If you believe, as I do, that we continue to evolve and change throughout life, including what I reluctantly call old age—I think a better term is late adulthood—then we can expect that the experience of fatherhood (not becoming a father, although that happens, too) will be dynamic and dramatic.
Of course, we bring the past with us as we move through life, but we should not underestimate the power of the present, particularly after 50. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s define late adulthood as the years after 60 or 65. Even though at 76, I feel more like 30.
Like all relationships, fatherhood is not a static experience, nor is it easily described, since one can become a father at 13 or 83, to say nothing of the fact that biological fatherhood cannot be equated with psychological fatherhood and that fathers come into being through intercourse or adoption and may be straight or gay. I’m going to focus primarily on the developmental experience of most fathers, those who became biological parents in their twenties or thirties and became grandfathers and great-grandfathers a generation or two later.
By so doing, I hope to strip the mask from the stereotypical description of the elderly father and grandfather as passive, benign, a bit senile and inconsequential.
The Elderly Father
in History and LiteraturePaterfamilias is the Latin term for the ancient Roman conceptualization of fatherhood. As described by Colleen McCullough in her wonderful series of historical novels about Roman life, the paterfamilias was the head of the family. His right to do as he pleased with his family was rigidly protected by law. He was expected to be kind, loving and generative but had the legal power to be an unchallenged dictator if he so decided. He could choose his children’s spouses and could even put them to death for severe transgressions.
Modern-day versions of the paterfamilias still exist in some cultures, but in the Western world such total paternal power exists only in the realm of fantasy, film and literature. The following two examples are among the most illustrious because they not only portray aspects of the paterfamilias but also vividly illustrate the enormously powerful dynamic conflicts that determine the interactions between elderly fathers and their children.
Shakespeare’s King Lear has reverberated through the centuries, in part because it so vividly portrays the developmental conflicts of the father in late adulthood. Knowing that death is near and that his power and wealth must be passed on, Lear attempts to differentiate his children’s hovering death wishes toward him from any genuine love for him they may feel. Weak and dependent, aware of his approaching mortality, at the very moment when the once strong and self-sufficient king has a great need for love and tender caretaking from his children, he is confronted instead by their grasping ambition, false concern and strong ambivalence.
The same internal and generational conflicts are powerfully portrayed in Burl Ives’s classic film presentation of Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ 1958 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy’s painfully honest appraisal of his children’s and his in-law’s strengths and weaknesses is jarringly juxtaposed with their increasingly frantic attempts to win his favor as it becomes increasingly clear that he is dying. Sibling rivalry abounds, and his offspring do not hesitate to use any ploy to exploit his vulnerabilities, including manipulating his feelings about his grandchildren.
Obviously, not all elderly fathers are confronted with grasping children and in-laws, as were Lear and Big Daddy. But these classics do illustrate certain universal truths. All elderly fathers must struggle with approaching mortality, their complex feelings about and appraisal of their children and their uncomfortable responses to the ambivalence directed at them.
The Developmental Tasks
of Late AdulthoodFatherhood in late adulthood does not occur in a vacuum. It is related to, and in some ways an extension of, the complex set of developmental challenges that must be engaged in by every individual during these years. Familiarization with some of these will provide a foundation for our subsequent discussion.
The Aging Body
For many, the passage from youth to old age is marked by a shift from the pursuit of wealth to the maintenance of health. Increasingly, the aging body replaces the former midlife preoccupations with career and relationships as a central mental and emotional concern. This shift stems directly from alterations in physical appearance, the normal diminution in various physical functions and the increased incidence of serious illness. However, the late adult body can remain a source of pleasure and feelings of competence if attention is paid to healthy diet, regular exercise and preventive medical care. When cared for, the elderly body can continue to perform many of the physical and mental functions taken for granted earlier in life.
The normal state in late adulthood is physical and mental health, not illness and debilitation.
