May 14, 1999
DAVID GERGEN: Mary, thank you for coming. You, over the last few years, have not only explored old age with a lot of members of your own family, but you've talked to scores of other people who are old, and you've now written a book called "Another Country." And you've essentially suggested that old people are living in another country; they're segregated off. Can you describe that landscape for us?
MARY PIPHER, Author, "Another Country:" Well, I use the phrase "another country" two ways, one to refer to the country old people come from. They come from a country of community, where everybody knew their neighbors, knew people for a long time, where people were citizens more than consumers, and also a pre-psychology country. So it's a very different place than the country us baby boomers were raised in. The other country is the country of old age. Old people tend to be segregated. When I talk to them, they say things like "Don't call me 'old.' That's such a bad word," or "I feel invisible now that I'm old." We have a tendency in this country to segregate people by age. We put our three-year-olds in one set of buildings, our 14-year-olds in another set and our 80-year-olds in another set. And my own personal belief is when we do that, we all lose. Tolstoy said, "Each age has its own kind of love." It also has its own skills, its own wisdom. And I think by separating people the way we do, we lose a lot as the culture.
DAVID GERGEN: Mm-hmm. That sense of community, and the loss of community, is a theme that runs through your book, that they grew up with a sense of community and now feel almost abandoned, many people who are older. Is that the predominant feeling you find out there?
MARY PIPHER: It's very true that people who are over, say, about 70 grew up in a world of people they knew well. And you see all sorts of funny cultural collisions between their ideas about the world and us younger people's ideas. For example, I was riding a plane one time. I was sitting next to an old lady from Tupelo, Mississippi. She had on a plaid, pleated skirt, little pillbox hat, lots of makeup, a purse on her lap. She started talking to me on the plane. And I, like most business travelers, am thinking, "Why is she bothering me?" (Laughs) "Doesn't she know the rules on a plane? We are just cattle on this plane. We don't bother each other." She talks to me the whole way. She tells me her husband died years ago. She flew with him; he'd hold her hand. Then when we finally land, she introduces me to her family in baggage claim. It shocks the heck out of them, because, of course, people don't do that either. But later I was thinking about it. My first reaction was, "Doesn't she have any boundaries?" Then I realized, wait a minute, she grew up in a world where people talked to everybody. You would no more sit down beside someone and not visit with them than you would suck your thumb or run around naked. You talked to the people in your world. We don't live in that kind of world now. We move among strangers. One of the implications of that, by the way, is we're less kind to each other. There is an old Russian saying "The tears of a stranger are only water." We would be kinder if we knew the experiences of the people we encounter, but most of the time don't.
DAVID GERGEN: How have you found that people who are baby boomers, have been most successful in breaking down the boundaries and re-establishing, reconnecting with their parents?
MARY PIPHER: Well, the two main things that older people need, I think, are time and touch. And so one of the best things you can do if you want to be connected to your parents is give them the great gift of time; also, of course, physical affection and the great gift of children and younger people in their lives. But in terms of these generational divides that I got so interested in, the main thing I think is important is to realize that the differences aren't about pathology, they aren't about character structure, they're about the culture. Both generations act the way they've been taught was proper to act, and they are both doing their best. It's just that the ideas about good behavior are different. Do we have time for one more story?
DAVID GERGEN: Sure.
MARY PIPHER: Can I tell one more story?
DAVID GERGEN: Sure.
MARY PIPHER: A reporter told me this story. It's such a good example of the differences. Her father is dying. She wants to have a good last conversation with him. She flies across the country. She is an intense baby boomer -- processor, an emoter -- so she runs into the ICU. Her father's going to expire the next day. She says to him, "Father, I'm here to say good-bye." Her dad, who's full of tubes and about to die, looks at her, winks, and goes "Toodle-loo," and makes a joke of it. She was furious at him. We baby boomers, we like to talk. We like to have these authentic conversations. Our parents were programmed: Keep a stiff upper lip; put on your dancing shoes and go dancing. That's how you deal with stuff.
DAVID GERGEN: You had a quote from a book about the Lakota Indians.
MARY PIPHER: Absolutely. That is from my friend, Joe Starida, who studied the Lakota Sioux. He was up visiting the reservation. He was sitting with a fellow on a Sunday afternoon when the guy's children pulled in, in two pickup trucks -- the boys in one, the girls in the other. The boys get out. They wash his car, they start raking his yard. The daughters come inside. They make him soup and sandwiches for the week, clean up his house. He doesn't hardly bat an eye. He assumes his children will take care of him that way. And my friend, who's a non-Lakota, realized that the difference has to do with cultural beliefs about elderly people. He said, for starters there's a tremendous difference between the word "elder," the Lakota word, and the non-Lakota American word "elderly." One of the things I try to say in this book is we need new language to talk about old people. I like the word "elder." The other word I really like is "grandparent," because most of us feel very good toward grandmother, toward grandfather, so it's a word that softens younger people's attitudes toward the elderly.
DAVID GERGEN: But our grandparents, then, do have an awful lot of wisdom to give us. I love the quote you had from Alex Haley about -- "The death of an old person is like the burning of a library."
MARY PIPHER: Oh, yes. Or here's another quote I like: "My parents were always telling me to hurry up; my grandparents were always telling me to slow down." You know, it's funny, but most people when they think about their grandparents -- I mean, there's a few unlucky people who had bad grandparents. Most people had good grandparents. And when they start talking about their grandmother's cooking or the place their grandparents lived, their eyes go soft, their voice softens. They remember it as a safe house, a calm, quiet place in the universe.
DAVID GERGEN: You made another point about the fact that if one learns to treat one's parents well and to establish that interconnectedness, it actually teaches your children something important.
MARY PIPHER: You know, I try to make an argument to us boomers that there's four important reasons to take care of our aging parents. One is to heal any old rifts, to take care of family business, to know about the family, and so on. Another is to grow up. It's our last chance to really grow up. You know, a lot of us, we haven't been through a Depression, we haven't been through a war; we've had kind of cushy lives. Seeing your parents die, that's hard, and it gives us a chance to do something hard. The third reason is we can learn about the country of old age because we will be there sometime. And the final reason is we can teach our children how we want to be treated. So I think there's very many good reasons to do it.
DAVID GERGEN: Let me ask you one last question. What's the best way to learn to say good-bye?
MARY PIPHER: You know, that's such a good question. I love the hospice tasks. You know, hospice says there's five things you should do when you say good-bye. You should say, "Forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, good-bye, and thank you." Those are very good guidelines for what to do when you say good-bye.
DAVID GERGEN: Mary Pipher, thank you.
MARY PIPHER: Thank you very much.