Why our elders live in 'Another Country'

Mary Pipher has always loved older people.

As a child, she treasured time with her grandmothers and maternal grandfather - planting corn, hiking through woods, listening to birds. As a student, she appreciated the company of a white-haired immigrant woman who taught her pottery-making after school. And as an adult, she renewed contact with five aunts in their 80s, calling these visits "among the best experiences of my life."

Now, as a baby boomer in the "mid-autumn" of her own life, and as a psychologist with older clients, Dr. Pipher sees aging from a broader perspective. Older people, she says, live in a different country, segregated not only physically but by their tempo and world view.

A generation that has lived "before television, cars, electricity, and the Green Revolution" honors different values and even speaks a different language, Pipher explains.

Older people consider self-sacrifice a virtue, she notes, while their children regard it as martyrdom. Adult children consider their parents uncommunicative, while parents watch their children "endlessly massaging" their "fragile egos." A generation whose thrift was shaped by the Depression also finds itself at odds with free-spending offspring raised in an era of plenty - and plastic. A youth-oriented culture only intensifies the differences.

Pipher, who first focused her attention on adolescent girls as the bestselling author of "Reviving Ophelia," now uses this foreign landscape of age as the leitmotif of her new book, "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders" (Riverhead, $24.95). Note the terminology: "our elders," not "the elderly." It's an important distinction. Pipher emphasizes the need for the elderly to become elders - people "who can help us find a deep structure for our communities."

Community is, in fact, her passion. Lamenting the "tremendous fragmentation and isolation that's come into our lives," she makes a persuasive case for roots, a reflection in part of her own deep ties to Lincoln, Neb., where she and her husband, Jim, live and where they raised their son and daughter, now in their 20s.

Pipher criticizes slick real estate pitches that lure retired people from their own communities. "There's a lot of money to be made by selling people condos in the Sun Belt," she says. "There's not money to be made by encouraging them to stay put, telling them they're going to miss their familiar landscape. You may be a little cold in winter, but there are worse things to being old than being cold."

Even when transplanted retirees enjoy their new environment - weather, recreation, friends - Pipher cautions that such relocations may not always be permanent. "Places that are good for the young-old are not necessarily good for the old-old. I really believe when you are old-old you need people around you who love you."

Noting that millions of older people will be making "hard decisions" about where to live, she says, "Consumers need a lot more education about housing."

They also need education about money, which she calls America's "big secret." "Many people will talk about their sex lives but not about money," Pipher says. "But there's a point at which they can't keep [their finances] private anymore." That can happen when an adult child gets power of attorney, handles assisted-living forms, or reads the stipulations of a will.

Pipher encourages parents and children to have honest discussions. "That doesn't mean people tell their children everything, but they tell them enough." She also emphasizes the importance of being open about wills.

As part of her book tour, Pipher appears on radio talk shows, where the subject often turns to caregiving. Her "No. 1 most common caller," she says, "is a 60-year-old exhausted woman who is taking care of one or more relatives. She's feeling alone and helpless." Making a case for "a lot more community support" for caregivers, she adds, "There's got to be a way we as a culture support them."

Pipher describes herself as "deeply, happily married." But she also sees the importance of maintaining individual interests as couples age. "No matter how close your marriage is, you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. If you lose your mate and your mate is your only friend, you'll be utterly bereft."

What does Pipher want for her own later years? The same things she cherishes now: roots. Although she concedes that she and her husband might eventually need to leave their three-story stone house ("there's no bedroom or bath on the first floor"), she expects that they would find another place within four blocks.

"I've got friends of a lifetime in Nebraska," she explains. "I don't know if my children will come back, but my husband's family is there. Plus, I've got a relationship with the landscape. I've got my walking trails, places where I watch the sun go down. I want to read, write, take walks, see my friends. I'm a very basic person."

She's also realistic. "I'm not a big fan of all the popular psychology, New Age hooey that says, 'If you just have the proper attitude you won't get old.' We'll all get old."

Still, she tries to remain hopeful. "We baby boomers are pretty good at taking care of ourselves," she says. "There is a spirit across the land. There is some real good energy about this."

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