In a healthy individual, a normal dissonance develops between the youthful way one thinks and feels and the way he or she looks in the mirror. As one friend put it, “Who is that impostor staring back at me?” Many healthy older persons experience themselves as younger and more vigorous—imprisoned, in a sense, in a shell of a body that is no longer compatible with their minds or able to carry out some of its commands.
Preparing for Death
Sigmund Freud described a universal tendency to deny the inevitability of personal death. Unconsciously, we are unconvinced of our own mortality. In childhood and adolescence, the tendency to deny the notion of a personal death is bolstered by the thrust of growth and maturation. As the twenties approach, cognitive maturity, new life experiences and breaking away from parents begin to crack the wall of denial, producing a sense of self that includes a more defined past, present and future.
By middle adulthood, the acceptance of time limitation and personal death becomes a central developmental concern forced upon the self by physical aging, the death of parents and contemporaries, the maturation of children into adulthood, the realization of the inevitable eventual replacement by younger individuals and the recognition that not all of life’s goals will be reached.
By late adulthood, preparation for death replaces acceptance of the idea of personal death. Despite this awareness, many individuals approach death with considerable protest and rage at their deity or themselves, because they have not been made an exception or conquered death on their own. For those who are more accepting of their fate, the primary concern is dying alone or in pain, rather than with dignity in the presence of loved ones. I’m not suggesting that healthy older adults are continually preoccupied with preparing for death or even consciously aware of the theme much of the time. But I am suggesting that awareness of a personal end is a powerful developmental force that affects how these years are experienced and understood.
Accepting the Death of Loved Ones
In late adulthood, being alone and feeling lonely are not synonymous. The death of a spouse very much affects which feeling dominates. If the marriage was long and good, loneliness may be less intense. Decades of memories and the mental and emotional fusion with a partner that occurs after living together for many years can be powerfully, and enjoyably, sustaining. This connection provides a form of personal integration. Family and friends may die or move away, but memories of a dead husband or wife stay and can become even more vivid.
Friendships may assume a level of importance last seen in adolescence and young adulthood, particularly in the absence of family or spouse. Similar to the loneliness of young adulthood, the loneliness of old age is the result of the relative absence of committed relationships. However, there is a major difference between the two developmental experiences: adolescents and young adults have a long future, and opportunity spurs them on to form new ties, while the elderly are often impeded by social pressure, age and illness. Thus, friendships may become the most sustaining relationships available at the end of life, providing a source of solace and companionship and a hand to hold as death approaches.
Preparing for his own death and the death of his wife (or more likely her continued existence after he is gone) stimulates intense, highly ambivalent feelings of dependency in a father toward his children. Like Lear and Big Daddy, he knows that he, and his wife, need their children to care for them in a manner never before experienced, possibly for an extended period or, more fortunately, only at the time of death. As the child becomes father to the man, the generational roles are reversed.
Maintaining Sexual Interests and Activities
The most important factors determining the level of sexual activity in late adulthood are the health and survival of the spouse, the individual’s health and the level of past sexual activity. Although some degree of declining sexual interest and function obviously occurs with age, social and cultural factors appear to be more responsible for diminished sexual activity than do changes in the body. Because negative cultural attitudes toward sexuality in the elderly are often internalized, many older individuals do not actualize their sexual potential at this stage of life. When partners are available, sexual activity, including intercourse, can continue indefinitely. In the absence of partners, healthy older individuals engage in active sexual fantasy and masturbation.
The death of a spouse may sometimes have a liberating effect on an elderly male’s sexuality, or a woman’s for that matter. The effect of many years of sexual activity and intimacy with a loved spouse makes the expression of love through sexuality a natural and necessary aspect of the older man’s existence. Of course, he will look for other sexual partners. If the sexual relationship with the spouse was limited due to inhibition or absent due to illness, then a new relationship may allow for forms of sexual expression and activity that were never experienced before, or not since the salad days of youth. But, no matter how good a new relationship can become, there is not enough time to develop the deep, shared intimacy that grows over decades.
