Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders

By Mary Pipher

Riverhead. 328 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Beryl Lieff Benderly

Psychologist Mary Pipher is best known for Reviving Ophelia, her mega-bestselling study of adolescent girls named for that most heartbreaking of Shakespeare's creations, the gifted but fragile young woman who loved Hamlet. In the same Shakespearean vein, she could have called this new book "Dispatching Polonius," after the dim, irritating, ineffectual old blowhard of that same play. Her revealing study of people above retirement age dismantles many of the cartoonish stereotypes prevalent among the young, the middle-aged, and the mass media. To understand and appreciate old people, Pipher shows, one must discard preconceptions of them as stuffy, stupid and stagnant, and consider the experiences, values and expectations that shaped those who grew up in this century's early decades.

But why should her intended audience, baby boomers now in midlife, care to take that trouble? Pipher offers two reasons, neither of them altruistic. First, many now in their forties and fifties are struggling to care for parents who have become, through illness or frailty, unable to care for themselves. Making good medical and care decisions, maintaining or improving relationships, and, frequently, simply keeping the strain of this role reversal from driving everyone crazy require that the often reluctant caregivers learn what motivates their often even more reluctant charges, and thus figure out what might make them happy or at least content. Second, people now in middle age -- at least the lucky ones -- will all too soon find themselves depending on their own children and on the institutions that now so inadequately meet old people's needs.

Today's seniors, Pipher astutely points out, are facing perhaps the most difficult developmental stage in their lives. And their historical experiences and cultural understandings are almost diametrically opposite those of the baby boomers responsible for their welfare. Born before radio and raised among close, extended families in tight rural communities or city neighborhoods, they were trained to see group interests as equal to or more important than their own, to make do in difficult circumstances, to act cheerfully and think optimistically, to maintain appearances, and to keep their troubles to themselves.

Motivations and moral categories appeared straightforward in that pre-Freudian world, Pipher notes. Deprivation and sacrifice, not self-fulfillment and exploration, dominated their youth, as they helped their families scrimp through the Depression and then gave their all for the war effort. As children they were seen and not heard; as adolescents and young adults they kept their sunny sides up and looked for the silver lining. A cultural chasm separates them from offspring who spent their own young years tuning in, turning on and dropping out and their middle ones getting in touch with their inner child. It yawns wide in the many painful conflicts that Pipher recounts from her psychology practice. Furthering the misunderstanding are the bitter losses and harsh adjustments required of people who have reached the stage that Pipher calls old-old age, when health, work, friends and any hope of independence are mostly gone.

This combination of cultural and psychological factors is this excellent book's greatest strength. Pipher explores how today's mobile, individualistic, media-drenched culture prevents so many dependent old people, and the relatives trying to do right by them, from getting what they need. She is especially acute at spotting pressure points where culture, both past and present, collides cruelly with individual emotional needs. Her insights will help people of several generations understand that certain problems arise from historical circumstance rather than personal failings. Many will also benefit from her very sound advice on specific issues and problems.

She is rather less effective, though, when she ponders what we as a society can do to make things better. Her analysis rarely goes beyond exhorting individuals and institutions to act and think differently than they now do, an approach that ignores the book's central point: Today's problems arise from the hard realities of a rapidly changing social and economic system. No less than the old, the young and middle-aged are formed by historical circumstances they cannot control. Improving care and services for the dependent old will take more than good intentions and psychological insights, though they, of course, will help. Some of the changes that Pipher suggests could not come about without major, and rather improbable, restructuring of society's institutions and priorities.

But the effort to understand old people can still pay very rich rewards, Pipher amply demonstrates, if only for what we can learn from their wisdom and resilience. After all, even that seeming fool Polonius offered his son matchless counsel in unforgettable language. To gain the gifts that the aged can afford us, Pipher shows, we must, both as individuals and as a society, revise our concept of old age and renew our connections with aged people. There is, as she poignantly phrases it, an enormous difference between seeing people as the elderly and seeing them as our society's elders.

Beryl Lieff Benderly's most recent books are "The Growth of the Mind" and "In Her Own Right: The IOM Guide to Women's Health Issues."