ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Disabled People with Aging Parents

By Jack Bragen
Friday November 01, 2013 - 10:09:00 AM

More often than for most people in mainstream society, psychiatrically disabled people do not outlive our parents.  

Both psychiatric medication and psychiatric illness take a toll on a person's lifespan. However, if a person with mental illness is in relatively good health, we must deal with our parents getting older. 

We must also deal with ourselves getting older. 

When I had three psychotic episodes over the last thirty years, my parents were able to help me get back into treatment, and they helped me in other practical ways. My father drove me to the hospital, at one point got me into a halfway house, and helped me move when I could no longer stay in a share rental where I lived. 

By the time I was thirty, my parents were getting to old to deal with a psychotic offspring. Luckily, at the point of my fourth and last psychotic episode, I was 5150'd without direct involvement of parents. At that time, my girlfriend, who I would later marry, was there for me as an essential support. 

About ten years ago, I realized that my parents would not be around indefinitely. I also realized that if I had any more psychotic episodes, I might be killed in the process, due to the stresses of being psychotic or due to a delusion-induced accident. 

I began taking steps to help make things work in my life with older parents or with parents who had passed away. 

Typically, we are never ready for the death of a loved one. The pain of this may never completely go away. When my father passed away not very long ago, I took it very hard. 

While driving, I apparently missed a red light, and I got into a car accident on the day after my father's service. (I had only been at fault in one other accident--and this was in 1980.) The totaling of my vehicle as well as minor injuries of my wife were major sources of stress. After a year and a half, I am still trying to recover from all of this. 

When you are disabled, you typically do not have the same resources as does someone who works and has a well-developed network of friends and relatives. When a parent is gone, it forces us to fend for ourselves. 

A person with mental illness has an Achilles heel, which is the vulnerability to a relapse. Relapses of mental illness are often triggered by highly stressful events. When my dad passed away, it took a lot of focus for me to steer myself clear of having another relapse. 

It is very difficult for many persons with mental illness to lose the support of a parent, either through them being too old to help us or through them passing. It can be scary to realize that if I got into trouble, there would eventually be no parents available to help me get rescued. 

People with mental illness or with other disabilities should be helped to prepare for life changes which are unavoidable. A person with mental illness must either transition to near total independence, or must get needed supports established, and should do this in advance of inevitable changes. Joining a self-help group, a church, a club, or some other venue of support can be helpful. Forging friendships can help with surviving and for the avoidance of being too alone.