Taking Care

1988: A feminist therapist at 64; Caregiving vs. Career

At 64, I am, like many women of my generation, just now at the height of my late-stating professional career. My private psychotherapy practice is flourishing; I publish, and get frequent requests to present papers and workshops.

On the other hand, I have less energy than I did five years ago. I don’t know how much of my slowing down is due to my own aging, and how much is the stress of my 72-year-old husband’s retirement and the deterioration of his health these past five years.

Medical crises and the death of age-mates have renewed our bonds with our siblings and with those old friends who are still alive, throwing me back into a world of unexamined heterosexual male centeredness. Here my feminist activities and our egalitarian lifestyle are viewed with a mixture of amusement and discomfort. In contrast, among my feminist friends, I am often the oldest woman present and the only one still married.

The pressure to choose between family and profession has entered a new phase, with no role models for integrating these two vital aspects of life. The stress feels more acute and more constant than it did ten years ago, when death was not a steady companion, when my partner’s life seemed less precarious, when we were both fully engaged in our professional lives, and when feminist consciousness was on the rise rather than suffering from backlash.

Ben suffered a serious heart attack. During the first hours in the local hospital, we had some quiet and tender moments of intimacy, and I did not call our children until later that day. Then I went into competent caregiver mode. I agonized about how to convey the news to our adult sons and daughter with the least pressure on them. As usual, I was less cautious with our daughter, who had been well trained to be my ally and automatic helper in the care-giving aspects of our family. Under stress, the feminist rebel in me reverted to the familiar and traditional sex roles and expectations of earlier years.

Two years after Ben’s heart attack, he had to have emergency heart by-pass surgery. This time when I called our children, I was no longer trying to protect them. Instead, I was consciously asking them to be there for me as well as for their father. The roles had shifted. We, the parents, were now asking for the emotional support we had previously extended to them, our now-middle-aged children. The family dynamics changed subtly, as each of them responded in his or her own way to my new attitude. My self-image had changed. I cried when I heard a song about aging parents, seeing myself for the first time as that parent, yet sensing that for others the song expressed their feelings as middle-aged daughters.

During these periods of personal crisis, I learned rather painfully that there were only a handful of individuals who were able to respond to my vulnerability. Far too many friends and family needed me to remain strong and competent at all times. People’s gender-role expectations got in the way of the kind of genuine support I could have used. Some of my feminist friends wanted me to remain totally focused on my own needs and professional aspirations, as if my need to be close and supportive to my partner were not also my own need. Most of my more traditional friends and family conveyed surprise and disbelief that anything at all could take me away from my husband at such a time, as if my work were totally unimportant and my constant presence were essential to my husband’s recovery. When illness strikes, many women my age feel the pressure to give up the work that has given new meaning to our lives and return to volunteering and caregiving.

I felt an increasing sense of loneliness and isolation, as it became clearer to me how very few of my friends were open to talking in depth about illness or death. One of my younger friends was frightened and distressed when I cried in front of her, saying, “You’re such a role model, it’s really hard for me to see you so upset.”

Isolated, and on the receiving end of so much ambivalent mother-transference, I felt again my old anger at the double-bind messages that society imposes on women of my generation.

1999: Now an “old Jewish woman” at 75, she speaks her Manifesto

At 75, I do not anticipate moving in with my children, as my mother and mother-in-law expected to, nor do I count on having my daughter become my full-time caregiver and companion. I want to be self-sufficient for as long as possible, and not complicate my children’s lives.

In the Jewish tradition of our ancestors, I expect my children to respect and honor me, to comfort me in my old age and in times of need. But how?

I often feel silenced and invisible, as an old woman in a youth-oriented society. My interviews with other old women seem to indicate a process similar to that of adolescent girls, when we maintain silences in order to remain connected with the people in our lives whom we love and who are important to us. In the natural progression of aging, we survive the loss of many friends and loved ones every year; even our doctors and other professionals retire or die, reducing our circle of supportive people. Our need to remain on good terms with those we love, and those who care for us, becomes more pressing when we are alone and constantly reminded of our own mortality.

