If you could live your life over, you undoubtedly would do a better job simply because experience has a way of revealing what works, or at least what doesn't.
So instead of haunting the self-help section of bookstores seeking advice on how to live, Karl A. Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University decided to turn to the people he works with all the time — the oldest among us. He knew that for the first time in history we humans have access to the accumulated wisdom of vast numbers of older people. Could the oldest Americans serve as experts on how to live our lives? Might they turn out to be the most reliable experts we have?
Pillemer, the founder and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, spent five years interviewing hundreds of elderly Americans, and he found himself startled by their candor, their insights, and yes, their wisdom. He has summarized their thoughts in a book titled, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Hudson Street Press).
"I was worried I'd end up with cliches — work hard, love your children, that sort of thing," Pillemer said. "But even their commonsensical advice had a twist. For example, I assumed I'd hear, spare the rod and spoil the child, but I was surprised by how many said, don't hit your kids. I assumed the generation that grew up during the Great Depression would say, become financially secure. I didn't expect them to say overwhelmingly to choose work for its intrinsic value."
As for marriage, a life choice that defeats so many, the "experts," as Pillemer calls the elderly he interviewed, advise caution. Take your time choosing a partner, they say, and make sure you choose someone you can talk with, someone who qualifies as a friend. "Think back to the playground when you were a kid," said one of the experts. "Your spouse should be that kid you wanted most to play with!"
Although the happiest among the elderly seem to tolerate the aches and pains of old age with minimal complaint, they also urge younger people to treat their body as though it must last for a hundred years. That means no smoking, plenty of exercise, and a healthy diet. "It's not dying you should worry about," Pillemer said, summarizing the advice of his experts, "It's chronic disease. What you can expect from not making the right health decisions isn't an early death. Instead you should be concerned about years, possibly decades, of suffering from chronic disease."
His own death anxiety was one of Pillemer's reasons for taking on this project. It allowed him to ask the experts straightforwardly, "When people reach your age, they begin to realize that there are more years behind them than in front of them. What are your feelings about the end of life?"
Pillemer expected them to express anxiety, even dread, as they contemplated their impending death. Instead the experts told him that fear of dying is a young person's worry, and that it amounts to a waste of time. They seemed to take a matter-of-fact approach to dying, and exhibited a willingness to discuss it, which helped Pillemer cope with his own anxieties.
"I'm 57, and for whatever reason I've had worries and fears about aging and the end of life," he said. "I think that motivated my passion for this project. It allowed me to sit down and ask a 97-year-old, you have only a few years left — how do you feel about that? I was struck by their untroubled attitude about end of life. There seems to be a negative correlation between fear of dying and being old. I became less anxious about leaving midlife and entering old age myself."
One problem that grows in old age, however, is isolation and its fellow traveler, loneliness. "Most respondents say the big danger from midlife on is increasing isolation, especially for men," Pillemer said. "A number of men said they've had to learn to be social. Even if they're introverted and haven't been historically interested in others, they had to learn how to do that, especially beyond the age of 60."
One solution discovered by many of the experts involved senior living communities.
"Around 150 of the experts reside in senior living communities of some kind," Pillemer writes, "and with very few exceptions, they described the move from their home to that location as one of the best decisions of their lives. Yes, many were reluctant initially, but they found that being in a supportive environment actually allowed them more freedom to engage in meaningful activities and relationships."
One man, whose wife died after 57 years of marriage, moved into a senior living community with great reluctance, but found the daily exposure to others a powerful tonic. "I get up in the morning sometimes feeling pretty disconnected and depressed," he told Pillemer. "I get dressed, I come down to breakfast, and I don't go back depressed."
One of the biggest surprises Pillemer encountered during his research was the that "old age is much better than most people expect. Respondents would say, I feel freer now, I feel clearer. I understand what makes me happy. People get better about making decisions."
That's why at the end of the book Pillemer includes questions that can help readers conduct interviews with their own elders. His two adult daughters posed some of the questions to a 94-year-old aunt they had known all their lives. Examples: What kinds of advice would you have about getting and staying married? As you look back over your life, do you see any turning points or key events that changed the course of your life? What would you say you know now about living a happy life that you didn't know when you were 20?
They listened in amazement as their aunt regaled them anecdotes and advice. "It was an extraordinarily meaningful experience for them," Pillemer said. "In general people love being asked for advice. They find it enjoyable. They want to be asked. It's one thing to ask older people for their stories, but it can be deeper and more rewarding to ask them for their advice for living."
To see videos of some of the people Pillemer interviewed, go to: legacyproject.human.cornell.edu.
Tom Valeo writes frequently about health matters. He can be reached at [email protected]