Academic journal article Family Relations

"It Just Isn't Fair": Helping Older Families Balance Their Ledgers before the Note Comes Due

Academic journal article Family Relations

"It Just Isn't Fair": Helping Older Families Balance Their Ledgers before the Note Comes Due

Article excerpt

In a recent family therapy session, a mother shared with me a series of conversations between her and her young toddler who is struggling to make sense of the fact that daddy has died. The following interchanges seem particularly touching and relevant.

Toddler: I have a daddy right?

Mother: Yes sweetheart, you have a daddy and he loved you very much.

Toddler: Daddy is dead, right?

Mother: Yes, he is dead. (pause)

Toddler: [with great emotion] That just isn't fair. As a teenager, I remember feeling "this isn't fair" when my parents told me grandma was coming to live with us because she could no longer care for herself. As time went by, I slowly came to recognize the complexity of Alzheimer's disease, with all of its injustice. Now I am left wondering why I did not appreciate more fully the time I did share with grandma. Issues of justice, fairness, and equity frequently surface in the lives of those facing death, and the multitude of decisions and adjustments that often precede and follow it. The feeling of imbalance on the scales of justice can be particularly profound for families struggling to make sense of their relationships with older adults who are nearing or have just experienced death. Two practical examples of this intense struggle for fairness were presented in this issue of Family Relations in Stum and Roberto's thought provoking articles. Whether negotiating "transfers of non-titled property" (Stum, 1999, p. 159) or "making critical health care decisions for older adults," a personal sense of what is just, fair, and right often "drive[s] the entire [decision making] process" (Roberto, 1999, p. 167).

In fact, it is at these later stages of life that issues of fairness across generations become particularly poignant, complicating most family interaction. This pressure to "finish well" (Hargrave & Anderson, 1992, p. 1 ), or resolve longstanding feelings of injustice in relationships before it is "too late," places an added burden of urgency on families who are already facing a great deal of strain relating to the aging process. It is these two core issues, the approach of death and the innate drive for relational equity, which creates a tremendous pressure cooker for many aging families. Therefore, in an effort to provide guideposts for family life educators and clinicians, I will draw upon Hargrave and Anderson's (1992) skillful blend of developmental theory and Nagy's theory of relational ethics (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner,1986) to highlight the unique dynamics of later life multigenerational families. Developmental Theory The eighth stage of Erik Erikson's (1963) theory of psychosocial development provides a useful lens through which to view the struggles of later life families. According to the theory, as older adults approach death, they struggle to find the meaning in their existence. `Has my life mattered? Have I accomplished my goals? Have I made a difference?' are questions that can fill the older adult's mind as they struggle with ego integrity versus despair (Hargrave & Anderson, 1997; Crain, 1992). This normative process of sifting through past experiences as motivated by the nearness of death has been termed life review (Butler, 1963). The process of life review places the older adult in a vulnerable position as they recall "especially intense . . . areas of past conflicts, regrettable choices, or hurts inflicted on others" (Hargrave & Anderson, 1997, p. 66). Likewise, many adult children are faced with ambiguity as they are drawn towards parents and siblings because of the perceived finality of death, yet nevertheless struggle with past contention and inflicted hurts (Carstensen, 1998). This pressure to `make things right' in a short period of time can greatly complicate family processes such as decision making. It is at this point in the family life cycle that educators and clinicians will likely be asked to intervene at an ever increasing rate over the next 30 years (see recent demographic trends, AARP, 1996). …

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