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INTERVIEW: Karl Pillemer, Author of 30 Lessons for Living

December 20, 2012

“Some would say it became a little bit of an obsession of mine,” said Karl Pillemer, a professor of gerontology and human development at Cornell University, about his recent book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. Pillemer spent years interviewing elders — whom he refers to as “experts” in his book — to get their advice on marriage, raising children, maintaining a career, and finding happiness. All told, more than 1,200 elders were involved in his survey, making 30 Lessons for Living the biggest and most comprehensive study on “elder wisdom” published to date, Pillemer said.

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Q: Now that you’ve finished the interviews and the book is published, are there any specific “experts” who stand out as being particularly memorable?

Karl Pillemer: I had very meaningful conversations with folks whom PHI tends to work with — folks who were in different kinds of senior living communities and nursing homes. Often, these were people who had a significant burden of chronic disease and had experienced great loss, but nevertheless were highly resilient in maintaining a good quality of life. I would refer to them as our best experts on how to live well in hard times. The people who stayed the most with me were folks who had, or perhaps still were in, difficult situations and yet were highly resilient.

In terms of specific people, there was one woman in assisted living. She and her family were Holocaust survivors. They finally made it to the U.S. after being refugees, and she created this wonderful, warm life for herself and her family on Long Island. Then her daughter went off to college and was killed in a plane crash. It was an absolutely awful story. After that, she just lay on her couch for a year, torturing herself and her family. But then, almost on the spur of the moment, she decided she could no longer live that way, and had to become responsible for her own happiness. That sounds like a cliché, but the degree to which she transformed her life — and had advice for others in similar situations — really commanded my attention.

Q: Some of the other lessons in the book, such as “don’t go to bed angry,” are almost clichés. But when such a large and broad sample of experts agrees that these are valuable lessons, it makes them carry so much more weight.

30lessonsPillemer: When 1,200 people say, “as a young person, you need to live like your life is short,” — that should get us thinking. Even if it sounds commonsensical, the fact that it’s universally endorsed by so many people is pretty powerful.

On the other hand, a lot of the lessons weren’t at all what I expected from folks in this age range. When I began this project, I was afraid I would get nothing but a lot of clichés. But I was extremely pleasantly surprised that a lot of the lessons are the opposite of conventional wisdom.

For example, the last thing I expected is that people in this generation would say the most important criterion for choosing a job is for its intrinsic value. I imagined that people who lived through the Depression would say, “Go and find yourself the most secure and highest-paying job you can and stick with it, and to heck with personal fulfillment.” Instead, in terms of work, these folks come off as real risk-takers. Making money is much less important to them than the intrinsic value of the job.

I could list a lot of others. The idea that they are, in general, opposed to hitting kids; they aren’t enthusiastic about corporal punishment. The idea that when you’re choosing a marriage partner, the most important thing ought to be shared values, and being very similar to the person you marry. We have a strong view that opposites attract in this culture. So in many cases, their lessons are not what you’d expect.

Q: In addition to offering 30 lessons for living, your book is also a portrait of a specific generation — the so-called Greatest Generation. If someone wrote the sequel to this book 50 years down the line, would the lessons be completely different, or do you think they would they be largely the same?

Pillemer: There are things that seem to happen to people developmentally as they grow older. For example, we know that older people regulate their emotions better than younger people. The highs are less high, the lows are less low. It’s one reason why older people tend to be happier than younger people.

And we also know that when people reach their late 60s and early 70s, they become acutely aware of their limited time horizon. That changes them; but it doesn’t necessarily make them more depressed. Instead, it leads them to make better choices. Older people value more the company of other people; they learn to savor daily life more; they maximize their happiness better. In 50 years, things are going to be really different in terms of the historical experiences that people have. But what happens to older people developmentally, I think, is likely to be similar.

But you’re absolutely right about this generation, which some people have sometimes termed the “Greatest Generation.” One thing I’m trying to make people aware of is how soon they’ll all be gone. By the end of this decade, almost all World War II veterans will no longer be with us; fairly soon in the next decade, people with living memory of the Great Depression will be gone. It bothers me and alarms me that we aren’t making more about this. This whole generation is passing without anything being done to mark its importance in the history of American life.

I think an even more interesting question is what would happen if someone wrote this book about the baby boomers 20 years from now. We know they’re going to be different — they have fewer kids, they’re less likely to be married entering later life, and they haven’t been through these incredibly difficult early life experiences that their parents went through. Will they be as resilient as previous generations?

Q: Do you think people who work with elders, such as direct-care workers, could benefit from reading your book?

Pillemer: All of us who work with older people are at the risk of depersonalizing them. Even the best caregivers in the world have to work to make sure they’re treating each person as an individual. But by thinking of older people as sources of advice and wisdom who can share some of their life advice — that can really empower elders, by restoring them to the role they played in earlier times in history and in some other cultures currently.

So I think instead of just asking elders for their life histories, direct-care workers could take the opportunity to ask them directly for advice: “How would you handle this? When you were working and you had difficulty with a coworker, how would you handle it?” It can really open up a fascinating discussion.

One goal for this project was to, at least in a small way, try to confront the pervasive ageism in our society. Our society is extremely segregated by age. Social relationships may be even more segregated by age now than by race, because many people have friends of a different race, yet very few of us have close personal friends who are 20 years younger or 20 years older than we are.

There aren’t that many environments where older people and younger people are involved with one another anymore, and our society promotes unremittingly negative images of older people. I really hope that by thinking about older people as advice-givers, and by placing more of a focus on elder wisdom, we can at least do a little bit to beat back this increasing tendency toward ageism in our society. Direct-care workers, who are in constant contact with older people, can be key sources of realistic views about older people and ideas for how to bring older people back into the mainstream of life.

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