June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

When her severely diabetic mother was hospitalized six years ago, Mary Pipher, now 51, experienced firsthand the frustrations that all too often divide older parents from their adult children. The noted psychologist and author of Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders recalls that generational differences—”how my mother approached simple things like asking for help “—made communication especially difficult.

Pipher, whose mother died in 1994, adds that the failure to confront and discuss such issues as money and health can saddle families with regret that never goes away. With average life expectancy now in the mid-70s and 2 million Americans turning 65 each year—a number that will skyrocket as the baby boom generation ages—the stakes are raised for families and society alike. Yet a recent study by the American Association of Retired Persons found that two out of three older parents had never even spoken with their children about the parents’ ability to live independently.

In researching her new book, Pipher was struck by the enormous value that older people place on the idea of community and on maintaining close relationships with friends and family members. Born in Beaver City, Neb., a tiny hamlet where her mother, Avis Bray, was the town doctor and her late father, Frank-Bray, was a farmer, Pipher earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1977 before becoming a family therapist. Today she lives with her husband, Jim Pipher, 48, a therapist and jazz bassist, in the brick house in Lincoln where they raised their now-grown children, Sara and Zeke; it was in this same house that she wrote 1994’s Reviving Ophelia, her book on the problems faced by teenage girls that later became a bestseller. “The older I get,” says Pipher, “the more sure I am that what really matters in life are the connections we have, not only with family, friends and neighbors but even with the person who sells you ground beef.”

Correspondent Margaret Nelson talked with Pipher about learning to speak with—and listen to—our aging loved ones.

You describe the world of the elderly as “another country.” What makes it so different?

The two key things that come between older people and their baby-boom children are the ways in which they view community and psychology. Most older people knew their neighbors, worked at the same jobs most of their lives, lived near family. But, generally, they don’t believe in psychologists. They figure people can work out their own problems. Boomers are much more comfortable talking about feelings, expressing pain, asking for what they need.

What are the main issues that need to be discussed with elderly parents?

It is very important for parents and children to discuss medical issues in detail—living wills, special health concerns. Also living arrangements—if parents have to leave their homes, where would they like to go? What can they afford? It is also important for parents to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing in their wills. This can help make sure that the family survives after they die.

What if parents and their children don’t get along?

No matter what your parents are like, you want to use the opportunity of their aging to try to resolve things. Don’t lose that chance. Even if it’s uncomfortable, make the effort. In my book I talk about a son who left home young and angry and never went back, not even when his parents were dying. As a result, he has to stay angry at them. It is the only way he can rationalize his behavior. I also write about a son who had a horrible mother, but he went to see her on her deathbed. They talked and he came away understanding her a little better and could let go of some of that anger.

What’s the best way to approach these potentially awkward encounters?

Many hospices offer a list of the thoughts and feelings that most parents and children need to express in the waning days and hours: Forgive me; I forgive you; I love you; thank you; and goodbye. This is our last chance, before our parents die, to put aside our own needs and take care of someone else.

Is it hard for older people to ask for help?

Yes. In general, they will go to great lengths not to express their wants or needs. That puts them in a terrible spot—to be old and to feel that it’s not appropriate to ask for help. We need to pay close attention, ask questions, read between the lines. When my mother was ill, she never complained about pain to her doctor. But she would tell me, and I would have to become her advocate.

How does such an unfamiliar role play out?

It creates tension. But any relationship that’s worth anything is complicated, which means that sometimes it is difficult. People born early in this century were taught to be team players, to conform, to get along. Baby boomers were raised to value individualism, to be assertive; but when we act that way, older people see us as selfish. When older people act as they’ve been socialized to act, we see them as chumps—passive, unassertive.

It sounds like a large gap to bridge.

Yes, it is. But I see many hopeful signs that baby boomers are making the effort. Everywhere I go, I hear people of my generation trying to figure out how to do right by their parents while raising children, managing a job, having some personal time. As a friend says, “I’m the one who has to take my mother to the doctor, hold her hand during the test. She needs me, not hired help.” A lot of caring for older people is like that. Long-distance phone calls and e-mail won’t cut it.

Are you optimistic for the baby boom generation as it ages?

I am. The culture is changing. I think our experience as older people will be better than it was for our parents.

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