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Elder Care: Letting the Sadness Be

Posted Jan 27 2009 9:29am
Anyone caring for an elderly relative/parent, knows that, as short-term memory fades, what's left are the memories of long ago. These include what are often considered to be happier times: your childhood, a family all together on holidays, your parent's youth, their siblings, their family life.
As I go through this with my own mother, I've been assuming that, through the selective subconscious, the long-term memories she would call up would all be happy ones. After all, as we go through life we often suppress difficult or unhappy occasions. And we don't discuss or necessarily even think about them later in life. I figured that long-suppressed memories would stay suppressed. Not so.

As the threads and trappings of an active life are stripped away, it allows long-ago traumas and sadness to re-emerge. My inclination when I perceive that my mother is sad, is to try to inject some levity. I want her to be less sad. I want to distract her with something pleasant. I want to fix her sadness and make it go away.

Marc Agronin, a Florida geriatric psychitrist, has written an article on this which I found extraordinarily moving. I want to present one particular paragraph verbatim, which is both revelatory and stirring in its simplicity.

"Sometimes the perpetual sadness of many older survivors is not to be healed but shared. Over time, as memories fade and the voices of lost loved ones grow quieter, all that remains is a closely guarded sadness, persisting as a substitute for the losses. Any attempt to ease this emotion may be a threat to painful but beloved remnants of memory. What some survivors seek is not medicine or therapy: it is the attentive presence of a doctor and others to serve as the next generation of witnesses."

Think of a museum curator carefully cleaning the work of a student off the painting of an Old Master. Slowly a new work appears, one with infinitely more depth and a completely different story to tell. Dr. Agronin's article appeared in the New York Times on December 23, 2008. I urge you to read it in its entirety.
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