I was delighted to discover Pauline Wengeroff, writing in her seventieth year at the turn of the last century:

“While to us, obedience to our parents’ commands were sacred and inviolable, now, we must submit to our children, subordinating ourselves utterly to their wishes. As was once the case with regard to our parents, so now a word from our children enjoins us to be silent, to hold our tongues….If we, as children, listened while our parents told us of all they had experienced, we now keep silent and take careful note, full of pleasure and pride, as our children speak about their lives and ideals. The obsequiousness we show to our children turns them into egoists and tyrants over us.”

Today many of us, no matter how vocal we’ve been in our work settings and in our community, still feel silenced within our own families. My adult children are supersensitive to any remark that could be heard as a criticism from me, while they feel free to criticize my way of life, my habits of speech, my housekeeping and my politics. I am not alone in having felt great pain when a child has been less accepting of me than I am of her or him. Our culture permits and even encourages mother blaming and criticizing, while placing a taboo on mothers who make negative remarks about our children. When we transgress, the “child’s” response is often more harsh than the mother’s infringement.

Some of the tension I feel with my grown children is over my feminism. My sons often resist or resent my opinions, and the feminist elements that I include at the seder, for example. I don’t want to disenfranchise my sons when I claim my own place within Jewish ritual; on the other hand, my daughter still feels the scars of having been Jewishly silenced as a female child.

We know how wrong a man can be when making pronouncements about women. Have we questioned how wrong a child can be in describing her or his mother? Several mothers have told me that their offspring don’t have a clue about how Mom really feels, when they think they understand her. More often than not, the child does not ask or listen when Mom tries to explain herself.

The patriarchal assumption that exaggerates the power of women adds to the misperceptions about old mothers. Old mothers in general have very little power unless we are wealthy enough to control the distribution or withholding of generous gifts and inheritance. We are often misperceived as overly powerful when in fact we are in the process of losing power and control over our bodies and our social and economic circumstances. The false attribution of power, even when we do not claim or use such power, seems to give our children, and the experts who advise them, permission to discount our words, criticize us, or pathologize us. When we try to understand our child’s world or to share a piece of our own experience, we run into unexpected outbursts of resentment. We do not feel at all powerful when we are told: “You don’t realize how powerful you are—or how powerful your words are. When you ask a question it feels like an interrogation, and when you make suggestions it feels like a criticism of how we do things.”

It may be difficult for our children to take in the fact that the aging mother is no longer the all-powerful figure of their early childhood, especially when they live far away and only see us once or twice a year. It is they who now have adult power and we who are beginning to lose some of it.

The pathologizing of old women is another source of painful silencing. We are often labeled self-centered, depressed or paranoid when we voice the negative feelings that can accompany the natural diminution of faculties in old age. Our words and concerns are not taken as seriously as the words of old men by the professionals who should be there to serve us, such as doctors, lawyers and therapists. Our families or caregivers tend to see our reactions as personal flaws or weaknesses, and so do we, instead of responding to these feelings as appropriate to our life situation. We have good reasons to feel sad or angry at times, and would like to be able to talk about them.

I am one of the many American Jewish widows who, unfortunately, do not live near enough to be comforted and cared for by my children. I know and understand that my children lead the kind of lives that do not permit frequent and leisurely visits; the demands of their work and the pace of life make such closeness and regularity of caring nearly impossible

Old mothers, especially if our children live at a distance, often feel that our children’s visits depend on how well we behave ourselves. Many of us feel that we must not raise controversial issues, ask personal questions, criticize, or express our personal preferences. When they stay away, we wonder if we’ve done something wrong, or whether they would come more often or stay longer if we did it right. We are haunted by true stories of children who have not spoken to their mothers for months or even years. One mother in her 70s, upon returning from a brief visit with her previously estranged daughter, said: “If I speak funny, it’s because I feel as if my tongue is shorter—I had to bite it so many times.”

My husband died nearly ten years ago. I still miss him, and I miss the comfort and privileges of our shared existence. When I am tired or ill I am prone to bouts of longing and loneliness, wishing my children would call more often or would include me in their plans. I am not always sure of my place in their lives.

Still in good health and leading an active life, I feel an urgent need to talk about and prepare for the final stage of life. My inclination is to turn to my children for discussions of financial, legal and medical issues. I have learned to be patient, for my midlife children are facing their own midlife transitions at work and at home and do not always have the time or the psychic energy to focus on my concerns. It has taken us a few years to get beyond the stage of: “Oh Mom, you don’t have to think about that yet,” and I feel much better for having aired my concerns and shared some of my decisions with them.

