Caring Currents

Understanding What It Means to Be Old

Last updated: Oct 02, 2008

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When my children were very young, the parenting books I valued most were those that helped me understand what the world looked like from a child's point of view (books by Penelope Leach, and The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg come to mind.) Now that I'm the parent of two teenagers and a teen wannabe, I reach in moments of distress for Get Out of My Life, by Anthony Wolf, which helps me comprehend the often-baffling workings of the teenage brain.

So far, I've found two (nonfiction) books that provide an empathetic and illuminating perspective on aging. I've already discussed one of these books here: How to Say it to Seniors by expert David Solie.

The other book I return to again and again is Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, by psychologist Mary Pipher. In her book, Pipher shows how our mobile, fast-paced, and fragmented modern culture has failed to create a productive, meaningful role for older people, and instead shoves them aside and ignores, infantilizes, or isolates them. 

American ideas about independence and self-sufficiency, Pipher argues, stigmatize the elderly: "In our culture we provide almost no graceful ways for adults to ask for help. We make it almost impossible to be dependent yet dignified, respected, and in control. As people age, they may need help with everything from their finances to their driving…. Many would rather pay strangers, do without help, or even die than be dependent on those they love. They don't want to be a burden, the greatest of American crimes."

The title, Another Country, refers to the invisible border people cross as they age. Pipher describes the alienation and loneliness of this terrain in vivid terms, but she also offers suggestions for ways to traverse the generational divide: "We need a word for the neediness of the old-old, a word with less negative connotations than dependency, a word that connotes wisdom, connection, and dignity. Dependency could become mutuality or interdependency. We can say to the old, 'You need us now, but we needed you and we will need our children. We need each other.'"

I recommend Pipher's book to those of you who are caring for a senior -- in fact, I recommend it to everyone, since we all have elderly people in our lives, and with luck, we'll all grow old ourselves one day. Let me know what you think.

Image by Flickr user Ashley Dinges used under the Creative Commons attribution license.