Dealing with Aging Parents: The Meaning of Mother and Father
Dealing with aging parents is often a key experience in midlife and the second half of life.
It’s easy in our culture to sentimentalize family life, but, in our time, the realities of family are complex for very many people. While dealing with aging parents might seem like a subject for family therapy — and it is — it also has a lot to do with each of our individual lives, and our discovery of our unique selfhood, our journey to wholeness.
Aging Parents in Midlife and Later
The connection between midlife and aging parents was brought home to me powerfully in my mid-40s. At that time, I was dealing with a very significant mid-life transition. At the same time, I was also dealing with the serious illness, and ultimately, the passing of my father. This process of dealing with aging parents brought some profound changes into my awareness and my priorities for my own life.
For many people, the time around midlife will start to bring changes into the adult child-parent dynamic. Often, this will be a period when the child is living life largely independent of the parent. Yet, it can also be the time at which parents start to encounter limitations that may require some degree of assistance or support from a son or daughter.
This is a complex time for the aging parent. As Penn State Prof. Steven Zarit points out, “One of the scariest things to people as they age is that they don’t feel in control anymore”. Aging parents often indicate that they want both autonomy and connection with their children. Yet, adult sons and daughters are often put in the difficult position of taking responsibility for aspects of the lives of parents who once took care of them. These are the same parents who, at an earlier stage, may have been important images of what it meant to be an autonomous and engaged adult.
The Adult Child’s Journey
Dealing with aging parents can lead to some key transformations in the individuation journey of the adult child. Often the adult child can find her- or himself involved in some form of caretaking of the older parent.
This is a huge psychological shift. The adult child will often carry vivid memories of the parent as powerful and hopefully protecting and nurturing. It can be an highly emotional, difficult life transition to see the parent’s vulnerability, and limitation — while simultaneously trying to honour the parents’ dignity and sense of self.
Dealing with adult parents and their changing needs can have a profound effect on adult children. It can produce very serious economic and psychological stress, particularly when it is coupled with trying to meet the demands of parents and children simultaneously.
Parents: Personal & Archetypal
In the course of dealing with aging parents, profound inner changes can occur in the adult child’s inner image of the parent.
In Jungian terms, the most profound experiences of the parental archetypes of father and mother occur through the child’s experience of its own parents in the family unit. As a result of this bedrock experience, each of us carries father and mother complexes. These are positive and negative in varying degrees, which means that they either support each of us on our journey through life, or they hold us back.
It is a virtual certainty that the experience of dealing with aging parents will strongly activate our father and mother complexes. This may be a source of distress and anguish. However, it can also be a source of genuine growth and development, as we sift through our experience of relationship with our parents, acknowledging and accepting who they are.
A genuine willingness to explore the full range of feelings around dealing with aging parents can lead to increased self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It can often be very helpful to work with a /a-midlife-transition at this time, to help us explore all the dimensions of ourselves, conscious and unconscious, that get activated during this life stage.