By Bob Kohut
At age 63 when my 30-year-old son comes to me to talk about the ups and downs of his life, I always have something to say. I have walked a mile in his moccasins as once upon a time I too was 30 years old and went through much of what he is experiencing now.
However, when my mother slipped into old age, I did not know what to say. I do not know anything about growing old so I did my best to improve her life the best way I knew how at the time – by trying to create some kind of future for her.
My brother and my sons and I dragged her around to senior centers and tried to get her involved in church communities and all sorts of things we thought would give her something to which she could look forward. The older she got, the more she wanted to do nothing more than focus on the past. I did not understand that then but now, several years after her passing, I do.
You see I never took the time to learn a little about the mental and emotional changes that take place towards the end of life. Now I have been exposed to Erik Erikson’s stages of social development and I finally get it.
He says the last stage of life involves looking back and essentially grading our performance. Seniors evaluate their life accomplishments and activities and if they conclude they have lived a life of happiness and productivity, all is well. However, if they focus on all they did not achieve – and who among us has achieved everything – they can easily sink into despondency and despair.
One of my neighbors recently had his 88-year-old father move in with them. I cannot turn back the clock on what I should have done with my own mother but I surely can try to influence him. And I have. Here is what I told him.
His Dad has apparently already assigned himself a failing grade. I think my friend can change all that, and so can you if you have an unhappy parent. Get involved with them as they stroll through the events in their pasts. Help them begin to focus on what was right in their lives, not on what was wrong.
If they feel their careers were less than they wanted, reinforce the positives about the additional time they may have spent with you. Pump them up with stories you remember about the positive things they did for you and your siblings. If you dig hard enough and deep enough you can find positive accomplishments even in the most challenging of lives.
I know that to be true. My mother died as a retired waitress who had to drop out of high school to support her family during the Great Depression. Later she got a diploma from a night high school and went on to influence my brother and I and her grandsons in very positive ways. These were the things I should have spent more time talking about with her to ensure she knew she had had a life well lived.