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30 Life Lessons

Gerontologist taps into nation’s greatest natural resource

Created date

January 24th, 2012

As lead gerontologist at Cornell University, Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., found himself spending the bulk of his time trying to solve the problems of old age. The focus of his work was all about turning negatives like chronic disease or social isolation into positives, but a chance encounter with a remarkable 90-year-old woman forced Pillemer to reevaluate his approach. Despite a host of age-related disabilities, the woman s sunny disposition and outlook took him by surprise. It s my responsibility to be as happy as I can, the woman told Pillemer. The encounter stuck with Pillemer, who concluded that a lifetime of ups and downs had given the woman valuable wisdom. I realized that America s oldest population, that is, folks who have been characterized as the greatest generation, are perhaps the most credible experts we have on how to live happily and well through difficult and challenging times, says Pillemer. They have been through the kind of tragedies and losses that keep people up at night. I thought it was critically important to ask a large number of older people about their lessons for living in an effort to understand what do older people know about life that younger people don t.

Interviewing the experts

Pillemer and his students at Cornell conducted over 1,200 interviews. They boiled their findings down into 30 key lessons for living under the categories of love and marriage, parenting, work, aging, and friendship. Pillemer compiled their findings into the book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans(Hudson Street Press), named a Best Self-Help Book of 2011 by theLibrary Journal. Americans have this incredible hunger for advice, and as a gerontologist it just became more and more clear to me that they were going to the wrong places. Marriage advice, for example .I talked to hundreds of people who had been married for 50, 60, or more years. If you want advice about child rearing, my 1,200 respondents have raised about 4,000 kids. Rather than go to pop psychologists, why not ask the people who have actually been through the kind of problems most of us experience?

A practical guide to life

Packed full of anecdotes, the book is a practical guide to life for readers of any age. Pillemer says that some of his findings surprised him. One of the most important lessons that I have applied to my own life is their surprisingly positive attitude toward aging. That was true even among people who have experienced loss or who themselves have a lot of chronic illness. One of their main lessons is that aging is much better than we think it s going to be. There were many people in their 80s, 90s, and beyond who characterized aging as an adventure or a quest. Many people said they feel freer or clearer than they did when they were younger. And they said, Don t be afraid to move into a retirement community.

The Legacy Project

While the book is published, Pillemer s work with the wisest Americans continues. He and his student researchers at Cornell University maintain the Legacy Project, an Internet site that invites people of all ages to share their own elder wisdom, or if they are younger, a story about something they have learned from an elder. Pillemer says the response to the website has been overwhelming. The site contains a wealth of advice on a multitude of subjects. It also has a link to a YouTube site where respondents videotaped their advice. For almost all of human history, the first person people went to for advice was the oldest person in their community, says Pillemer. Only in the last 100 years, we don t do that anymore. Okay, so they may not be the first person you go to for advice on how to program the DVR, but for almost any other life challenge, I believe they are the first people we should go to. For more information, visit