. How would more strength, flexibility, balance, and vigor allow them to live life as fully as possible – continue driving, living in their own homes, taking care of themselves, walking without aid, and maybe even avoiding or delaying a debilitating event like a heart attack or stroke. Help them connect a higher fitness level to things they now value most.

Look for role models – they are likely not yours. Often posters of fit 20-40 year olds in skimpy exercise clothes are posted throughout the gym to inspire clients to work harder. These images aren’t likely to interest or energize senior clients as role models. One of the proven strategies for igniting confidence is to identify role models who you can really relate to. People in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s who are healthy, fit and fully alive. A good role model helps clients be more confident in several ways: clarify the new health and fitness habits they want to create, improve the effort they will invest, and extend the time they will keep at it in the face of inevitable challenges.

Share the main findings of neuroscientists on taking good care of an aging brain. Neuroscientists are teaching us about the many activities that help the brain age well, not prematurely. Our biggest fear as we age is that we will lose our minds. This is where you can use your expert hat, exploring what senior clients know and don’t know about keeping their brains working well. Exercise is now the most-respected activity to delay terrible brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. A decline in curiosity is one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Encourage senior clients to try new activities and adventures. Learning new skills, like a new exercise class or routine, is a great way to invigorate the brain’s plasticity, improved further by the opportunity for fun social connections. Finding exercise buddies to cheer each other on, can make a big difference in well-being. Eating a diet full of healthy fats, antioxidants, and lean proteins provide good brain fuel. And last for today, having a reason to live, a purpose, something that is meaningful, where we contribute in some special way, keeps seniors going even as their brains and bodies decline.

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