It is tough to be old in a culture that is as youth-obsessed as this one. The old are practically invisible. They are driven out of the work force before their usefulness is ended; they are separated from children and grandchildren by transient lives; and they are segregated in assisted living communities where there is no work to give them purpose and there are no young people to engage them.
When parents, whose aging has proceeded almost unnoticed by their children, suffer a health crisis, those children suddenly face the end of life in the most painful way.
This is what happened to Mary Pipher.
The heartland psychologist, whose plain-talking, sensible voice was first heard in "Reviving Ophelia," buried her own mother almost six years ago after a decline that wasn't particularly well-handled by either the living or the dying.
"By the time she died, I felt a weird combination of stressed to my limits and ashamed I hadn't done more," Pipher writes. "I spent a year tired, anxious and sad. And then I lost my mother."
Pipher, who lives and counsels families in Lincoln, Neb., processed her uneasy grief and her newfound preoccupation with aging in a way many might not choose. She immersed herself in stories from old people whose lives were ebbing away, and in the family members who, as she had, faced new kinds of guilt and sadness.
"I am 51 and I have gray hair and wrinkles and I am getting old, too," she said in a recent interview. "I wanted to learn about that process.
"I deal with my anxiety by studying it. Writing is thinking for me, and I wanted to think through these issues in a way that was useful."
She was in the midst of raising a teen-age daughter when she wrote "Reviving Ophelia" and identified the cultural stresses that are warping the straight backs and square shoulders of our daughters.
In her new book, "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders," she again draws a map of the human heart, using the stories of real people and her wise-woman reflections on them. But this time, she leads baby boomers to a place they have never been. All of them have been young, but none has been old and it shows in the misdirected and often misanthropic way they treat their elders.
"This is not a 'You are only as young as you feel' kind of book," she says. There is sadness and intensity in the old people's stories Pipher tells. But there are also knowing smiles and laughter at the unsentimental spunk and good sense of some of the elders we meet. We can learn from their unvarnished truth-telling.
"I wanted a particular tone, which is honest," Pipher says. "I wanted to confront the idea that time doesn't kid around and old age is a process of loss and diminishment, but that we can still have humor and good times."
And we can still learn. "The more we seeing dying, the better we will be able to do it," she says.
Besides, says Pipher, we will be judged by how we treat our elders.
"We teach our children by how we behave toward our parents. If we are not kind and emotionally available to our parents, our children won't be for us. They are watching us."
That is where the baby-boom generation is right now: caught in the vise between the children for whom they are caring and the parents they always assumed would take care of them.
They are stuck in a revolving door of neediness and duty. How are you supposed to get dinner on the table and supervise homework when your mother or father is miles away and dying by inches, and each ring of the phone stops your heart?
"And this generation has a hard time understanding that money doesn't buy the answer to that question," says Frances Lodder, program coordinator of the geriatric assessment clinic at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
Lodder counsels families in the same bind in which she finds herself. She is 57, a grandmother, thanks to her two older children, now 28 and 30. But she also has a 13-year-old at home.
That's the rock. The hard place is an 83-year-old mother who was independent until a medical crisis necessitated full-time in-home care, about which Lodder's mother is furious.
"My mother is dying in bits and pieces, and she wants me or my brother to take care of her. She doesn't want some stranger in the house providing that care. None of us is able to do that, and the guilt is driving us crazy," says Lodder.
"Money isn't the answer. We can hire someone to care for her, but my mother wants a family member there to reassure her."
Pipher makes the same point: Aging parents are not just a problem to solve, they are a link between us and all that has gone before. They represent our last chance to learn what we need to pass on to the future.
"There are three good arguments for why we should take care of our parents," she said. "It is deeply satisfying. You hear a lot of stories and a lot of healing gets done. If you can hang in there, toward the end important things are said, important things happen.
"It is deeply rewarding to be useful. Do it well, and we can feel pride in ourselves.
"And it is our last chance to grow up and our last big job before we face our own death. Watching our parents age and die teaches us how to do that."
For three years, she interviewed old people, counseled old people, let them cook for her, walked slowly with them in the fields and forests of their youth, drove them to their doctors' appointments, listened to their stories.
"Partly I explored the issues of aging to calm myself down. I want to be prepared," says Pipher. "I selected ordinary people who were coping with the standard amounts of loss and disability."
She found that the rapid change of the last century means that the old are dying to a world that bears no resemblance to the one to which they were born. New gender roles, new rules about sex, changing values -- not to mention technology -- cause many misunderstandings. Pipher lets the old people in her book tell us what the world was like when they were young and how connected they still feel to that time.
And she describes, in her plain talk, what it is like when everyone you love is in the cemetery and your body is quitting on you, part by part, and your dignity and independence are eroding beyond repair.
"The old don't suddenly develop bad personalities, they are overwhelmed by events," she writes. "Sometimes we just need to cut old people some slack."
Family relationships do not take on a rosy glow just because the sun is setting on a life. "I see families that have been in difficult relationships all their lives, but they are trying to make something that works," says Janet Kurland of Baltimore, who teaches an adult education class at the Johns Hopkins University on intergenerational issues and works as an elder-care consultant for Jewish Family Services.
Pipher writes with tenderness about families who find themselves in this place: "Nothing is abstract and distant. Everything hurts. These times are high risk for families, and everyone needs to use every coping tool they have at their disposal. Humor, exercise, good food and rest keep anxiety levels lower."
Pipher's answer would be a return to the kind of community aging parents remember, the kind where relatives lived close enough to care for each other, where the old were invigorated by the young and contributed to the commonweal.
"I have no expectations," she says. "People are not going to redesign institutions for the aging because of this book. But after he read it, my husband, Jim, called his sister and they went to see their parents and talked to them, and that is a small victory."
Pipher's research gave her the excuse -- and the great gift -- of spending time with her five living aunts and uncles. From them she learned many things -- from family pie recipes to family secrets.
And she learned how to view life from the distance, by looking back.
"I am practicing to be old," she says. "I try not to want too much, to find something to appreciate in every new day and to accept what I cannot change."
Hear author Mary Pipher
When: Thursday, March 18, 1999
Where: LeClerc Auditorium on the campus of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland
Time: 7 p.m. lecture; 8 p.m. sale and signing of "Another Country"
Price: Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door
For more information, call the Women's Institute at the college at 410-532-6090 between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Excerpt from "Another Country" by Mary Pipher:
Many people in rest homes or even in their own homes or apartments have almost no contact with anyone but other old people and/or their caregivers. Meanwhile, all over America we have young children hungry for "lap time" and other children who need the skills, the nurturing and the moral instruction of their elders. We have street gangs of 10-year-olds and old age ghettos in which our elders are more and more cut off from the real world. Children play with cyberpets while old women stare out of their windows at empty streets. Grandparents feel lonely and useless while a thousand miles away their grandchildren are not getting the love and attention they desperately need. There is a lot wrong with this picture. Each generation has its own gifts to share with all other generations. I wrote this book in the hope that it would inspire people to work on new ways to connect the generations.
Pub Date: 03/14/99