How do Clinical Psychologists Make Sense of their Early Attachments and their Work with Older Adults?
Background: attachment theory provides an account of human behaviour across the lifespan, has a strong theoretical foundation and is clinical applicable. It is particularly relevant to older adults, who are often exposed to a greater number of losses. Despite a growing awareness of increasing life expectancy worldwide, services for older adults in the NHS remains under-resourced. However, increased exposure to death and loss in the work might result in clinical psychologists being more reluctant to choose this specialism and may raise issues about their own early attachment experiences. Therefore, it is important to understand how clinical psychologists approach the complexities of their work in light of their own early attachment experiences. Qualitative research of the lived experiences of clinical psychologists is sparse and to date there are no studies addressing this specific issue. Aims: this is an exploratory study which addresses a gap in the literature. The aims are to capture the early attachment experiences of clinical psychologists specialising in working with older adults. It is hoped that the outcome of the study will shed some light on the characteristics of this under-researched group and how they manage the challenges of the work. Methodology: a semi-structured interview schedule was developed to explore how clinical psychologists make sense of their work with older adults in light of their early attachment experiences. Interviews were carried out with five clinical psychologists working in specialist older adult services. The transcripts of the interviews were then analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Results: the analysis of the five interviews yielded five main themes – “Making sense of early attachment relationships”, “Developing identity in childhood and adolescence”, “Understanding of decision to work with older adults”, “Work with older adults as both challenging and rewarding” and “The person within the professional”. Each of the main themes and their subthemes were supported by excerpts from narratives of participants experiences. Implications: this study highlighted several research and clinical implications. First, the role of non-parental childhood attachments in the development of internal working models is currently an under-researched area which may provide important insights into resilience factors in the face of childhood adversity. Second, clinical implications suggest that access to older adult work early on in the career of clinical psychologists may increase desirability of working in specialist services. Third, the study supports attachment theory as a useful approach to understanding the work with older adults and as a valuable area for the professional development of clinical psychologists. Finally, systemic working with older adults remains an important part of the work which would benefit from further research in this area.