Late life therapy

There's nothing like a wake to invite reminiscence, and my mother-in-law's touching, bittersweet memorial was that. Of a family of six, an ailing brother and the eldest, her healthy and alert 93-year old sister, whom here I shall call Claire, remain.

My doctor once told me that mean people live the longest; if so, Claire was a candidate for eternal life. Those family members willing to visit prepared as if entering an active minefield.

Despite an abrasive personality, she was a remarkable woman. Claire had a long career as an army nurse and then nursing teacher; she had never married nor had children, but could recount loves both great and fleeting. At a time when women in her world were bound to the village, she traveled the world, bought her own furs, and told me of the days when "we brushed our teeth in champagne".

At about ninety, Claire changed entirely. She became diplomatic, warm, and relaxed. When the word spread among the family, more distant members could not believe it, but each returned from her small town to say, It's true.

Claire has not—at least among the family gathered last month—spoken of her motivation, but the methods are known: therapy and a return to her religion. In other words, she sought counsel in both this world and, according to her beliefs, beyond.

Claire's story is not unique. One of my Susanfriends told me of a friend who, when well past eighty, asked her pastor why no one ever visited. Her pastor gave her frank, factual feedback. The woman sought counselling, which included development of an image of how she wanted to be remembered.

These stories share a common element: each woman had the mental acuity to engage in the therapeutic and spiritual work, and wished to do so.

There are other paths besides therapy or a return to religion for late-life growth, but a person will need skilled guidance to revise old patterns. Religion will be completely off the table for some; however, at its best, a faith community can provide constant support.

My generation is far more accultured to therapy than Claire's; at one point just about everyone I knew was "getting help", from vision quests to groups for divorced parents. We amassed enough books to stock a mobile library; some helped, others were dusty doorstops.

But by later life, many figure we're fully-formed; change seems like a nice idea, but not really practical: I am who I am. While there is wisdom in accepting one's flaws, if they are contributing to estrangement and loneliness, maybe we could cut ourselves a little less slack.

Even if a woman had "meh" experiences in past decades—the therapeutic equivalent of Earth Shoes—perhaps it wasn't them, it was us. Now is the time to be honest, and find a qualified pro who can take you into the hard areas. Last year, facing an issue that seemed like an ethical Catch-22, I had a series of Skype sessions with a remarkable therapist whom I known as a teacher. It was expensive, but worth it.

The purpose of late-life personal growth is to connect, before it's too late, with those close to you; to give and receive love unfettered by old stories; and to live the last stretch in peace rather than bitterness. A better use of money than botox!

As we said goodbye to my mother-in-law,  I caressed the box of ashes and heard John Lennon's lyric in my head:

And in the end
The love you take
is equal to the love you make.


Madame Là-bas said…
Claire must be an intelligent woman to look at the reactions that other people had to her and to want to do something about it. It is much easier to blame the others. Those older adults who do not leave behind children may be especially concerned with how they are remembered by the community and by the extended family. To give up on the old stories is hard at any age. I have encouraged my own mother to attend church as she has few friends left and family members are involved with their own children and grandchildren. A faith community offers support and reflection whatever one's personal religious beliefs are.
LauraH said…
It's good to hear Claire's story, she showed a lot of courage.

Changing your approach to life is hard work - I have some personal experience - and most people won't go down that road. Many people seem to have flashes of self awareness about needing help but have a very strong taboo against seeking it. Often they try to use family and/or friends as therapists. They would spend any amount of time, effort and money on helping their kids but won't do the same for themselves. Odd, isn't it? Of course making a connection with the right person to help you is key, as you say. Another thought provoking post, thank you.
Duchesse said…
Mme: A friend pointed out that our mothers' generation (especially women of their background) held negative attitudes toward therapy, so rekindling one's connection to a faith community offered a form of help that was acceptable to them. I also saw a number of women who were only treated with medication-not always effective and sometimes made the problem worse. (During her career in health care, I suspect Claire had seen that too.) She was lucky to find a good professional in her small community. I am not sure whether her return to her religion came in concert with the therapy or was intended to sustain it.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: I have seen an acquaintance decide she needed help, and then fire the therapist because she did not want to face facts and do the work. I have also seen a woman try a few professionals to find one with whom she felt she could open up- IMO that's wise. Very good point about not draining friends. In Claire's case, she did still have friends, but I wonder if they would have given her the straight goods, given her vituperative nature.
Jane W. said…
Wow. You could be talking about my mother-in-law, except for the finally getting therapy part. Her sons dread provoking her temper (or worse, her hostile silence). I fear we're in for a long 15 years--her paternal relatives have all lived well into their 90s.
How amazing that a woman of that age would get counselling...
my mother did not believe in therapy except retail therapy and she partook in that for many years!
Fortunately Mom was a kind woman who rarely spoke out of turn.

The Lennon quote is timeless...and so true.
Duchesse said…
hostess: Unfortunately, retail therapy only makes one person feel better! Ultimately (and I am •not• referring to your mother), the person who addresses only her own state of being ends up being the only one who cares much about it.
Melissa Hebbard said…
What an amazing person Claire must be. Her life sounds like it would make for an interesting book! Her turn around reminds me of the lovely children's poem by A.A. Milne about King John's Christmas. King John was not a good man and no good friends had he, and the only Christmas cards on the mantle shelf were never from his near and dear but only from himself! Thank you.
Unknown said…
You are reallly quite brilliant. Fabulous post...
Very thought provoking.
Such an important post. It's never too late to change and become better versions of our selves.Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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