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Aging Offers Women 'Enormous Possibilities For Growth,' Says Author

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Mary Pipher has written a new book about women in their 60s and early 70s who, like her, are transitioning from middle age to old age. Pipher is 71. She writes that chronological age is not as important as health. In the 21st century, women often consider themselves middle-aged well into their 60s until they suffer a major health crisis or the loss of someone they love. Her new book is about finding new strategies for a new stage of life in which your body is changing; you may no longer be doing the things you built your identity on, like pursuing your career or raising children; and you may be losing people you love.

Twenty-five years ago when Pipher's daughter was a teenager, she wrote the bestseller "Reviving Ophelia" about the stresses and anxieties faced by teenage girls. When Pipher was taking care of her aging and sick mother, she wrote the book "Another Country" about the issues faced by adult children caring for parents. When Pipher was a therapist, she worked primarily with women. At the University of Nebraska, she taught psychology of women and sex roles and gender. Her new book is called "Women Rowing North."

Mary Pipher, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, we've spoken three times. The first time was for "Reviving Ophelia," your book about teenagers and teenage girls and the stresses that they go through. The second time was a book about people who are aging and the younger people who care for them. So it's like the second book was about dealing with parents or grandparents who are aging and needing help.

MARY PIPHER: "Another Country." Yeah.

GROSS: "Another Country," it was called. This book is about aging yourself and the issues that other aging women like yourself deal with. And I'm just interested in the shift in perspective from the second book that we spoke about - about helping people who are aging, like your parents - to this book where you're writing about your own cohort and yourself.

PIPHER: Well, of course, I see things a lot differently now than when I was younger and sometimes frustrated by my aging mother. My father died before he had a chance to age, but my mother did age and had many of the problems of aging people. She fell. She had very bad osteoporosis. She had some brain damage. She was ill and in a hospital a long time. And she was of a generation where the main way of coping was stoicism, and there was very little attempt to discuss pain in any way. It was also a generation that was very unassertive in their relationship to authority.

So there's two different things. One is, I'm now 71. I'm the age my mother was when she was in her rapid decline in health. And so I have much more empathy with her in terms of things like being afraid to break a bone, walking very carefully on the ice, becoming a much more cautious person, having some memory issues.

And then the other thing, of course, is I was writing about my mother's generation in comparison to my baby boomer generation. Now, the baby boomer generation has come to this life stage, and we're very different than our parents' generation. We're much more assertive. We have higher expectations for ourselves. We certainly anticipate a longer lifespan. I mean, one of the issues that was very interesting to me as I wrote this book is I have great many friends who are retiring at 65 or around 65, and some of them expect to live 30 more years. Well, 30 years is a third of a lifetime. And so the old traditional models we have about what people do after they retire don't look very fulfilling or interesting. I mean, nobody really wants to sit around and play bridge for 30 years.

GROSS: I think as you get older, you feel less resilient because your body is aging, and it's not as resilient as it was. But I think you're trying to say you have to become more emotionally resilient as you get older to deal with the stresses of aging and with the physical diminishment that eventually you're going to face.

PIPHER: Well, first of all, a lot of women, by the time they're my age, have some sort of disability. In my case, it's my hands. But one of the things that I realized since I wrote this book about my mother is that we aren't in either or categories. At that time, I believed you're pretty much in young old age until you lose your health, and then you're in old, old age. But now that I'm actually here, I see that we all start losing our health one way or another and that, in fact, what most of us are able to do is find workarounds.

So for example, in my case, I can't write the way I used to. My hands are just too broken for that. But what I have figured out are all kinds of other ways to write, and part of it is rationing the amount of time of day I write. Part of it is hiring assistants to come in and sit at the typewriter by me. So there's a lot of ways that we work around these issues of aging.

On the other hand, what happens is we may have more challenges in this life stage. But we also have seven decades, in many cases, of acquiring coping skills and resilience skills. And one of the interesting facts about women my age is we're the happiest demographic in America. In general, people tend to get happier as they age and stay happier right up until the very end. But women tend to be happier than men as they age. We also have learned by our age...

GROSS: Wait. I'm going to stop you right there...

PIPHER: Please.

GROSS: ...Because I want to ask you about the happiness issue.

PIPHER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Why do you think older women are happier when they're older than they were when they were younger? Is that what you're saying?

PIPHER: Absolutely. I'm saying that it gets also - statistical fact - I'm not...

GROSS: Right.

PIPHER: ...Just hypothesizing.

GROSS: But what accounts for that - 'cause, you know, it seems counterintuitive.

