Comment

The man who went to bed for a year

David O’Driscoll considers the concept of mid-life crisis and how it applies to people with learning disabilities.

David ODriscoll considers the concept of mid-life crisis and how it applies to people with learning disabilities.

The Office for National Statistics recently released a report entitled At What Age Is Personal Wellbeing the Highest?, which generated a great deal of press interest. It claims that people aged between 40 and 59 have the lowest level of wellbeing of any age group.

The report and the media coverage made me think about people with learning disabilities and their mid-life experiences.

It is curious to me that there is plenty of research on other transitional periods in peoples lives, such as from adolescence to adulthood and adulthood to the end of life, yet there is nothing on mid-life.

Is this because researchers do not see people with learning disabilities and their experiences of mid-life as interesting or worthwhile research material? Or is it because many of the

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David O’Driscoll considers the concept of mid-life crisis and how it applies to people with learning disabilities.

The Office for National Statistics recently released a report entitled At What Age Is Personal Wellbeing the Highest?, which generated a great deal of press interest. It claims that people aged between 40 and 59 have the lowest level of wellbeing of any age group.

The report and the media coverage made me think about people with learning disabilities and their mid-life experiences.

It is curious to me that there is plenty of research on other transitional periods in people’s lives, such as from adolescence to adulthood and adulthood to the end of life, yet there is nothing on mid-life.

Is this because researchers do not see people with learning disabilities and their experiences of mid-life as interesting or worthwhile research material? Or is it because many of the traditional markers of mid-life, such as career development and the empty-nest syndrome, do not always apply to them?

Looking at the referrals to my psychotherapy service this year, I found that the majority (about 55%) of people were in the mid-life, 40-59 age range. Usually, service users referred to me have lost family members, most often parents, and have had to move into supported living arrangements and are struggling with some aspect of this transition.

These service users are dealing, not only with the loss of a parent, but also the loss of their family home and maybe the community in which they lived.

Reflection

During psychotherapy sessions, they often reflect on their lives. A man in his fifties who was recently referred to me had lost his mother, with whom he had lived all of his life, while his father had died when he was a teenager.

He told me that when he was in his mid-forties, he stayed in bed for an entire year. ‘I got up one day and decided I did not want to go to the day centre so I stayed in bed.’

In discussing the situation with him, it became clear he had not been physically ill, nor had he been experiencing a severe depressive episode. ‘I was not down in the dumps,’ he said, adding that he would get up for meals. ‘I would put on my dressing grown and go downstairs.’

I asked how his mother had reacted to the situation. ‘She was alright. Fine in fact.’ It seems that she accepted it and carried on with her life. Various family members who visited would attempt to persuade him to get up, but with no success. While it was hard to get the full version of what happened, it seems to me that he was describing a mid-life crisis.

In 1965, the psychoanalyst Elliot Jaques wrote what was to become a hugely influential paper that introduced the concept. In ‘Death and the mid-life crisis’, Jaques (1965) set out his idea of the mid-life being a unique transition phase with different meanings for men and women.

Today, there are contrasting views in psychology circles about its validity. Broadly speaking, clinicians are likely to believe in the concept, while academic researchers are more critical of it.

It is hard to define precisely when mid-life occurs. Jaques put it at 38, but today it would be regarded as the period between the ages of 40 and 50.

Transition

Mid-life is a time of transition, involving many internal and external struggles. One of these struggles occurs when an individual comes to recognise his or her mortality, that life will not go on forever, that his or her body is ageing and health may be deteriorating.

This can be the time of life to reflect on missed opportunities, paths taken and those avoided. It can have a different focus for men and women. For men, it can be more about status, while for women, it is often more about families.

Reflecting on this, I wondered about the service user’s mother and her own mid-life experience. I wondered how she dealt with the idea that her son may leave her and her own sense of abandonment. Was this why she was happy for him to stay in bed?

We discussed mid-life crisis in his sessions and it made sense to him. He told me how he watched his siblings leave home, get jobs and start relationships while he remained at home, and felt that he was missing out on life. He felt a failure.

Now that his mother was dead, he felt a renewed urgency in his life, and we discussed his feeling that he did not have long left. Because of this, he was starting to plan for his future, think about his new life and try to experience some of the things he had missed out on. I was left with the thought that the mid-life crisis concept could be of value to other colleagues too.

About the author

David O’Driscoll is a psychotherapist specialist in the learning disability and forensic service at Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust.

Reference

Jaques E (1965) Death and the mid-life crisis. International Journal of Psycho-analysis. 46, 4, 502-514.

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