The Discarded Elderly

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Aging Parent and the Development of a Tertiary Person


In our Jewish faith the elderly individual is to be honored, to be treated with with dignity.  His/her wisdom is to be acknowledged.  He is to be loved, to be respected.  Within the ten commandments there is only one that has a reward attached to it:  Honor thy mother and thy father so that you will live long on earth.  The older person has had years of experience, has tested and experienced many situations, and is allegedly therefore able to guide those that are young and inexperienced, thus saving them much pain and the ability not to repeat the negatives that the elder has painfully felt. Many of the tenets thus described are also those of most other religions.  On birthdays we wish the “birthday child” that he should live to one hundred and twenty years.  Not a bad wish if one could live with the honors and the good health that would be the outcome of that process.

The parent now grown old certainly deserves all that is theoretically described.  She/he has raised her children, has nurtured and cherished them, has given of herself “bechol, levovko, bechol nafschecho, bechol meodecho,” with her whole heart and her whole being.  The parent is rewarded if and when the children grow into healthy, successful human beings.

Let us look at the reality of the “koved” that is given to the old ager, his physical and emotional problems as a result of the aging process, and the feelings, the narcissism of grown up children and grandchildren.  The oldster becomes a tertiary person.  He hardly counts as a viable human being. His advice means nothing; if he is hard of hearing he is chastised and is a nuisance, frequently ignored or shouted down in anger since affording him comprehension he takes too much time and trouble.  Listening to his physical anomalies is “boring” and tedious.  His clothing are “too old fashioned” and he does not fit in with that which is current.  He has “nothing in common” with the younger folk around him.  He is grudgingly given the front seat in a car when invited to “come along.” His negative qualities are discussed, often in hushed words, among his children’s friends. He is urged to discontinue driving since he is a “danger on the road.”  If he asks for some help he is frequently “put off” until the adult “has time.”  He is however welcome to give gifts and provide amenities as long as he does not expect to be thanked for that which is the recipient's right to have.  In whatever way he extends himself it is insufficient. 

Of course the young person now grown old sometimes expects more than can be expected of his children.  He is what he was when he was young, only more so.  If he was surly in his youth he may be more so in his advanced years.  He may forget that his adult offspring have unending responsibilities and tasks to perform and are stressed with their responsibilities.  The elderly person should be as helpful and independent as possible.

One of the deepest pains for the elderly person is being left out, on the sidelines, dominated, told what to do, how to react and behave, without counting, without mattering.  He has become tertiary, namely the fifth wheel on the proverbial wagon. The only consolation for the old ager is that some day the middle aged individual also will have the dubious experience of being the tertiary person!


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.

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