Children are often quite uncomfortable with the continuing sexual interests and activities of their parents, particularly when new relationships are begun after the death of a spouse. Sometimes the resistance to sexual activity in elderly parents leads to active attempts to discourage or stop these relationships from occurring.
Continuing Individuation in Late Adulthood
Thoughts about the self in late adulthood are characterized by two contradictory trends: namely, the shift from being left to leaving as one contemplates and accepts the nearness of death and the loss of all human relatedness and the simultaneous desire, stimulated by the acceptance of a personal end, to fuse with loved ones, community, culture and the broad expanse of humanity by giving, without restraint or expectation of return of one’s wisdom and possessions.
This process of individuation directly affects the experience of fatherhood. Reversal of generations refers to the mid-and-late-life shift in the relationship between parents and children whereby the elderly parent becomes dependent on the adult “child.” The ability and willingness of both generations to accept the increasingly symbiotic aspects of their relationship affects all aspects of the child-parent interaction. Some of the saddest cases that I’ve seen in my practice were centered on the guilt and depression experienced by middle-aged children who had failed to care for their parents during their declining years. They were faced with the cruel and emotionally devastating realization that the finality of parental death made any attempts to undo the neglect impossible.
Fathers and Their Adult Children
As fathers move from middle age to late adulthood, their interactions with their children undergo a gradual transformation. The elderly father’s attitude toward his children is determined by several factors. Of particular concern is how well his sons and daughters are doing in life in regard to marriage, children, finances and work. If they are doing well, father can more easily accept his secondary role in their lives and his eventual death. If they are troubled and unsuccessful, he suffers pain but feels needed, more vital and less peripheral.
Despite the “I love you all the same” white lie that is almost an obligatory response to questions about attitudes toward his children, the father has different attitudes and feelings toward each child. One eighty-five-year old father experienced a dilemma when he was asked to say a few words at a birthday party for the less successful of his two sons. The brothers, who were estranged from each other, were doing a poor job of remaining civil in this public setting. Father felt that they hung on his every word as he worked to praise the one without offending the other.
A father’s attitude toward his children is also strongly influenced by his experience when he was an adult “child” with his own father, now likely dead for many years. What was the nature of their relationship during his father’s later years? Was he there when his father needed his help or was he absent as his father’s needs increased? And, directly related to this experience a decade or so ago, now in the role of the vulnerable parent, a father’s attitude toward his children is also determined by their willingness to care for him and his wife as their realistic and emotional needs increase
Fathers and DaughtersWhen his adolescent daughter begins to date, father’s feelings become strongly protective because he remembers what he had in mind when he dated other men’s daughters. Father wants his daughter to be happy but he is also aware that he is an outsider, witnessing a sexually charged relationship with his cherished female child. The challenge for father is to attempt not to dominate and control his daughter’s dating relationships or be involved inappropriately through excessive interest or teasing.
When his daughter marries, father has the difficult developmental task of accepting another male’s primacy, sexually and otherwise, with his daughter. As he struggles over the years with this awareness of being displaced, and he accepts and grows to care for his son-in-law, his effort will be rewarded. The former competitor will become a friend and companion, replacing sons who may be in distant places or preoccupied with their own lives and families. More significantly, the sexual union between son-in-law and daughter may produce grandchildren, providing father with one of life’s most profound experiences.
If, however, he becomes estranged due to failure to manage his anger and competitiveness, he may endanger, or even lose, two relationships that could be a key to a successful late-life developmental course. In late adulthood, father’s relationship with his daughter and son-in-law will often shift because of the elderly progenitor’s need (potential or real) for his daughter as a caregiver should he and his wife become ill or incapacitated.
Further, as he prepares for death—particularly if he is well, powerful, and has financial resources—father may struggle over the need to divide his estate among his daughter and son-in-law and his sons and grandsons who provide him with a form of continued life and imagined immortality by carrying on his name and masculine identity.
