Dr. Dan Gottlieb:

On the Empty Nest and Making the Most of What We Have

By Robin Bonner

Aging and Mental Health
You’re driving down the road about noontime on a Monday, and you flip through the radio stations, searching for either good music or good talk. You find yourself tuned in to WHYY (91 FM) and the program “Voices in the Family,” moderated by Dr. Dan Gottlieb, a celebrated Philadelphia-area psychotherapist.

Dr. Dan (shown at left with grandson Sam), as he prefers to be called, begins by introducing his colleagues on the show: Dr. Ira Katz, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter, author of From Aging to Saging and lecturer from Boulder, Colorado. The topic is aging and mental health, and the professionals offer their opening remarks—how more than 50 percent of elderly nursing home residents are depressed, compared with 22 percent in the general elderly population. What causes this rise in depression among the elderly? Dr. Gottlieb poses the question, “Is the high rate of depression among the elderly about their being institutionalized, or is it about their being elderly?” Does the fact of being elderly, and therefore suffering from chronic diseases and a reduced capacity for healing, lead to depression and consequently to nursing home care?

Your parents (or in-laws) are in their golden years and could be suffering from depression, so you’re drawn in by the topic and stimulating discussion. You settle back to listen to the program.

Dr. Katz responds, “It can be a vicious cycle.” Heart attack and chronic disease can result in depression, which can lead to another heart attack and more chronic disease. Rabbi Schachter, who recently celebrated his 79th birthday, adds another dimension. He begins, “I would like to pose a challenge to you out there as to the notion of, What is mental illness?” Schachter’s theory is that certain thoughts are just right to dwell upon as one arrives at a certain age: Elderly people are coming to terms with their mortality and the decreasing functionality of their bodies. He calls this the “spirituality of eldering.”

The elderly, Dr. Katz observes, need to deal with the issues, which they can do so much more effectively if they are not depressed. He adds, “Spirituality is just one of the most important resources that people can have . . . knowing our place in the community, in the universe.” After a bit, the phones are opened up to callers. They and the panel discuss poverty, politics, public policy, and even sleep deprivation as these affect the elderly and contribute to depression. You are soothed by Gottlieb’s voice and impressed by his knack for making callers feel at home, for his willingness to share their experiences. Gottlieb’s colleagues on his program elicit the same response.

Voices of Conflict, Voices of Healing
Gottlieb’s book Voices of Conflict, Voices of Healing (2001) gathers together some of his most important Philadelphia Inquirer columns. Many deal with the concerns of seasoned parents: helping children out into the world, giving their own parents a hand as they age. Amazon calls the book “compassionate, wise, insightful.”

Gottlieb can “feel the pain” of his patients because he’s been there himself. In 1979, 10 years after beginning his practice as a psychologist and family therapist, on his and his wife’s 10th wedding anniversary, Gottlieb was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left him mostly paralyzed. In the following years he suffered depression, divorce, and the death of loved ones, but he maintained his career, spurred on by patients who wanted to continue consulting with him. “At the first session [after my accident],” he says, “I asked them whether they had wanted to resume therapy just to bolster my ego and make me feel good. The woman got very angry. She said, ‘I waited almost a year. We’ve still got work to do with you. Let’s get to it.’” So, he’s been back to helping people ever since.

Meeting with Dr. Dan Gottlieb at his office in Bala Cynwyd is an interesting experience. His assistant leads you into a large interior office, where you see a desk and, at one end, a sitting area with comfortable chairs and end tables. Dr. Dan talks to you from his wheelchair (and he’s a pro at maneuvering it). You shake hands and exchange business cards; the man is warm, gracious, and caring, thinking first to offer you a beverage and put you at ease. Quickly, the formality of the situation vanishes, and as his client said, you “get to it.” It is an honor to talk with him.

Dr. Dan can pinpoint the time when he chose to become a psychotherapist. “It was when I was in the seventh grade. I wasn’t very smart and I wasn’t very popular, but I had a lot of friends. The kids trusted me. They confided in me.” His seventh-grade teacher, a lay psychologist, became his mentor. He had found his niche. Dr. Gottlieb’s frank acknowledgments of his shortcomings make you realize he won’t crucify you for yours.