PIPHER: Well, first of all, I think it's - it really starts with, what do you think the nature of happiness is? And I think happiness is a choice and a set of skills. And I don't say this as a person who was born naturally sunny, and I certainly don't say it as somebody who's happy all the time. But I have learned by several decades of life...

GROSS: Parentheses here - like, in your family tree, you say there's depression, psychosis, suicide, alcoholism. So yeah. You're not from, like, a sunny...

PIPHER: No.

GROSS: ...Sunny, happy, happy family tree.

PIPHER: By no means - and I certainly am not arguing now, Terry, that, oh, I'm one of the happiest persons on earth. Listen to me.

GROSS: Right.

PIPHER: What I'm saying is I really feel like after all these years of being a therapist and watching my friends grow and develop and seeing the directions they take and then doing this book where I interviewed so many older women that I have a pretty strong sense for what makes people happy. The first part of it is making a choice to be happy - just deciding that that's a life goal, that I'm going to be happy. I'm going to do everything I can to make my life as good as I can.

And then it's a set of skills. And one set of skills, for example, is humor and just figuring out how to laugh about things. Another skill is figuring out ways to have meaning and purpose in one's life. Another skill is the ability to have friends, hopefully of all generations. But many women have women friends - close women friends. And I call close women friends my mental health insurance policy because they're so important. Another very important happiness skill is simply having reasonable expectations. My aunt Grace said, I get what I want, but I know what to want.

GROSS: I think from having read your book, the part of what keeps you feeling happier now is redefining happiness more as contentment than as, like, joy - you know, than as, like, wow; that was really fabulous. I'm so happy.

PIPHER: Well, yes and no. I actually would say that at this point in my life, not only myself - I'm never speaking quite for myself when I'm talking about this. I'm speaking for a lot of people that I know...

GROSS: Right, 'cause you've done a lot of interviews for the book.

PIPHER: Right. But actually...

GROSS: And you're a therapist.

PIPHER: ...Women my age, for the most part, experience more joy and bliss than younger women. And I could give you a couple examples of that. One of them is I had a friend who was dying of cancer, and she came over to my house for one last walk. She knew she wouldn't be around very long, and she was getting together with her family for a weekend at a state park. But she wanted to see me, and she was in a really good patch.

So she came over to my house. She had a lot of trouble to walking. But I live on a lake, and we walked down to this lake. It was in October. And as we sat on a bench down there, the sun was going down, and the tall grasses were illuminated by the sun. And if you've ever seen tall, big bluestem and the beautiful natural grasses - prairie grasses we have in Nebraska illuminated by the sun, they just glow golden and silver. And my friend said, isn't this a perfect moment? And she started to cry. And she said, it's so beautiful.

Well, that is a capacity that we're much more likely to have at 70 than we are at 40. Part of it's a matter of time. When I was 40 and a young mother and a full-time job, I just barely could make it to the bathroom. And I didn't have much time to sit around and experience the light of grasses at sunset. Or my current custom is I get up and drink a cup of coffee for half an hour in the morning and just look out at the dawn and think and enjoy the gorgeous moment I'm in.

Well, I didn't have that kind of time. But part of it is also a sense that the runway is short and that what - with what time we have left, we want to deeply savor every experience we have.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Pipher. She's a clinical psychologist, the author of the bestseller "Reviving Ophelia," about teenage girls and the stresses that they experience. Then she wrote a book about people taking care of their aging parents or grandparents, and that was called "Another Country."

Her new book, now that she's in her early 70s, is about the transition into aging and into old age. And it's based on her experiences and on the experiences of many women who she's interviewed, as well as friends. That book is called "Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents And Flourishing As We Age." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOUNTAIN GOATS' "PEACOCKS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist who also taught for many years at the University of Nebraska, focusing on issues related to girls and women. Her new book is kind of part of a trilogy of books, starting with "Reviving Ophelia," about the stresses teenage girls experience, and then "Another Country," about the stresses people experience when they're taking care of their elders, like their aging parents. But this new book, "Women Rowing North," is about the transition into old age, and she writes from her own experiences and from the experiences of the many women she's interviewed and of friends.

So one of the things you're dealing with in your early 70s is chronic pain. You referred earlier to your hands having issues. And you were surprised to get the diagnosis that you'd always be in pain, and you'd always have trouble using your hands in the way that you were used to using them. You have trouble writing now, for example, and you're a writer - I mean, physically writing.

So you have workarounds to help you with the fact that you can't use your hands to write. But what about dealing with chronic pain? It's easy to obsess on that. It's easy for pain to crowd out other thoughts. And chronic pain is something a lot of older people have to learn to live with. People don't want to get addicted to opioids, for obvious reasons. Even things like over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, it's not great to take those over long periods of time. So talk about chronic pain and learning not to let it preoccupy you.

