Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders Summary

Mary Pipher


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although most of psychologist Mary Pipher’s personal and professional experiences have been confined to one conservative, largely homogeneous agrarian state, she views her clients’ cases in a broader perspective as social problems that are not unique to isolated individuals. Pipher, who maintains a private practice in Lincoln, Nebraska, and serves as a faculty member of the University of Nebraska, where she received her Ph.D., initially received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley but quickly returned to her native Nebraska. Her interest in anthropology helps explain her interest in group problems and interrelations. When the University of Nebraska offered her a five-year fellowship in psychology, she happily changed her career direction. “I am just a therapist to the bone,” she once told an interviewer. “I’m fascinated by people. I love to listen to people’s stories and, modestly speaking, I’m very good at problem solving.”

Another Country is full of anecdotes reminiscent of the vox-pop fillers and “Life in These United States” features in the Reader’s Digest. Pipher even includes a recipe for “Sally’s Surprise Muffins,” which ninety-year-old Sally Gordon fills with dates, nuts, dried apricots, raisins, apples, and other surprises. Pipher’s prose style, too, strongly resembles that of Reader’s Digest in its folksy, upbeat simplicity. She writes in short, telegraphic sentences that never contain a trace of professional jargon. Consider, for example, her view on Americans and work: “Americans have odd attitudes toward work. Endless leisure leads to apathy and despair. What feels good to most people is being useful.” People have family problems, yes, but a little Nebraskan-style common sense and a little bit of talking things through can work wonders. Her buoyant, unwavering optimism, which is projected in her grinning photograph on the back flap of the dust jacket, surfaces throughout Another Country. The reader should not be surprised to find a tribute to North Dakota- born bandleader Lawrence Welk and his “champagne music,” though Pipher acknowledges that “his critics, most of whom fled the Midwest to escape people like Welk, were relentless.”

Pipher seems unlikely to flee the Midwest for Park Avenue, though she is doing very well as a best-selling author. She likes the people, and they like her. She tells of how she and her elderly mother-in-law “sat toward the back of the church and laughed until tears ran down our faces.” She laughs pretty easily at the cracker-barrel humor of the many old folks she knows socially or professionally, and she gives examples of the “colorful language” that makes the tears run down her face.

When I asked Uncle Clair if he still went to Denver, he replied, “I didn’t lose anything in Denver so I don’t need to go back.” My old neighbor was once “so broke he couldn’t pay attention.” My friend Ray Barger spoke of a man “who wasn’t crazy but would do until crazy gets here.” My friend Jim Peterson quoted an old buddy as saying, “He’s so cheap he wouldn’t pay a nickel to watch an ant eat a bale of hay.”

Pipher’s book is also full of quotations from a wide range of sources. The title is derived from the feminist poet Linda Hogan, who wrote: “I wake up in another country, there is no more north or south. Asleep we pass through one another like blowing snow, all of us, all.” Pipher reminds her readers that the oldest people grew up in a different world without automobiles, airplanes, telephones, television, electricity, antibiotics, or psychotherapy. She always speaks of them as “our elders,” not “senior citizens” or “the elderly,” because her main thesis centers on the need for a sense of community. “Community is, in fact, her passion,” as Marilyn Gardner observes in theChristian Science Monitor. Pipher deplores the fact that so many of our elders are pressured to move away from homes and families to places such as Florida, where they have the awesome task of readjusting to an environment of other uprooted strangers.

She repeatedly distinguishes between the “old-old” and the “young-old.” The old-old are those who have become mentally and physically debilitated because of serious illness, loss of a spouse, financial disaster, or some other traumatic event. They look and feel old. They seem to be waiting to die. Such people cannot readjust to a new environment and would be much happier in their old environment, even if they had to put up with cold winters. Forced retirement, she notes, can quickly turn the young-old, particularly men, into the old-old. “When men who have had no activities outside of work retire, they have nothing useful to do. If they have had few relationships outside of...

(The entire section is 1978 words.)