When we were helpless babies we depended on our parents for our very survival. Their all-powerful position made them our first gods. As time went on we learned to see them in more human terms, but we’ve never shaken off the shadow of their original god-like power. As their vitality fails we find ourselves annoyed by their frailty. We feel cheated by time, and often by them, now that they are no longer as sharp, or as active, or as able to give us the smiles, praise, and acknowledgment that we continue to crave.
We start to realize they aren’t going to be with us forever. As the end draws near we must face the frightening possibility that they may never deliver the nurturing, the soothing, the infinite loving our inner child still needs.
Ultimately they become ill or weak or disoriented and we find ourselves taking care of them, they who are supposed to take care of us. We break away from our own busy lives, and instead of getting support from them we must help them with their most basic needs, tending to them as if they are children. Reversing roles is no fun for them either. They are ashamed to need help from their children, and may even resent or reject our assistance.
These conflicts are compounded many-fold when a parent suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which leaves their body intact while it robs them of their mind. At first we are confused by simple slipups. As the mistakes increase, a pattern of deterioration forces us to recognize that something is definitely wrong. We try to grasp their new condition, but how can we ever be prepared for the disintegration of personality?
As we watch our parents grow old, we are also facing our own middle age. Our mortality becomes intertwined with theirs. As we see them inch closer to the end, we can no longer ignore the march of time and the brevity of life.
Sadly, in our culture we have no rituals, no honoring of the passing of youthful vitality. We conspire with the beautician and the surgeon to deny age as if we’re afraid that by letting go of youth we might be letting go of life itself. As Ram Dass said, “Be here now.” But we can’t be here now when we fear who we are becoming. Appreciating ourselves for who we are and who we are becoming is a prerequisite for mental health at any age.
To embrace the power of each day of life, at any age, we must be prepared to face the loss of our youth. Talking about and reflecting on the passage of time, and accepting the loss of youthful vitality can bring deep healing. Rather than self pity, we celebrate our stages along the journey of life, and savor the sweet sorrow of letting go of something beautiful. Grieving or mourning sounds like a dreary, miserable process, but taken in its entirety, grieving for the past opens our hearts to the fullness of the present.
Our attitude of respect towards our aging parents gives us courage to face our own aging, and in this process of accepting the march of time we wish we could find an easier flow in our relationship with them. Yet despite our best intentions the pressure of our childhood hang-ups lingers in the air between us. No one on earth seems to be able to arouse that pain as quickly and easily as our parents. We avoid these childhood issues wishing they would go away, but the pain is built in to our psyche.
As we try to look beyond our hot buttons, we begin to see, perhaps for the first time, that the tension between us and our parents reflects the childhood hang-ups that have blocked us our whole life. Now that we can no longer ignore their human limitations we realize how much we have been driven by the myth of their god-like control. It dawns on us that there is no time left for them to change, and become the perfect idols we wanted. As we realize we are not going to get from our parents what we always wanted, we discover the only sensible alternative: to grow stronger within ourselves.
It dawns on us that the best way to grow is to find peace with them, because the places where we feel the most tension with our parents are exactly where we feel the most vulnerable and exposed. Since our parents are the ones who created us, the tension we feel with them gives us clues about our areas of deepest opportunity for growth. Our relationship with our parents becomes our compass, and we allow the pressure we feel with them to guide us even as they are preparing to exit the stage of life. By opening up to the tension and conflict, we can learn things about ourselves that we had been avoiding for years. When we heal those areas of child-like pain, we will begin to move beyond the blocks that have prevented us from living our lives fully.
To grow, we need to let go of blame, and instead of looking at them as the cause of our inadequacies, we need to look within ourselves. For those of us who had abusive or neglectful parents, we may find ourselves reaching into our soul for deeper wellsprings of forgiveness than we knew we had. And as we accept their aging process, we may find our attitude towards death softening, giving us the courage to face our own ending years with poise and energy.
Digging deeper into our parents’ life-journey helps us flesh out the human story behind our own development. By exploring their childhood and family history, we see what they brought with them when they became our parents.
“Mom, what was it like when you were growing up? What was your mom like? How did she treat you when you were first dating?”
“Dad, you’ve never talked about the war or what it was like in the depression. Please tell me how those events affected you.”
Now in the “last act” of life, we can finally broach these topics, and discover reflections of our deeper selves in the mirror of their story. Like a fine musical piece, we hear the motif, the patterns of our lives running through theirs, and we hear similar patterns in the lives of our children.
Prepared by these insights, we improve our tools to learn how to change and grow, as well as accept parts of ourselves that had seemed foreign.
One of the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition tells us to honor our father and mother, that our days may be long. Even in ancient days, religious teachers taught the benefits of sticking with our parents until the end.
The aging of our parents provides a perfect opportunity to seek wisdom and maturity in our own approach to life. The effort we put into our learning about our relationship with our parents will give us strength and insight for the years to come.
See also: Aging, Child within, Death, Existential Therapy, Grief, Midlife crisis, Myth
From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Still Here : Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying by Ram Dass, et al