Fathers and SonsAs his teenage son insists on autonomy and independence, father must give up some of his control over his son’s life. A shift in power between them occurs as the son challenges, test limits and gradually assumes control of his life. As a result of this interaction, father repeatedly experiences feelings of passivity, relative helplessness and impotence in relation to another male who is extremely important to him. As the healthy father struggles with this shift in the power balance between him and his son, he gradually moves to facilitate the emerging sexuality, independence and autonomy of this masculine replication of himself.
There is no final resolution of these issues for father, who must reengage them throughout his adult years. For example, frustration will peak again when his son chooses a partner, evoking feelings of jealousy and envy of the younger man’s sexual prowess and future. Father may compete with his son by offering unasked-for advice or money, or he may attempt to intrude into the new couple’s life in uninvited ways. As he struggles with this normative conflict, he gradually internalizes the roles of generative father and father-in-law.
In late adulthood, this conflict between activity and passivity, power and relative impotence between and among the generations, reaches a heightened level of intensity when grandsons arrive on the scene. Then the elderly father faces the twin challenges of unconsciously reengaging his adolescent and midlife issues as he interacts with these two beloved males as they struggle with middle age and adolescence, respectively. Simultaneously, father must engage in the developmental tasks and conflicts of late adulthood. What a dynamic, amazingly complex and full-of-life set of interactions!
“That’s Not OK.”
A sixty-eight-year-old patient told me the following story. (All of the vignettes used in this book to illustrate various points have been thoroughly disguised and altered to insure confidentiality.) The relationship between Tom and his son, Vince, was a good one. Vince and his family lived an hour away. The two men saw each other frequently. After a significant illness, the first such experience in father’s adult life, I noticed an increase in negative comments about his son in our conversations. They focused at first on what Tom considered inattentiveness on Vince’s part during Tom’s recent illness, then the comments spread to other areas.
More recently, Tom described the following interaction with his son. Both had relatively high cholesterol levels and frequently discussed diet and medications. Tom considered himself the better patient and was genuinely concerned about Vince’s seeming neglect of his health. While the two men were engaged in a conversation about their health, seemingly out of the blue, and with a slightly raised voice and great conviction, Vince cut off his father’s redundant criticism of his eating habits with the words “That’s not okay!”
“That’s not okay,” my patient repeated over and over, still stunned by his son’s “line in the sand.” Over the course of several therapy sessions, we were able to connect the increased sense of weakness and vulnerability in Tom following his illness and his subsequent, totally unconscious attempt to master these feelings by trying to dominate and control his son. Vince’s reaction also stirred up memories from midlife, when Tom was in his early forties and his son was in late adolescence. Their relationship was particularly difficult at that time because Vince was much more adventuresome and sexually active than Tom had been during his own adolescence. Further, Tom had never stood up to his father during adolescence the way his son had repeatedly challenged him.
As we analyzed this man’s experiences over fifty years, his attitudes toward both his father and his son became less conflicted and more empathetic, as did his attitude toward himself as a son and a father. Vince’s clear declaration, “That’s not okay,” had been a significant moment of truth between the two and led to a major reworking of several issues for the elderly father—particularly, a conceptualization of himself as old. This helped him feel better prepared for the possibility of being dependent and cared for by his son.
Who Will Care For Us?
The theme of who will care for my wife and me when we can’t take care of ourselves, although avoided by some elderly men, gradually becomes a major focus and powerful late-life preoccupation, shaping and realigning relationships. This is particularly true of a father’s relationship with his children. Favorites from earlier in life may no longer be seen in the same light depending on how the father senses their willingness—and the attitude of their spouses—to care for elderly or disabled parents. Less favored, or even less admired but more attentive and loving children may come to the fore in their father’s affections and in his interest and plans for the future, including inheritance. When this profoundly important dilemma in the elderly is combined with the desire of children for parental admiration, power and wealth, it is easy to understand why the resulting emotional and generational conflicts have been memorialized through the ages.
