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Book Review

Restating Obvious, but Not Useless, Solutions for Elderly

ANOTHER COUNTRY, Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders; by Mary Pipher;

Riverhead $24.95, 328 pages

April 23, 1999|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mary Pipher is a family psychologist whose 1994 book about adolescent girls, "Reviving Ophelia," became a bestseller. She followed that successful book with another in 1996, "The Shelter of Each Other," about the effect of contemporary American culture on family life.

With her new book "Another Country," Pipher will surely attract a lot of readers because it is about the fastest-growing segment of our population: the people who are old and getting older. Pipher tells her story anecdotally, using her clients, sometimes disguised, to make her points. She looks at issues that haunt many elderly people, even though they often remain tight-lipped about them: mental health, finances, living wills.

Her principal point might be borrowed from the British novelist E.M. Forster--"Only connect . . ."--for she believes that human beings are generally happier if they are connected with other human beings. If that seems obvious, well, it is: The whole book is a statement of obvious things, like love being better than hate, generosity better than avarice. She even says, in one section, that you should treat people as you want to be treated.

But in psychology books, being obvious is not the same as being useless, for people get themselves into terrible fixes by not doing the obvious thing. Pipher presents many such stories, but most of the time, she implies, she helps people out of the pits into which they've fallen by handing them a rope of common sense and kindness.

Pipher stresses the importance of connecting the old with the young. She makes much of the fact that the Lakota Indians believe their culture will decay unless the young and the old maintain a connection. It's a nice metaphor, though perhaps of limited utility. Most of us are not Lakota. We must deal with life as it is, not as an imagined, ideal state.

Pipher has an ahistorical tendency to idealize the past, which for her appears to be anything further back than 40 years ago. In the "old days" of her imagined world, families stayed in the same place and took care of one another. People believed in authority and religion, and no sense of irony created the cool distance between people that one feels so strongly today.

Pockets of her imagined world did exist at one time. But the country was more like it is today than she lets on: People moved about restlessly, leaving family behind in the search for a better life.

That part of her vision of the past is out of focus, though, does not mean that she does not have sound things to say about aging and older people. She often overstates her case. "We live in a time when community reconstruction is what will save us," she writes. Are we really so lost?

But the case for a tighter sense of community is sound; it is, in fact, what older people, or at least those who have the means, are finding for themselves. In retirement communities people are banding together in clubs and associations of every conceivable hue, from chess to weaving to swimming to bird-watching.

Pipher is on the mark, though, when she points out that in a society as mobile as this one, the bonds between generations are looser than they should be. Writing of misunderstandings between parents and children, she shrewdly says that they often arise because each generation is looking at "old pictures" of the other, the parent perhaps remembers when the child was careless about money, the child remembers when the parent was in control, whereas now the roles are reversing.

Pipher readily acknowledges that old age, especially very great age, can be a horror. But kindness and paying attention to the needs of older people is good not just for them, Pipher ardently believes, but for the younger generations too.

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