you could know now what they knew then

At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career.  After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.

“First of all, I was meeting lots of vibrant, intensively active, enjoying-life elders. Also, there’s this fact that older people tend to be happier than younger ones, and that in general mental health improves with age,” he recounted. “Despite decades studying the problems of older people, I had a nagging suspicion that there was more they could tell me about how to life the good life.” That second sentence is a quote from what the outreach project turned into:  a book called 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. It’s based on over a thousand two-hour interviews with a diverse group of men and women over age 65, many way over. (The oldest, 108, told Pillemer, “I remember my first day of work so well, because it was they day World War One ended.”) 

The project reflects the gerontologist’s understanding that late life, like adolescence or middle age, has to be seen as a stage of development, and that two things make older people developmentally different. One is their limited time horizon, which helps olders make better decisions about how to use their time. This boundary makes it easier to live in the moment, which in turn makes people happier. The second thing that sets this cohort apart is their extraordinary life experience, especially those around for long enough to have lived through the Depression, World War II, and the civil rights struggle. Pillemer was motivated by a fundamental assumption: “Older people are the most credible experts available to us on how to life well through hard times.” Since no one had systematically solicited their practical advice, he set himself the task, asking intimate and profound questions like,  “What is the purpose of life?” “What do you wish you’d done differently?”  “What do you regret?” and “What are you afraid of?”  Here is the essence of their responses.

Lesson #1: Live like your life is short. One woman turning 99 told Pillemer, “I don’t know what happened. The next thing you know, you’re a hundred!” What does this involve?  Find work you love (instead of opting for money or security, surprising counsel from veterans of the Depression). Say it now. Travel more.

Lesson 2: Happiness is a choice not a condition, a matter of personal agency. Younger think happiness occurs because of things, said Pillemer, “but when they’re older, people know that happiness occurs in spite of things.” This is quite consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy, he pointed out, “and they’ve come upon it naturally.” In other words, age itself confers very effective coping mechanisms upon ordinary people. These weren’t bodhisattvas or philosophers. “Everyone over 70 has occurred the kind of losses that younger people worry about. If you can’t make happiness a choice, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding happiness,” said Pillemer. The choice was often expressed in terms of a turning point, as in the case of a woman who grieved for two years over the death of her 22-year-old daughter, Bubbles, then made a conscious decision to pull herself out of her tailspin. Instead of worrying or holding onto grudges, she and her peers recommend savoring the small things, letting go, and practicing gratitude. 

Lesson #3: Aging is better than you think it is. “Our fears are not borne out by the oldest Americans,” says Pillemer. Treat your body like you’ll need it for 100 years. Learn to be social (even, or perhaps especially, if you’re an introvert). Find multiple ways — as worker, spouse, volunteer, caregiver – to connect with the world and stay in contact. Respondents, especially widowers, strongly endorsed moving into senior communities.  

Lesson 4: Take a lifelong view of relationships with children.  People used to die reasonably soon after their last child left home, Pillemer pointed out. Now, in an unprecedented shift, baby boomers are likely to have twice as much time with their adult kids than they spent with them as children. Paradoxically, higher divorce and lower birth rates mean that boomers confront a higher risk of social isolation than the oldest Americans now.  The moral? Cultivate family relationships. Spend time with the kids. Avoid rifts. “The most unhappy people I talked to were those who were permanently estranged from a child.”

Lesson 5: How to avoid regrets.  When it came to what they wish they’d done differently, Pillemer expected pangs over business deals gone wrong or educations unfinished. Instead, over and over again, people said, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying.” A group that married young and often quickly, respondents frequently advised putting off marriage. They consistently endorsed risk for younger people, and were often envious of the opportunities that younger women enjoy today.  “Step out.” “Don’t get stuck in a box.” “Don’t try to please everyone.” “Say yes to opportunities.” In other words, it’s not mistakes that seem to haunt, but opportunities not acted upon.  Not that many people seemed haunted, which may reflect another developmental change in older people: they process negative information less deeply than positive information.

These fundamental lessons were universal across class and race, “but the ways people got there differed,” Pillemer observed.  For example, African American respondents had had to deal with discrimination on their path to happiness. He found nuanced differences across cultures. Another observation was that the older people were, the less they feared death. “All the time, interviewing these people, I asked, ‘Where’s the terror?’” Pillemer recounted. “Another lesson was ‘Don’t worry so much about dying, because we don’t worry about it.’” 

I wrote admiringly about Pillemer’s Cornell Legacy Project earlier this year, but took him to task for aiming the book expressly at young readers, which struck me as a little, ahem, ageist. That’s probably unfair, since in his talk Pillemer defined ageism compellingly and described some of the ways in which it works powerfully against the interests of the old. (One example was the extent of age segregation in our society. “Americans are more likely to have friend of different race than friend 10 years older or younger,” he said.) I’d argue that people in mid-life stand to benefit the most from 30 Lessons, especially from the advice to worry less about aging and dying. That makes it a lot more appealing to become “an old person in training” and to think clearly about the decades ahead – the topic of my next post. 

One thought on “you could know now what they knew then

  1. Ashton, I really appreciated reading this entry – it aligns with the potential thesis topic I’ve been struggling with and I am happy to hear that he asked so many compelling questions and stayed on the rich side of an interview — and had so many interviews. My thesis topic is a hot mess but started with the idea of resilience and its necessity in robust aging. But, as I read this, I wonder if my own (according to his respondents, unnecessary!) worry about aging is disguised by this feature of courage. And that this is a very personal quest – to discover the elements of resiliency. One should probably not do a thesis on quite a topic too close to the heart! 

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