I believe that my children value our Jewish tradition of treating elders with respect as much as I do. In that spirit. I have made my wishes very clear by talking with each of my children, by writing a living will, and by appointing a health care proxy. I have even drawn up a list of simple things to remember about what I like—in food, blankets, music—in case I lose the ability to tell them.

I was able to be with my husband in his final journey. I will surely need my children’s help when my time approaches. There will be no clear models to guide the way. Our roles will change, but I hope that that they will not simply be reversed. The condition of infirmity is not equal to that of childhood, and I hope that I will be treated as an adult whose opinions and preferences will be honored.

Rachel J. Siegel is co-editor of Jewish Women in Therapy: Seen But Not Heard; the award-winning Celebrating the Lives of Jewish Women: Patterns in a Feminist Sampler; and a forthcoming anthology on Jewish mothers.

Readings on Eldercare

Good Daughters: Loving Our Mothers as They Age
by Patricia Beard (Warner Books, $23)
Explores the emotional and practical complications that arise for adult daughters as their mothers age. Beard, a journalist, looks at the conflicts of baby-boom women as they try to care for their mothers at the same time that they work outside the home, have their children later in life, and often raise them in single-parent homes. Beard also attends to daughters’ mourning for their mothers long before they are gone, and long after.

Elder Care: What to Look For, What to Look Out For
by Thomas M. Cassidy (New Horizon Press, $14.95)
A former senior special investigator for the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Cassidy offers lessons from his decades battling elder-care crimes. With anecdotes and statistics, he addresses the many ways elders may be taken advantage of and hurt in the course of their care—at home, in nursing homes, through Social Security and Medicare—and offers specific guidelines for preventing such abuse.

Visiting the Sick: The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim
by Sharon Selib Epstein (Aron son, $25)
Epstein discusses the mitzvah of visiting the sick and the dying, with practical guidance, as well as explorations of the fears, and comforts, that accompany this ethical obligation.

Mind’s Eye
by Paul Fleischman (Henry Holt, $15.95)
An elderly woman in a nursing home takes an imaginary journey through Italy with the help of an old Baedeker and a 16-year-old girl who reads it to her. Written as a dialogue between the two, this is a touching book for young adults.

Dutiful Daughters: Caring for Our Parents as They Grow Old
edited by Jean Gould (Seal Press, $16.95)
This collection of personal accounts, written by women who are caring for their aging parents, portrays the experiences of “sandwich generation” women caught between the needs of their their parents and their children.

by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (Perseus, $23)
In six portraits of interpersonal relationships, Lawrence-Lightfoot explores the hypothesis that respect is the most powerful ingredient in any relationship. The dramas she portrays include everything from scenes at a birthing center to a deathbed.

From Memory to Transformation: Jewish Women’s Voices
by Sarah Silberstein Swartz & Margie Wolfe (Second Story Press, $18.95)
This wide-ranging anthology by activists, rabbis, scholars and artists includes Pearl Goldberg’s “Minyan of Crones: New Rituals for Jewish Women.” The article describes some of the ritual efforts of one women’s group, the eponymous Minyan of Crones, to participate more fully in the Jewish tradition.

Am I Old Yet?: The Story of Two Women, Generations Apart, Growing Up and Growing Young in a Timeless Friendship
by Leah Komaiko (Golden Books, $20)
What begins as a one-hour weekly volunteer visit between a 44-year-old woman (the author) and a 94-year-old woman in a nursing home turns into a moving memoir of a relationship that explored issues of aging, death, sex and more. In the process, Komaiko is released from some of her deep anxiety about aging.

Parting Company: Understanding the Loss of a Loved One
by Cynthia Pearson & Margaret L. Stubbs (Seal Press, $18.95)
Fourteen first-hand narratives from caregivers reflect on their experiences of loss as their loved ones die. This book also includes accounts from professionals who care for the dying.

Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders
by Mary Pipher (Riverhead Books, $24.95)
Pipher revolutionized the way we look at girls’ development in her book Reviving Ophelia. Now she offers her insights on another difficult life-passage, the journey to old age. Acknowledging the difficulty of the most basic communication when it comes to aging, she guides readers into a new language for understanding our elders.