Gerontologist Turned Story Collector: An Exclusive Interview with Karl Pillemer

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 22 January 2012

I always find it refreshing when I hear about elder care professionals applying their unique expertise and passion in creative ways that also make a difference. Karl Pillemer is one of those extraordinary people.

Professor of human development at Cornell University, a faculty member of the Weill Cornell Medical College, sociologist, gerontologist, and newly published author: Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. is undoubtedly a busy and accomplished individual. His book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, was released in November (and is currently receiving rave reviews and fantastic media coverage), a compilation of nearly three decades of research on “how people develop and change over the life course, and how to improve the care and quality of life of older people.”

Pillemer recently took time to share with Seniors for Living readers about his fascinating work…

MS:  What inspired you to start The Legacy Project?

KP: There are several things that pushed me in this direction. In 25 years as a gerontologist, I had spent much of my time studying the problems of aging: Alzheimer’s disease, family caregiving, nursing homes, even elder abuse. It began to occur to me that I was ignoring the flip side of aging: Older people as invaluable resources. As I read the growing research showing that older people are generally happier than younger people, I began to wonder: Are there things that older people know about leading happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives that younger people don’t? I also felt a sense of urgency, knowing how quickly the oldest Americans are leaving us. The last veterans of World War I are gone, those of World War II are in their eighties, and youngest people affected by the Great Depression are in their late seventies. I wanted to capture their advice for living before they were all gone.

What I was looking for in this project was older people’s practical advice for living. And I was surprised to discover that no previous research project had looked at this: What specific advice do older people have for younger folks about issues like marriage, work, child-rearing, avoiding regrets – and of course about how to age fearlessly and well? In the Legacy Project, we used several scientific data collection methods that ultimately obtained advice for living from over 1200 older Americans.

MS: Can you share snippets from some of the most memorable stories you’ve heard/read since the Project started? Or some of the best advice shared?

KP: Of course, many of the 1200 “wisest Americans” in the study had great senses of humor. One-liners included: “Save your money, take care of yourself, play golf.” “Stay out of trouble – and steer clear of other people’s wives!” And: “Don’t wear a miniskirt when you’re sixty-eight!” On the poignant side, we have to remember that by the time you reach age 70, everyone has experienced painful losses, so there were many touching stories as well. However, perhaps the most uplifting lesson for living is this: Most of the elders firmly believe in what one respondent told me: “Happiness is a choice, not a condition.” They told me over and over that life involves hard times, and what we must do is make a conscious daily choice to be happy – in spite of loss, health problems, etc.

Another striking lesson – and a nearly unanimous one – was this: Stop worrying. A major regret expressed by the elders was time wasted worrying about things that never happened. So looking back from the end of life, they take a radical view of worry. As one elder told me: Worry wastes your life.”

There were other fascinating lessons that I detail in the book. Some that stood out to me are their advice to marry someone a lot like you – they believe that opposites may attract, but they don’t make for long-term marriages. In terms of work, I thought that people who lived through the Great Depression would focus on financial security. But instead, they believe people should find work they love, even if it means a lower salary. Another surprise was that most elders advise parents not to hit their children – something I didn’t expect from what I thought was a “spare the rod and spoil the child” generation.

In the book, people can read about how one of the Tuskeegee Airman (now in his 90s) overcame the race barrier in the military, how a survivor of the Holocaust found tolerance and acceptance of others, how a 102-year old learned how to stop worrying, and how a couple married for decades keeps things fresh (The secret? Have a “date night,” even if you both are in your eighties!)

MS: What have you learned about your own legacy since working on the Project?

KP: I can genuinely say that the six years I spent talking to older people all over the country about their lessons for living changed my own life. I have tried to put into practice what they told me as much as I can. One thing just about every elder advises is this: “Live like your life is short.” That’s one thing they know from the vantage point at the end of the life course. They say this not to depress us, but to help us make better decisions, to savor daily life, and to say things to people that need to be said (while they are still around). I have developed more of a “carpe diem” mentality since doing this project, and I think people who read the book will too.

Probably the most extraordinary thing I learned was this: Old age is much better than we think it will be. For a lot of people who read the book, I think they will wind up being a lot less fearful about the last third of life, and much more optimistic. As one person told me: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.”

MS: What would you say to people who are hesitant about sharing their stories? Why is the Project so important?

If anything comes out of this book, I hope it’s this: Making people aware of the source of wisdom that’s right in front of them: America’s elders. We’re going through economic upheavals and families are struggling: Who better to ask than people who survived the Great Depression? Families are struggling with our military involvements: Why not ask people who supported families through World War II? Struggling in your marriage? Why not ask people who have been happily married for 50 or 60 years? I’d love to see these kinds of conversations going on in every family – how about at Thanksgiving or during the holidays?

MS: What are your hopes for the future of the Project?

My book was just published, but that’s certainly not the end. We are continuing to gather older people’s life lessons on our web site: The Legacy Project. People can share their lessons, find information about the book, and read many lessons that are posted several times a week. We are also creating videos of the elders sharing their lessons, so we encourage people to check out our YouTube Channel too.

Thank you, Dr. Pillemer, for your commitment to gathering these valuable stories and lessons, and thanks for sharing your story with Seniors for Living!


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