It is tough to be old in a culture that is as youth-obsessed as this one. The old are practically invisible. They are driven out of the work force before their usefulness is ended; they are separated from children and grandchildren by transient lives; and they are segregated in assisted living communities where there is no work to give them purpose and there are no young people to engage them.
When parents, whose aging has proceeded almost unnoticed by their children, suffer a health crisis, those children suddenly face the end of life in the most painful way.
This is what happened to Mary Pipher.
The heartland psychologist, whose plain-talking, sensible voice was first heard in "Reviving Ophelia," buried her own mother almost six years ago after a decline that wasn't particularly well-handled by either the living or the dying.
"By the time she died, I felt a weird combination of stressed to my limits and ashamed I hadn't done more," Pipher writes. "I spent a year tired, anxious and sad. And then I lost my mother."
Pipher, who lives and counsels families in Lincoln, Neb., processed her uneasy grief and her newfound preoccupation with aging in a way many might not choose. She immersed herself in stories from old people whose lives were ebbing away, and in the family members who, as she had, faced new kinds of guilt and sadness.
"I am 51 and I have gray hair and wrinkles and I am getting old, too," she said in a recent interview. "I wanted to learn about that process.
"I deal with my anxiety by studying it. Writing is thinking for me, and I wanted to think through these issues in a way that was useful."
She was in the midst of raising a teen-age daughter when she wrote "Reviving Ophelia" and identified the cultural stresses that are warping the straight backs and square shoulders of our daughters.
In her new book, "Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders," she again draws a map of the human heart, using the stories of real people and her wise-woman reflections on them. But this time, she leads baby boomers to a place they have never been. All of them have been young, but none has been old and it shows in the misdirected and often misanthropic way they treat their elders.
"This is not a 'You are only as young as you feel' kind of book," she says. There is sadness and intensity in the old people's stories Pipher tells. But there are also knowing smiles and laughter at the unsentimental spunk and good sense of some of the elders we meet. We can learn from their unvarnished truth-telling.
"I wanted a particular tone, which is honest," Pipher says. "I wanted to confront the idea that time doesn't kid around and old age is a process of loss and diminishment, but that we can still have humor and good times."
And we can still learn. "The more we seeing dying, the better we will be able to do it," she says.
Besides, says Pipher, we will be judged by how we treat our elders.
"We teach our children by how we behave toward our parents. If we are not kind and emotionally available to our parents, our children won't be for us. They are watching us."
That is where the baby-boom generation is right now: caught in the vise between the children for whom they are caring and the parents they always assumed would take care of them.
They are stuck in a revolving door of neediness and duty. How are you supposed to get dinner on the table and supervise homework when your mother or father is miles away and dying by inches, and each ring of the phone stops your heart?
"And this generation has a hard time understanding that money doesn't buy the answer to that question," says Frances Lodder, program coordinator of the geriatric assessment clinic at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
Lodder counsels families in the same bind in which she finds herself. She is 57, a grandmother, thanks to her two older children, now 28 and 30. But she also has a 13-year-old at home.
That's the rock. The hard place is an 83-year-old mother who was independent until a medical crisis necessitated full-time in-home care, about which Lodder's mother is furious.
"My mother is dying in bits and pieces, and she wants me or my brother to take care of her. She doesn't want some stranger in the house providing that care. None of us is able to do that, and the guilt is driving us crazy," says Lodder.
"Money isn't the answer. We can hire someone to care for her, but my mother wants a family member there to reassure her."
Pipher makes the same point: Aging parents are not just a problem to solve, they are a link between us and all that has gone before. They represent our last chance to learn what we need to pass on to the future.
"There are three good arguments for why we should take care of our parents," she said. "It is deeply satisfying. You hear a lot of stories and a lot of healing gets done. If you can hang in there, toward the end important things are said, important things happen.
"It is deeply rewarding to be useful. Do it well, and we can feel pride in ourselves.