As a person growing old more rapidly than he cares to contemplate, I can tell you that no one in his youth or even early middle age thinks he will ever get old. It is a beneficial trick life plays on us, because if we comprehended then what awaits us, we would abandon everything out of shock. Once we get there, or close to there, however, it doesn't matter; it is all right; the intervening years have cushioned the shock.
Even the sight of friends and relatives in their old age does not convince us. To help us understand this realm that we think we will never inhabit, Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, has written Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders (Simon ∧ Schuster Audio, $18, 0671044753).
Another Country is an exceptionally helpful and instructive book, written in a matching workmanlike style. Stories of people confronting old age, either their own or others', form its heart, though one that at times tends to bleed. The stories come from interviews and therapy sessions that Pipher, who is 50 and lives in Nebraska, held with mostly rural Midwesterners, both black and white, in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, and in all stages and conditions of life poor, healthy, sick, wealthy.
I wanted to learn about our community-based country that has almost vanished, and also to understand the country of old age, Pipher writes. Because, she says a few pages later, as a nation, we are not organized in a way that makes aging easy. Indeed we are not. The twin topics of Pipher's book are the segregation of the young from the old and the consequent difficulties this segregation makes for the elderly and those who care for them.
The young, of course, have always done things differently from the old, but Pipher suggests, and I think rightly, that perhaps never before have the two generations been so far removed in body, mind, and spirit, as they are in America today, to the immeasurable detriment of both.
The author and the people she talks to have many examples of the generational differences, but to me the most telling remark is made early on in the book.
Our parents' generation was pre-irony, Pipher writes. Irony implies a distance between one's words and one's world, a cool remove that is a late-century phenomenon . . . [Freud] gave my generation the notion that underneath one idea is another, that behind our surface behavior is a different motive . . . But many people older than a certain age grew up believing that the surface is all there is. This may make it sound as if the young are clever and the elderly gullible, but her implication seems to be rather that irony has introduced a slickness inimical to plain and forthright dealing. People born early in the century, she writes, are the last Americans to grow up in a world in which all behavior mattered. Her great concern is that we get together ( communities keep people healthy; without community there is no morality ), and in her suggestions for achieving this, the advantage falls to the practices of our elders (a word she prefers to elderly ). In nothing is this more true than in the matter of physical closeness.
The book discusses many other significant subjects: the importance of the grandparent/grandchild relationship; the profound differences between the young-old (in their sixties and seventies) and the old-old (eighties and nineties); the assertion that rest homes are the concrete embodiment of failed social and cultural policies toward the old. As for the elders themselves, I could have composed a column of their comments alone and produced a review of this book at least as good as the dithyramb above. But for a parting shot I'll limit myself to this, from Bette Davis, because it captures both the central difficulty of the aged the waning of powers and the qualities, like resiliency and fortitude, they summon to deal with it: Old age, La Belle Davis said, isn't for sissies. Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.