One evening I got a distress call from my cousin Janet begging me to talk to her father—my Uncle Morty. Uncle Morty refused to put Millie, his wife of 50 years, in a nursing home even though she suffered from advanced Alzheimer's disease. Millie required around the clock care, but Morty, a strong and sturdy 75-year-old, insisted he was up to the task of caring for her.
While Morty's devotion to his wife was admirable, Janet and her husband Ted were anxious and skeptical about this arrangement for a number of reasons: First, they were concerned about Morty's health. They feared that the emotional and physical stress of caretaking, particularly at his advanced age, would kill him.
Second, Morty was bankrupting himself. His insurance was limited, his savings—which was substantial at one time—was long gone, and he no longer owned the home he had diligently paid off in his earlier years. Morty had also accumulated sizeable debt.
Third, a domino effect was in play. Feeling the financial crunch, Morty would turn to Janet and Ted for help. They did what they could, having three children in college, but felt as if they were in a Catch-22: if they didn't help Morty financially they would feel guilty and risk alienating him; if they continued to support him they would strain their own finances, and enable his caretaking.
According to my beleaguered cousins, the various social service agencies involved were no help in convincing Uncle Morty to "let go" of Aunt Millie. The lead social worker on the case told me that Uncle Morty was taking such great care of his wife, that they saw no need to intervene other than to help arrange in-home care and a few other services to support the couple. This is about where I come in. "You're a therapist," cried my cousin Janet on the telephone, "maybe he'll listen to you. Please go and see him." My response: "Okay, but don't hold your breath. I suspect that your father's got a really good reason why he won't let go of your mom; that's the mystery I'll really be trying to solve."
When I called Uncle Morty it was under the guise that we get our greyhounds together—a proposal that worked like a charm. As our two retired athletes relived their glory days by racing one other around my wide, fenced-in back yard, I warmed to the task by asking Uncle Morty a few insignificant questions about some estranged relatives...I then took the dive: Hey Uncle Morty, how did your parents die? Without hesitation Uncle Morty told me the story I was looking for: "I came into the kitchen as my father was having a heart attack. He slumped to the floor and I called for help. I then tried mouth-to–mouth resuscitation but he was gone so quickly. He died in my arms. I always felt that I should've been able to save him." My immediate response: "You did what you could and you loved him dearly." Then I got tricky, as only a therapist could: "I can understand why you might not be able to give up on Aunt Millie." He responded candidly: "Well, all I know is that I can't give up this time—especially since she's still alive—I owe her that much."
Call it love and dedication...call it narcissism...call it whatever you'd like, but I knew then what to report back to my cousins: "Forget about it. He's never going to give up on Millie. And if you try and pull her from him he'll probably never speak to you again; he might even go into a serious depression." While my analyses made perfect sense to me, my cousins weren't impressed. Janet, in particular, continued to pressure Uncle Morty to put Aunt Millie in a home.
Now, if you're a self-respecting systems thinker, you've got to suspect that there's probably some old family dynamic being played out between parents and daughter...and you'd be correct. While my cousin Janet will be quick to say that she enjoyed a wonderful relationship with both her parents, I believe she had long felt that her parent's dedication to one another oftentimes left her wanting. According to my observations, Uncle Morty and Aunt Millie put one another first to a fault. And guess what? Like Yogi said: "It's deja vu all over again." Morty was once again putting his beloved wife ahead of his daughter and her family. Janet wasn't conscious of this replication, but her unwillingness to allow her father to caretake his wife was symptomatic of her agenda—her need for him to recognize her pain and suffering, and to put her ahead of his wife. You could say both she and her father were trying to let go, by holding on.
Aunt Millie went on to survive several more years—well beyond what the doctors predicted—and Uncle Morty got his way—she died at home; Uncle Morty passed a few years later at age 89. Whether they both made it so long because of Uncle Morty's tenacity, I can't say. What I can say is that this is a tale of replication, redemption. and the ongoing struggle with loss.