In contemporary society, with the loosening of family ties and increased mobility, many elderly parents have little or no expectation that their children will care for them. Instead, they rely on friends and community resources and institutions. Recently my wife and I were included in a group of fifteen to twenty individuals invited to lunch at a private retirement home. Our host and hostess were vibrant and vital friends in their mid-seventies whose children were scattered across two continents. They wanted to introduce their friends to their future home. Although they did not plan to move in for several years, the initial investment, which they had just made, ensured them a place when they were ready. The unabashed sales pitch to those of us who were invited was that we should buy in, too. By so doing, we would create a mini-community of close friends who would care for each other through the inevitable illnesses and death—and the good times—that were to come.
Can We Care For Them?
Often overlooked by parents and children is the obvious fact that in society today, and indeed since time began, some elderly fathers and mothers continue to function as active, hands-on, responsible individuals until the end of their lives. Instead of “Who will care for us?” the questions may be “Can we care for them?” Active paternal and maternal responsibility for grown children and grandchildren is often an unwanted or ambivalently regarded responsibility that can significantly alter the course of late-life development.
Instead of focusing on their own issues, fathers and mothers in their seventh, eighth and ninth decades often find themselves preoccupied mentally and physically with caring for their young adult and midlife grandchildren and children. In minority communities in the United States, it is the elderly mothers and grandmothers who most often find themselves in this situation, frequently without the assistance or involvement of a male progenitor. But because our subject is fatherhood, I will focus on situations in which elderly fathers are involved.
The consequences of active parenting in late adulthood are not all bad. Indeed, although burdensome, these relationships may become rejuvenating, drawing the elderly father toward the beginning of life instead of the end. toward emotional involvement and intimacy rather than loneliness and toward continued involvement in the community and culture instead of isolation.
In the emotionally and mentally competent elderly father, the simultaneous engagement of dealing with the issues of health and aging and facilitating the developmental progression of one or two younger generations may be energizing, leading to a rich existence. But this usually unintended alteration of the life course does not occur without ambivalence, even when it is gratifying, because major responsibility for the well-being of grown children and grandchildren seriously compromises an urgent late-life desire.
As the elderly father stares death in the face, from the core of his being comes the emotional shout “This time is for me! To continue to work, sleep in, putter in the garden, drive across the country, read every word in the morning paper or do absolutely nothing. “This time is for me!”
The following clinical examples illustrate some of the conflicts and realistic consequences that occur when elderly fathers deal with unexpected family situations.
Bill was seventy and enjoying a comfortable retirement until a plunging stock market caused significant financial concern. At that very moment, Bill’s only child, a forty-year-old unmarried daughter, Janice, announced that she was pregnant. She had desperately wanted a child and couldn’t wait any longer. To make matters worse, the father of the child was as unstable as she was and was unemployed. If he remained on the scene, he would be an additional liability, not an asset. Janice had no intention of marrying him.
After a troubled childhood characterized by extensive drug use and minor delinquency, Janice had limped into adulthood, her psychotherapy and rent subsidized by her middle-class parents as she tried to stabilize her life while holding down a minimum-wage job. Her situation had been relatively stable for a few years, and despite the never ending financial support his daughter required, Bill was happy. Then came the bombshell, the pregnancy.
Bill’s immediate reaction was rage and a desire to run away and hide, ridding himself of his infuriating, burdensome “child” once and for all. He was amazed, and hurt, when his wife of over forty years not only did not share his outrage, but expressed anticipation and excitement about having a grandchild and began to focus her attention, and their financial resources, on their daughter.
Bill sulked, ranted and threatened to leave, but his attempts to influence his wife failed to make a dent in her irresolute maternal dedication. After a period of withdrawal from his wife and child and intense internal conflict, Bill found himself still at home, grudgingly accepting his wife’s determination to be actively involved in their daughter’s pregnancy and delivery.