Children Leaving Home
When asked about advice for parents whose children are leaving home, Dr. Dan has good news: “Research shows the pain and suffering of launching a child to be largely overstated.” Evidently, the “empty nest” experience of the majority of us is positive; we become accustomed to our children being gone in a relatively well-adjusted manner. If that is not the case, he offers a reason: “Instead of letting go, we clutch our children. Why? It’s about our own security and our own identity.” Gottlieb suggests that we focus on the “excitement” of this time in our lives—that we can “find a whole new way of looking at [ourselves].”

I personally still long for my daughter, a college senior, to be around more, as I did for my elder daughter to be around more once she had moved out. Dan “longs to walk,” he tells me. Since he can’t and will never be able to, he usually doesn’t focus on it. That doesn’t stop the longing from coming periodically, but what he does with that longing is what’s important. He channels it into helping others, into nurturing those personal relationships that are important to him. After all, even when our children have left the nest,, we can experience more intimacy with them; any time with them can be quality time.

Gottlieb’s own positive attitude toward embracing an “empty nest” is surprising because the circumstances surrounding his own experience were less than ideal. In addition to his paralysis, which he has lived with since his children were young, he also shouldered the responsibility of being the primary parent when the time came for his daughters to leave for college. His wife and he had divorced a couple of years earlier, and at that time she wasn’t usually “there for them.” Gottlieb tells of a time when he and his ex-wife were driving one of their daughters off to college, in two vehicles, he in the first and they behind him. At one point, he looked into the rear-view mirror and he had a thought: “That’s my whole life behind me in that little yellow car.” It was a scary thought.

Gottlieb’s wife died shortly afterward. Then, his sister, with whom he was very close, was diagnosed with cancer. Finally, a serious skin condition put Gottlieb himself in bed for what was supposed to be 30 days but what turned out to be 18 months. He learned during that time from a medical doctor that wounds to the skin heal at a rate of 1 mm per day if the environment is right. “What about wounds to the heart?” he asks. Gottlieb has weathered his share, to rival those of the biblical Job, and he still professes positive thinking.

Gottlieb’s daughters have managed through it all and are successful in their own right; he can’t speak too highly of them. “In their 30 years, they have the wisdom that I have at my age.” Alison, Gottlieb’s older daughter, is a veterinary technician. “She is to animals as I am to people; she is devoted to them.” Alison recently opened a consulting firm for veterinarians. Debbie, who more closely resembles Dan physically than does Alison, is a technical writer. When she’s not writing, Debbie is helping her husband run his insurance office; they split the office hours so both can spend equal time with their son Sam, now 3 years old. Dan sends all his Inquirer articles to Debbie for a final read-through before he submits them for publication. He is close to his daughters and dotes on his grandson. In 2006, Dr. Dan published Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life; customer reviews on Amazon have given the book five stars.

Part of the Solution
Despite his positive attitude, however, some issues still really bother Gottlieb. In his Web bio (see www.drdangottlieb.com), Gottlieb states, “The greatest sources of suffering in the world today are alienation and prejudice.” He follows this up in person with “I still strongly feel this. Gated communities [designed to keep people apart] are the fastest growing form of housing. Eating disorders are about alienation; they are a form of gaining more control, so the afflicted can live their lives. People take drugs to feel safer, so they can live.” In reality, he says, “We want freedom, compassion, and intimacy, and we want love ultimately. We have a desire for wholeness.” Gottlieb apologizes for getting “political” but continues, “The present U.S. government administration is more responsible for alienation than any other in recent history.”

He recommends an antidote: “The first step toward healing this pain is eye contact. The second is compassion.” No matter how different someone is from us, we must do what we can to be compassionate toward him or her. Each one of us can make a difference. Gottlieb does his part to set a good example. You’re sure that not a day goes by that Dr. Dan Gottlieb doesn’t make someone feel free, safe, and loved.

It occurs to you that with Dr. Dan and people like him around, we all should have the strength to face another day. Terrorism can be overcome; enemies can be at peace. It’s a tall order, but maybe there’s hope, after all. If we live like Dr. Dan, we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We can begin by embracing ourselves, our children, our spouses, and our parents; then we can connect with people on the street. A kind man with his own story of woe makes it all sound doable?a good message for this holiday season.

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. She interviewed Dr. Dan Gottlieb in 2003, when she was a graduate student at Rosemont College, and updated the article for this issue.

home :: about :: features :: departments :: submissions :: archives :: contact

© 2007 Spring Mount Communications