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The most painful epiphany in understanding the aging process often comes in dealing with a parent's infirmities or death. Do I Know You? Living Through the End of a Parent's Life by Bette Ann Moskowitz (Kodansha) captures the poignancy of a parent's decline. She describes her mother's slide into senility and the decision to put her into a nursing home. In this candid, daring book, the author examines her feelings about her mother's incontinence and confusion and bravely admits her own ambivalence about her mother's compromised life. Mary Pipher, the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, the best-selling book about adolescent girls, has turned her talents to the question of aging parents in Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, which will be published in March by Riverhead (see accompanying excerpt).
The most affecting of all the books on aging are by those already in their 70s and 80s. A Time to Live: Seven Steps of Creative Aging by Robert Raines (Plume) is useful to both those who are younger and those who are, in Raines' phrase, in their "elder season." Raines is an ordained minister, but this, his 13th book, is poetic, psychological and spiritual rather than religious. He does not sidestep the heartaches of aging but insists we can find meaning in them. "As we grieve our losses and suffer our heartache," he writes, "sorrow may darken and enrich our life, and in some way not yet understood, disallow self-pity, make our fate acceptable, and increase our compassion for others."
When it comes to bearing witness, no American President worked harder than Jimmy Carter, and so it somehow seems appropriate that the 39th President, now 74 , has become a guru of his latest stage of life. His book The Virtues of Aging (Ballantine) has become a best seller because of its unpretentious wisdom. Carter writes about how he and his wife Rosalynn have adjusted to getting older, even addressing their sex life. ("Rosalynn and I have learned to accommodate each other's desires more accurately and generously.") Not surprisingly, their retirement is busier than the entire careers of most younger people (Carter's mother Miss Lillian set the example: she joined the Peace Corps and went to India at 68). Carter uses his political background to write knowingly of government policy toward seniors. And, like others of his generation, Carter has known the sad side of growing older: he is the last of his siblings still alive.
Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis and co-author Emmett Velten challenge the orthodoxies of aging in Optimal Aging: Get Over Getting Older (Open Court). Ellis' smart, contrarian thinking will inspire many. "Ageism is a crucial fact of life in our culture, and talking openly about it is taboo. Older people--and you--had better break the taboo, not just with talk but with action. We had better do something about it."
The Final Chapter
No topic is likely to be more controversial, or more au courant, in coming years than death. And Jack Kevorkian will not have the last word. Dr. Daniel Tobin's views of dying as a natural part of living were shaped when, as a third-year medical student, he watched a frail, 88-year-old man, near death, plead unsuccessfully with doctors to go home rather than face another battery of invasive tests. Tobin went on to found the FairCare program for peaceful dying in Albany, N.Y. His new book is Peaceful Dying: The Step-by-Step Guide to Preserving Your Dignity, Your Choice, and Your Inner Peace at the End of Life (Perseus), written with Karen Lindsey. In it, he writes, "The emotions of dying are intense, difficult and varied. But they are not necessarily terrible; indeed, sometimes they are incredibly beautiful, and even at times extremely happy. I always consider how our culture's overwhelming fear of death blots out that reality: we rarely achieve a whole view of dying, which encompasses every emotion." He believes suicide is never the best choice, focusing instead on pain relief. His determina- tion to ensure a peaceful end to life may be reassuring to those baby boomers who remain determined not to age gracefully.