Throughout this phase of my work with Bill, I was surprised at the degree to which I found myself sharing Bill’s feelings toward his daughter. Although my own daughter had not caused me such pain and difficulty, I was very close to Bill in age and shared his late-life desire for time to pursue his interests free of major paternal responsibility. Bill’s situation stimulated many memories of my own experience as a father.
Attending the birth, Bill was jealous of his wife’s joy and totally unprepared for his powerful emotional response when he laid eyes on his grandchild, a boy no less, who was to carry not just his last name, but his first as well. During the months after his grandson’s birth, Bill incorporated the role of grandfather into his identity and shared wonderful moments of intimacy with his wife as they cared for young Bill, tabled some vacation plans, reworked finances and changed their wills.
Bill was able to verbalize his disappointment over the need to abandon some of his self-focused retirement goals, but also his joy as he watched his namesake begin to walk and talk. Aware of the cliché he was employing, he said, “Life hit me with a lemon. It tasted bad at first, but I turned it into lemonade.” The crisis had been mastered, a new vital relationship had been formed and a late-life synthesis had been achieved.
Bill’s reaction can best be understood as a reluctant, forced reengagement of a major developmental experience—grandparenthood—that had been abandoned as a realistic expectation. His only child had been a source of continuous pain and disappointment throughout her young adulthood, and at age forty, near the end of her childbearing years and without the prospect of a stable relationship, she gave Bill little reason to think he would ever become a grandfather. He seemed to have abandoned the prospect with little conscious awareness of what he had done. Although the birth of his grandson and his wife’s dedicated involvement had generated significant conflict, his turmoil was eventually resolved by a significant shift in identity to include the role of grandfather as a central aspect of his external and internal world.
Larry and Pearl
Larry and Pearl entered into a second marriage for both in their early fifties. Between them they had seven children in various stages of young adulthood. To escape social and family criticism of their affair, divorces and remarriage, they moved away from established jobs, family and friends to a distant city. Now in their seventies, they had spent the last twenty years trying, with only partial success, to forge close, meaningful relationships with their children and grandchildren.
Close and loving with each other, and financially secure, they continually struggled with their individual and collective responses to the complicated lives of seven middle-aged adult children, four of whom were married, and eleven grandchildren. At one time, the couple had to deal simultaneously with two separations (which eventually led to divorce), one significantly depressed child and three very troubled grandchildren.
Larry was able to verbalize his jumbled feelings: “I’ve grown to care for Pearl’s kids. I mean, not as much as my own, but I do care for them, and she obviously loves them. But, my God, I’ve got my hands full with my own kids’ problems. When we got married, I never dreamed we’d be so involved with our children when we were old—and seven of them, and their families. I guess it will never end. In my next life, I’m going to marry someone who doesn’t have kids.”
Grandfathers and Their GrandchildrenWhen his child becomes a parent, the new grandfather must define his standing among the generations, alter his internal representations of his “child” and develop new ties to the grandchild. Grandfather is developmentally primed to turn his attention toward his child and grandchild, because they represent his genetic future, a future that will endure after his death.
As he idealizes his grandchild and engages him or her with intense love and devotion, the interaction stimulates memories of grandfather’s experience as a child and as a new parent. Thus, the investment in and idealization of a grandchild serves several developmental purposes. Grandchildren serve as a buffer against the traumas of old age and the nearness of death. They also provide a form of genetic immortality. Last but not least, grandfather can momentarily minimize or eliminate awareness of past and present imperfections by identifying with the unbounded potential and future of the new being.
