Therapy at 50? Why Now?

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Many more adults in their forties and fifties are starting therapy than ever before. It is not surprising that one of the conflicts that spur people in this age bracket to enter therapy is the physical or mental decline of their aging parent.

When faced with the task of caring for our elderly parents, we often confront conflicts that we thought were resolved or neatly tucked away. Although raising children is challenging, those in the sandwich generation agree that it cannot compare to the challenge of caring for a parent. While raising children, we experience many rewarding moments that make all the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile. Taking on the role of caregiver to an aging parent may provide little emotional satisfaction yet demands a large amount of emotional sacrifice.

What determines how an adult child responds to their aging parent’s needs? Struggling with the enormous responsibility of care giving often leads us to re-experience what it was like when we were young and dependent on our parents, and how well they met these dependent needs. We mirror what we’ve seen and experienced from our own parent. This is done less from intent and more from implicit memory. When a parent’s love is part of our implicit memory, this love is reflected in the way we care for them in their old age and infirmity.

Facing the truth about my own father’s need for admission into a nursing home devastated me. His medical condition had deteriorated and he required a level of supervision that we were incapable of providing at home. The day that we brought him to the facility was a day fraught with pain. After we settled him into his room and it was time to go, I thought to myself “How can I leave him here? He doesn’t know anyone, and he’ll miss us.” These thoughts tormented me as I separated from him. Rationally, I knew that my father was suffering from a disease that prevented him from understanding what was happening. I understood that I was in more pain than he was. Still, I couldn’t help but feel I was abandoning him. It was so painful because there was no way for me to communicate any of this to him.

Also, when faced with our parent’s mortality, we are forced to face our own. We get a peek at what waits in store for us, because at this stage in our lives, it feels that we are much closer in age to our parents than we ever were before. We more easily identify with some of the infirmities our parents experience and can imagine that we ourselves will likely experience them as well. The idea that our children observe the type of care we provide to our own parents is not far from our minds. We are concerned that we ourselves will receive what we ourselves have given.

My father was a Holocaust survivor. Most children of Holocaust survivors never had grandparents. We were never able to witness how our parents, as adult children, took care of their elderly folk. Because our grandparents died before they had a chance to age, we children lost the opportunity to learn how it’s done.

Although I had been aware of the many losses I had endured as a child of Holocaust survivors, identifying this particular loss only became clear after many years of struggling with the task of care-giving. The difficult task of caring for our aging parents is compounded by our unfamiliarity with it. So, when my father, at the age of seventy, began demonstrating the early signs of dementia, I, a mother of school-age children, knew I needed to find a way through this foreign terrain called Alzheimer’s Disease and care-giving.

The grief of watching my father’s mental capacity diminish, the anguish of watching the odd and sometimes uncharacteristically aggressive behaviors erupt, the heartache of watching his loving personality slowly leave us, were challenges that required strength that I had to dig deep to find. I knew I had it.  After all, I was my father’s daughter - the daughter of a man who survived the Holocaust - and if he could get through that, then I could get us through this. I would do much more than survive. I would thrive and give my father everything I was capable of giving him - everything he deserved to have. He had always been my hero, my champion; and now I was going to be his.

But what happens when the parent-child relationship is conflicted? What happens when you are faced with giving physical and emotional support to a parent who did not or could not meet your needs as a youngster? How do you, a middle-aged adult, navigate the stormy sea of daily involvement with a dependent parent who failed to meet your needs?

Some days, you might be able to give your parent what you never received from them. Other days, you just can’t. What drives these variant behaviors? In all likelihood, on the “just can’t days” you are in touch with what you were not given.

When people think of the sandwich generation, they don’t realize that it’s much more than merely the stress of meeting the conflicting needs of your children, spouse, and parents. It can also be about living your painful childhood a second time.

Therapy Can Help

When you are called upon to care for an elderly or infirm parent, you experience a rush of feelings that rise to the surface and catch you by surprise. Old  feelings like resentment or guilt, that were long ago buried, resurface.

You find it confusing, but these feelings are intense and interfere with your ability to provide your parent with the type of care you are committed to give them. Your feelings are important, your commitment is important, your mother and father are important.  

You must take care of your mother and father, you must take care of yourself. There is a way through this. You can find peace. Neither you nor your parent need suffer.