PIPHER: Well, you know, my last visit with my hand surgeon - after we'd done all we could, at the point my hands were really shot - I said, am I always going to have pain? And he said, you know, Mary, he said, I always have pain. He said, I've been doing these delicate hand surgeries for years, and I'm a pianist. I play for the symphony in Omaha. And he said, my hands hurt every day. And he said, the pain isn't going to be unbearable, and if you can figure out a way to deal with it, you're going to enjoy the rest of your life.

And one of the ways to deal with chronic pain is simply focus on other things. And I love the phrase subject change. And at a certain point, many of us are skillful enough that when we're thinking about a certain subject, we can just go subject change and move to another subject. So I don't focus on it very much.

In fact, when I think about my hands, I try to remember some advice that my friends have given me, which is to be extraordinarily grateful for the enormous amount of hard work they've done to me and to thank my hands for their many years of service and to reassure them that I will do everything I can to take care of them.

Now, I want to say I'm not in terrible chronic pain, and there's people have worse pain than me. But between a certain kind of attitude toward pain and towards also real good planning around pain management, more pain is bearable. And more people experience pain that never actually speak of it than you would imagine.

GROSS: Is your problem arthritis or something else?

PIPHER: It's a multiple set of problems. I've had my thumb joints rebuilt. I have carpal tunnel. I have arthritis. It's just everything. The main thing is I've just worked very, very hard all my life. I started doing heavy work in high school. I was a A&W carhop, and I was carrying great, big heavy trays down a long runway and putting them on cars. And later, I was a fry cook, and I cooked through college and was a waitress. I wrote through a Ph.D. I was a real chronic studier. And then all those years I was a therapist, I took notes. And then by the time I've written 10 books, in my case, what that means is I've written 100 books and thrown away all but 90 of them.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

PIPHER: So I've just worn out my hands, and that sometimes happens. They just wear out from overwork - not enough ligament left to support hands and so on.

GROSS: People are living to longer ages now than their parents did because of new breakthroughs in medical technology. So retirement is longer. People who stay married are married longer than previous generations because their life expectancy is longer, their lifespan is typically longer. And so couples often live together for many years as retirees and spend many more hours together than they ever did before as a married couple.

And especially, like, if you're raising children, it's kind of, like, tag-team sometimes. (Laughter) Like, you're not spending much time together as a couple during those really active child-rearing years. So have you seen a lot of marriages change in surprising ways during the years of retirement?

PIPHER: Well, first of all, one thing that's really interesting is a lot of people get divorced because at the point their children are raised, at the point they quit their job, they realize, you know, this isn't really the person I want to spend 25 more years with. And they're at a point where they're young enough to consider they could build a new life. And they're old enough that they don't want to waste time. So the divorce rate is, actually, pretty high in my life stage given previous divorce rates for older couples. Then, of course, there's couples who somehow stay together, even though they aren't very happy together. And I don't know too many couples like that, I'm happy to say.

But I'll tell you what I have noticed about couples who stay together is there often is a sweetness that comes into those relationships that was never there before. And part of it comes from simply taking better care of each other and realizing this person has meant a lot to me over my lifetime. And I want to be good to them, and I want to take care of them. And I know that our fates are intertwined. And the better I am to this person, the better the relationship will be and the better my own quality of life will be.

GROSS: What frightens you most about aging?

PIPHER: You know, what frightens me by far the most about aging is losing people I love. That's always been a tremendously difficult issue for me. We had a brother-in-law of mine die of brain cancer in his - he was a soccer player. He was 28 and a soccer player. And he died of brain cancer. And that knocked me out for about a year. And last year, my daughter moved with her family, my two young grandchildren, up to Canada. And it was tremendously difficult for me. I have not yet lost a sibling. I can't imagine losing a sibling. I haven't lost a close woman friend. I can't imagine that.

So that is really very difficult for me to think, how will I cope with this continuing string of losses? And the implications of that for me are I need to have my life, which will include a great deal of loss - I mean, at this point in my life, one way or another, I'm going to say goodbye to everybody I know. So the antidote for that, the balancer for that is to have a life as filled with gratitude, fun, appreciation, joy, meaningful work as I can possibly have.

GROSS: Well, Mary Pipher, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

PIPHER: I thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Mary Pipher's new book is called "Women Rowing North." After we take a short break, we'll hear from Jennifer Stockburger, who runs the test track for Consumer Reports, where they test out new cars. The magazine just published its annual car issue, ranking cars and car companies. Also, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about migrant children at the southwestern border. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

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