A very wise psychiatrist and psychoanalyst by the name of Stanley Cath wrote the following about the idealization of grandchildren and the conflict among three generations that follows from it: “It seems to me that the grandchild’s ability to revitalize the grandfather, to compensate him for his failing powers, in part accounts for the grandfather’s idealization of the grandchild. . . Certainly the father finds it difficult to understand this idealization, for it is in sharp contrast to the father’s memories of his own childhood relation to his father, which he recalls as more fraught with parental disapproval. . . Indeed, another reason for grandfather to wax enthusiastic over his grandchild is that the latter is less threatening because of his innocence and ineptitude. . .the grandfather’s need to idealize the grandchild may also be accounted for by his need to compensate himself for guilt felt about his own inadequacies as a parent. He wants to believe that something better is possible than the conflict-torn relationship he experienced with his own father and with his own son.” (1982, pp. 330-331)
The relationship between grandfather and grandchild is complex, ranging from fun-seeking to self-indulgent to more serious and significant. As grandfather’s thoughts shift toward generativity and how to have an impact after death, the relationship with grandchildren becomes a major vehicle for the expression of his wishes and goals. For example, grandchildren help the elderly “master” thoughts about death, since they are one’s genetic immortality, the only physical part of the self that survives into the future. Further, time spent with grandchildren draws the invested grandparent to the beginning of life, to a time in reality for the child and in memory for the grandparent, when the future was endless and full of adventure and potential. The idealization of the grandparent-grandchild interaction temporarily softens the awareness of death.
Through storytelling and reminiscence of one’s history and the history of earlier generations in the family, this sense of immortality is passed on to the young for safekeeping and preservation. The wish is to be remembered as a vibrant being, something more than an unrecognized name in a family Bible or census record. Further pleasure occurs when valued possessions and money, which do so much for the young and so little for the old, are bestowed on children and grandchildren.
Unfortunately, the very pleasurable state of idealization does not last indefinitely. Increasingly, as the years pass, grandfather’s dominant feelings often veer toward disappointment and detachment. As grandchildren passes through childhood and adolescence and are judged by the family and society in such settings as school and athletic competitions, it becomes clear that they rarely, if ever, live up to the grandiose expectations of their grandfather. Further, they increasingly invest their time and energy in peers and new activities, pay less attention to, and have less need of, grandfather. In addition, as they gain experience in living and begin to evaluate the adults in their lives, grandchildren observe their elders more critically and lose the pure, naïve idealization of their grandparents and parents that was once so gratifying to the older generations.
The need to recognize and accept that grandchildren, and their parents, have developed into independent beings with ideas and interests that may differ widely from those of grandfather may be difficult for him to accept. If feelings of resentment and disappointment become too strong to be managed, generative activities such as emotional and financial support may cease or never begin. The clash of developmental longing and strivings among the three generations presents each person with unique individual and intergenerational challenges to be met and mastered if their profound need for one another is to be realized.
I had seen John, a sixty-four-year-old man, in therapy for several years. Exceptionally bright and successful, he entered therapy because he felt unfulfilled emotionally despite his extraordinary financial and professional success. It soon became apparent that he wanted a divorce, and much of the therapeutic work during the first year centered on this subject. A clear-thinking, non-introspective man, he worked diligently to understand his past and present. Toward the end of the first year of treatment, he initiated the legal process of divorce and left home. He continued, however, to be very involved with his two children, encouraging the older one to study and graduate from high school and attempting to understand his inscrutable younger son, while controlling his son’s rowdy friends.
As the necessary preoccupation with the divorce receded, John began to focus on his past. Greatly traumatized by his parents’ divorce when he was a teenager, John had “buried it and walked away” as soon as he could leave home, maintaining only occasional contact with his parents from then on. Our work on the effects of the parental divorce was illuminating but very painful. John had a deep sense of sadness because he had not resolved his anger at his father and restored their relationship before his father died at the age of sixty-five. Although John did not know his paternal grandfather, he did know that he too had died in his mid-sixties. Several months after expressing loving feelings for his father and the wish that he had known his grandfather, John began to talk about dying soon and revealed that he did not expect to live more than one or two more years.
