Dear Vicki: When my mother passed away 10 years ago, my father chose to keep the family house and has done just fine living there alone. At least until now. Recently, he’s become a bitter, hopeless, and rather narcissistic old man, which is so not like my father. He was career military; always very logical, rational, kind, and even-keeled. But since he retired three years ago, that part of him has slowly disappeared and now he seems impossible to please. He’s also very sad, more so than he ever was, even when Mom passed. Is he becoming senile? I worry about him all the time, and often take meals over to him, but he hardly asks about me or his grandchildren when I’m there. Instead, he complains and almost seems to resent my presence. It breaks my heart. What can I do to help him? Signed, Worried About Dad
Dear Worried: It is possible your father is becoming senile, so having him checked out by a competent health care professional would be a good idea. But that might not be what is going on for him at all. What I suspect might be happening is that, with his retirement, your father has moved from the life phase of outward productivity to a phase of slowing down and introspection. His choice of a military career suggests that he is a primary Metal personality, someone who embraces order, hierarchy, and perfection in everything. And while our primary elemental personality is ours for the totality of our life, we do move though different phases as we grow and age. This is a fascinating aspect of the Five Elements model: the idea that each of the elemental personalities can be seen in a specific phase of our life. I think a brief exploration of how this works might help explain what is going on for your father.
In the Five Elements model, regardless of our primary elemental personality, we all move through five distinct phases in life. Birth and early childhood are associated with the wintery time of Water when potential is unlimited. Young adulthood, a time of exuberance and rapid growth, is associated with the intense spring energy of Wood. The process of maturation is associated with the warming summer sun of the Fire element, while the final ripening of our life relates to the fields of late summer and the Earth element. The end of our life cycle – the harvest of all gained from this cycle and storage of what will be used in the next cycle – relates to Metal. However, for many ancient teachings, instead of ending with Metal, our final stop is said to be a return to Water, as seen in the innocence and playfulness of a young child mirrored in the elderly. That’s why many philosophers claim that both birth and death sit in the Water Element.
I have seen many seniors appear to return to a Watery phase after the productive period of their life ends. They lose their need for structure and productivity and decide to enjoy life. They embrace travel and go on cruises, take in shows, and generally play like the child they were at the start of their life. It seems since his retirement, your father might be having trouble moving from his career concept of what he should be doing (a very Metal personality approach) to the more relaxed phase of enjoying his life. Consequently, he isn’t giving enough energy and attention to developing this Water stage of his life. If he were, he would be cheerful, playful, and optimistic. Instead, because your father hasn’t completely embraced this Water phase, he seems stuck in a past that has left him behind. This will absolutely create someone who is exactly the way you describe him: bitter, hopeless, and impossible to please.
The fact that he is sadder than you have ever known him to be also supports the idea that he has not allowed himself to move from the Metal phase of career toward the Water phase of retirement. Sadness and grief sit in the Metal element and usually indicate that someone is having trouble letting go of something. In addition to the apparent sadness your father has at giving up his career, I wonder if it’s possible that he is still grieving for your mother in a way that has only now become apparent during his retirement. Most couples plan all the fun things they will do in that Water phase of life. I suspect that the loss of your mother is being made all the more concrete for your father now that he is facing retirement without his partner.
Seeing your father this way will be especially hard for you, not only because you are his daughter, but because you appear to be a primary Earth personality. The most important thing in the world for Earth people are their relationships, especially with family. Watching a loved one struggle is exceedingly hard for an Earth person. I’m sure his resentment of you coming over has been hard for you to take, too. The best you can do for your father is to help him let go of the past by easing him into the future. Help him re-write plans for this phase of his life. Does he have any hobbies that he could engage in? Any topics he wants to study? There are millions of classes open to retirees for very reasonable rates (if not free). Does he want to travel? Perhaps some of his friends might want to travel with him. Or maybe he could travel with you and your family.
To let go of the past he needs to be able to envision a future. Transitions are something that Earth personalities excel at facilitating, so you are the perfect person to be there for him now. Be patient with his unwillingness to let go. Assure him that this is the right step for him now because doing the right thing matters a lot to Metal personalities. And most of all, help him see that he does have a future, he just needs to embrace it. Blessings to you and your father!