The advent of medical breakthroughs, healthier life-styles, and WW11 spawning the ‘Baby Boomers"─ now at midlife─ finds more and more people caring for aging parents. This universal crisis brings untold stress and strain. Caregivers are torn between caring for their aging parents and their own children. The emotional upheaval of becoming a parent to your own parent ─ reversal of roles─ making decisions for them, and relinquishing the illusion of the powerful a-giving, all-caring parent can give rise to anxiety, anger, and sadness.
The anguish of watching your beloved parent become ill and suffer is heart rending. For some of us, the realization that unresolved frictions with our parents will never be resolved can be even more devastating. For most of us, the logistics and the financial problems are additional challenges.
Above all, aging parents are a stark reminder of our own aging and mortality. In my practice, existential angst ─ triggered by our aging parents ─ is, often, out of awareness. When anxieties and fears are not owned, they are disguised, denied, and cause even more suffering. And our love lives can't help but be affected.
So what's a midlife gal or guy caught up in this emotional crisis to do?
Meet Danielle who is obsessed with exercise, diet, grooming, and cleanliness, Danielle's routine was set in stone. If she tried to deviate ever so slightly her anxieties mounted to such heights, she feared she'd lose her mind. She needed a blueprint for everything. That way she had certainty. Remember the adage ‘we make plans and God laughs'? Alas, such was Danielle's fate.
The men in her life had other agendas. Her aging father's operation for colon cancer would surely interrupt her ritual. Then there was her husband who wanted a fun, sexy partner ─ not one enslaved with rituals─ who was free to play with him at a whim. Not getting his needs met at home he began to look elsewhere. Her love life was hanging on a thread.
In case you are wondering why Danielle needed these obsessive compulsive behaviors, Danielle was trying to manage her fears of uncertainty. The most daunting uncertainty is, without a doubt, the uncertainty of death. In denial of death, her existence had become a living death.
Solution? When Danielle became aware of her existential angst, she realized she was missing good living. She began taking slow, incremental steps of exposure to her fears. She found that a dirty dish, smudged mascara, or an extra ounce of fat did not mean she would crumble. Instead she began to live and love more freely.
Then there is the case of Victor who preferred to be called Vic because that sounded younger. His clear blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes were his defining feature. Windows to his soul, his sorrowful eyes were speckled with childish mischief. A most fetching man, Vic fetched numerous and sundry ladies. The common denominator of these lovelies was their youth.
The clue to his playground was his aging, infirm mother. It was her frail condition that triggered his anxieties and fears about his aging. And in the presence of his young lady friends, he was able to deny his aging and death. But did it work? Not really.
On the surface, Vic had it all ─ the stability of a marriage with a beautiful wife and children and lots of fun on the outside. Underneath it all, Vic was miserable. Not ready to leave his marriage or give up the young lovelies he was besieged with guilt and indecision. He ate and drank too much, and could not sleep or focus on anything meaningful. His overactive love life left him feeling fragmented and depleted.
In our work together, Vic made a choice. He decided to face his existential fears and to live and love every precious moment in more realistic and creative ways. And that meant focusing on his marriage and children for greater fulfillment, love, and meaning.
Like Danielle and Vic, you too have choices to make. This could be a time of dread or a time of hope. The greatest tragedy of life is not in dying; it's in not living and loving well.
Frances Cohen Praver, PhD
Crossroads at Midlife: Your Aging Parents, Your Emotions, and Your
Self (Praeger, 2004).
Daring Wives: Insight Into Women's Desires for Extramarital Affairs (Praeger, 2006).
I am currently working on a book on love and the brain.
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