As we worked, it became clear that the timetable for his death was based on the knowledge that his father and paternal grandfather had both died in their mid-sixties. But John did not realize the degree to which his belief in his own premature death had permeated his thinking and interfered with his approach to planning for his later years. Since John expected to die in the near future, he had not planned for retirement and had not considered what he would do during his retirement years. Nor had he established a thoughtful financial plan. More important, since he did not expect to see his sons grow into adulthood, he had not conceptualized himself in the roles of father-in-law or grandfather.
These insights were accompanied by great anxiety, which slowly diminished as John began to consider the likelihood that he would live a long time and began to make appropriate plans in regard to relationships, finances, health, and retirement. These included more appropriate limit-setting with his sons, an initially unrecognized preoccupation with thoughts about their adult futures and “my grandchildren,” an exercise program and regular medical checkups and an emerging plan to gradually retire over the next several years.
Similar work with other patients in this age group—I was sixty-eight, four years older than John—had stimulated me to consider the timetable for my own demise. In my case, all of my grandparents and both parents had died between the ages of eighty-three and eighty-seven. I came to recognize that I had a strong expectation that I would live until my mid-eighties—indeed, a strong sense that I was entitled to live that long. Although my experience was in many respects the opposite of John’s, our ideas about our longevity were equally unrealistic and emotional.
Although our subject matter is fathers in late life, mothers experience many of the same desires and conflicts, as illustrated by Midge’s story. Midge developed a life-threatening illness in her early seventies. Coming to terms with the prospect of her death was complicated by the conviction that she would live into her late eighties, just like her parents and grandparents. Her sense of being cheated out of more than a decade of life resulted in intense rage.
Midge had planned to be very involved in her grandchildren’s lives as they grew into adulthood, for at least another decade or more. Her expectation of longevity had resulted in an elaborate fantasy life and plans for her grandchildren’s long-range futures. For example, one granddaughter had expressed the wish to wear Midge’s wedding gown at her own wedding, just as her mother had. This expectation of fusion with two younger generations was enormously gratifying and sustaining. Midge returned to this sustaining fantasy over and over again.
As our work continued, Midge was chagrined to discover how much she had focused on this one grandchild to the exclusion of the others. As she came to understand that her granddaughter’s interest in her wedding gown had become the vehicle for her reluctance to face the realities of late life and the prospect of dying, Midge experienced less chagrin and guilt, and she became more even-handed when interacting with her grandchildren.
Ralph was eighty-three when his wife died. They had been married fifty-six years. In good mental and physical health, Ralph declined the offers from two of his children to live with them and remained in the city where he had grown up, surrounded by friends, his few remaining relatives and a lifetime of memories. During his eighty-seventh year, though still in good health after enduring a long, dark winter that had limited his activities and contacts, Ralph asked his children if the offer to come and live with one of them still stood. It did.
When a daughter came to get him, Ralph was packed, had his important papers neatly arranged on the dining room table and had made arrangements to have someone watch the house should he desire to return. The night before leaving, Ralph called a number of friends to say good-bye and seemed to enjoy dinner at a favorite restaurant. In the morning when he was not up early, as was his custom, Ralph’s daughter went to awake him, to no avail. Ralph had died in his sleep, not wanting to leave all that was loved and familiar or to be a burden to his children. Although his children considered the possibility of suicide, no evidence was found. Ralph had willed his death, preferring to die where he had lived and where his wife was buried, with dignity and surrounded by loved ones.
We have been led by the media and others to think of the years toward the end of life as ones which should be peaceful, quiet, relaxed, and “golden”. In reality, as the information and the histories in this book demonstrate, these years are as dramatic, joyous and troublesome and full of life as any of those that came before. And I want to emphasize that I wouldn’t want it any other way. Is there any greater happiness and fulfillment then being involved in relationships that are full of life, full of pathos, full of what it truly means to be human. I think not. Older fathers continue to be vital and fully invested in life and their families if they so choose. Is your picture of the “golden” years sitting in a rocker on the front porch getting an occasional pat on the head by a son or daughter or worse yet by a grandchild your idea of “golden”! I hope not. I know it’s not mine.