Dr. Robert Elghammer autism

Dr. Robert Elghammer poses at his office in Danville.

You know this story, you know this path. You should, since you, and nearly 80 million other lives born between 1946 and 1964 are on it.

You have aged, from 22 to 32 to 42 to middle age. You are older now. At least your body is. Your mind? Well, parts have matured, other parts have not — “I really need that red sports car”; “Cosmetic surgery could get the wrinkles out.”

But, as you watch your parents get older, that icy fear returns, this time to clutch at your heart. Your parents have either died, or are struggling with an illness. For the first time, you understand the necessity of doctors and hospitals. Your 84-year-old mother has fallen and broken her hip. Will she ever walk again? Your 80-year-old father has “forgotten” where he has parked his car — it is somewhere in the parking lot of the grocery store. You hear panic in his voice as he calls you: “Can you meet me at the grocery store?” “Sure, Dad,” you say.

The seismic shift caused by the decline or death of your parents has created an emotional mix. It is the feeling you get when you unexpectedly come upon a bad car wreck, airplane crash or shipwreck.

In the case of a shipwreck, your mind first scrambles to re-create an intact picture of the formerly elegant, sleek, and sea-worthy boat. It then compares that image with the carnage before you: a hulking, rusty shipwreck where the iron teeth of a submerged reef have sliced open its hull, forcing it to lie forever still, entombed within a casket of coral.

How could this happen? You feel eerie, caught between two worlds, stuck in an emotional twilight zone.

The death or decline of your parents means you no longer have them to stand between you and your own death. Your sentinels and their power to intimidate, stare down, and back off death are gone. With their passing, the last of your own mental shields melt away. The next death is, guess who?

You want to discuss your anxiety about your own mortality, but you don’t. Instead, you dive deep down inside yourself, to the pure waters of childhood, so that you can activate imaginary powers that suspend the laws of nature.

You have a stopwatch. See that button? Push it. See how the world stops. You have frozen time. Everything is frozen, except for you. Your magical stopwatch allows you to walk and move about. It’s peaceful here. All your fears evaporate, since in this world, nothing ever changes.

So you take a deep breath, exhale and slowly ask yourself, “What direction should I go?”

Life gives us two paths. The one most of us are traveling is not the one we want. We don’t want it because it defines aging by what we have lost, or by what we can no longer do. “I can’t drive anymore, my eyesight is poor, I can’t remember names anymore.”

This path is paved with stones labeled smaller, weaker, wrinkled, slower. It ends with the shipwreck of life.

The other path, the one we want, is defined both by appreciating what we still have, and by realizing new possibilities. We all have intimate relationships with our spouses, friends, and family members. Many also have a relationship with God, or some type of spiritual beliefs.

If these relationships are deepened and strengthened, then the time remaining in life becomes more meaningful. When this happens, the younger appetites — money, power, accumulation of possessions — give way to a different way of living: How can I contribute, make the world better, or belong to something greater than myself?

In the same way, a skilled painter, like Van Gogh, takes the color yellow and slowly mixes it with blue — a new color is created. A color more alive, more vibrant, the verdant color of green.

So, can you, by making your life a new color. You merge the “I” color with another life to form the “we” color. The “what do I want out of life?” color is replaced by “what does life want out of me?”

When this happens, you will begin to experience these: You start fixing up your current home, after saying goodbye to your dream house; you find yourself volunteering at the hospital; your grandkids get excited when you give them your old fishing poles and plan a family fishing trip.

Your heart, now free of anxiety, fills up with love when your eyes rest upon the faces of all the people in your life.

(The content of this article is for educational purposes only, not treatment.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

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