A woman came into my office yesterday. She looked exhausted, and explained that she wanted to consult with me about her 91-year-old mother who had recently been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer ’s disease. She is the primary caregiver and had missed quite a lot of work recently due to her mother’s needs. She is a research biologist at Harvard Medical School working under a grant that will expire in a year. She said she didn’t know what she would be able to do. “I’m fifty-six years old, and I have to think about another career.”
I asked her to describe some of the problems her mother had been exhibiting. I inquired about whether she had a support system. She responded that her only brother lived in Connecticut and helped as much as he could. Her family, she added, consisted of only ”my mother, my brother and me.”
She went on: “My father died when I was seven. I was very close to him. My mother wasn’t very nurturing, but after he died, she worked hard and provided for us as best she could.”
As I continued our interview, I observed some significant similarities between her story and my own. I had lost my father at eleven and my mother had three jobs to support my brother and me. As a result, she had little energy left for us (a fact that my brother has never forgiven her for.) Like me, she had graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in her thirties. She worked successfully on grant funding until now when, in her fifties, she was faced with the possibility of having to re-invent herself because her field was becoming obsolete.
Although therapists are trained to limit personal information, I trusted my judgment in this case because of its possible therapeutic benefit. I shared with her the parallels in our lives – at her age, I had also experienced deep sadness and felt “lost,” not knowing who I was and what I should be doing with my life. (She waved her hand at this, identifying with my experience).
I suggested that she may not have fully grieved her father’s death, or her lost childhood. I suggested further that her exhaustion and obvious depression could be the result of unresolved grief. I explained to her that when I figured out how my losses had affected me, I found new direction for my career and felt fulfilled in my work. I assured her that she could do the same.
At the end of our session, she told me she would consider working with me on this issue. “You have given me hope.” The next day, she called for an appointment.
Susan Berger 2011