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New Book Illustrates Life Lessons From an Older Generation

January 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Karl Pillemer's new book "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans" navigates the trials of life and aging in the words of those who've experienced them the longest. In a conversation with Hari Sreenivasan, Pillemer discusses what he gleaned in interviews with elderly Americans.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, navigating the trials of life and aging in the words of those who’ve experienced them.

It’s advice spelled out in a new book.

Hari Sreenivasan’s conversation with its author includes the voices of elderly Americans interviewed for the book.

HARI SREENIVASAN: America is on the verge of losing yet another natural resource. In about 10 years, three-fourths of American’s oldest generation will be gone. They will take with them lessons learned about living through illness, failure, poverty, loss, and danger, and more basic things like love, work, parenting, and growing old.

Karl Pillemer of Cornell University wondered if all that wisdom could be simplified into a guide for younger people. His new book, “30 Lessons for Living,” asks close to 1,500 of American’s elders one simple question: What you have learned?

Karl Pillemer joins me now.

One of the lessons in the book is, as odd as it sounds from very old people, is, don't worry so much about dying. You know, they would say to me things like this, ‘Oh, the panicky feeling of I'm not going to be here anymore, I mean, that's a 30-year-old's game.'Karl Pillemer, Author

Thanks for being us.

KARL PILLEMER, author, “30 Lessons for Living”: Well, thanks. It’s great to be here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, I know you have 30 lessons. But, in summary, what have we learned and what are they trying to pass on?

KARL PILLEMER: You know, I think we have in America’s elders our most credible experts on one thing. Even though you might not go to them to learn how to reprogram the VCR, they are the truest experts on living well through hard times.

And they really know, I think, how to be happy despite these kind of difficulties and problems. And right now, when we’re both involved in wars and going through one of our worst economic times, I think really that’s a core of their practical advice for living.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how did they get through it? How did they get through, say, intense loss or intense grief?

KARL PILLEMER: You know, I think if there is one thing they know, it’s that you have to be responsible for your own happiness.

And that sounds a little like a cliche, but it hit me strongly with one of my first interviewees, who metaphorically grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Young man” — and it’s fun to be called young man at my age — “in my 89 years, I have learned that happiness is a choice, and not a condition.”

And a lot of the elders experienced a turning point, you know, when they were in despair or devastated, and they turned things around in a moment. They believe that younger people are happy because of things. You know, they’re going to be happy or they plan to be happy if something happens.

In their view, younger people should learn how to be happy in spite of things, and choose happiness.

HELGA BOCK, 86: She was my middle child. And at that time, she was 21 years old.

And American Airlines — and, somehow, the pilot made an error landing, and he ran into a gas station there at the airport. And I think about 30-odd people, 38 or something like that, got killed. And she was one of them.

For two years, I guess I tortured myself and the rest of my family. And then one day, I said to myself, okay, you have to stop this. You have to push it in. It doesn’t mean you forget or you let it go. But you have to think of the living ones.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s fascinating is so many of the elders, that they’re not necessarily expressing regret, but how much more or how much less risk-averse they are than you think they would be at this age. They are really trying to prescribe that we say yes to opportunities in our life.

KARL PILLEMER: Exactly.

Having talked to over 1,200 and close to 1,500 older people, there is one lesson they would like to convey to everybody. And it’s almost in the form of one of those nightmares where you are yelling and no one can hear you. And that lesson is — it sounds simple, but it is that life is really, really short.

And you learn that in your 80s and 90s and beyond. And my 100-year-olds were the most likely to say that life passes by in a nanosecond. They want younger people not to be depressed by that insight, but rather to use their time more wisely, to be more selective of how they invest their time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At this point in their lives, are their perceptions or relationships with death different than how we perceive it?

KARL PILLEMER: There is a striking and fascinating correlation.

The older you are, the less panicky or afraid you are about death and dying. And that, for me, really came home in these interviews. In fact, one of the lessons in the book is, as odd as it sounds from very old people, is, don’t worry so much about dying.

You know, they would say to me things like this: “Oh, the panicky feeling of I’m not going to be here anymore, I mean, that’s a 30-year-old’s game.” They are much more concerned with planning for the end of life, with preparing for the journey and using, again, the sense of limited time to make life richer and more interesting.

GERT PANEM, 101: I’m not afraid anymore when the time comes to go. I want to go, but not in pain.

(LAUGHTER)

GERT PANEM: I’ll go willingly. I’m not afraid.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how did you come up with this idea? I mean, people have been talking to you and chronicling the elders for so long. But why did you decide to take on this assignment?

KARL PILLEMER: I came upon it this way, I think.

I have been a gerontologist for 25 years or so. And I came to the revelation one day that I was looking at old people almost entirely as problems to be solved, as abuse victims, as Alzheimer’s patients. And our society does that, too. It sees older people as weak and frail and dependent and in need of care.

At the same time, I was personally meeting extraordinarily resilient older people. And there was a body of research, which now is quite large, showing that people 70 and beyond are happier than younger people, have higher life satisfaction, in spite of loss and disease.

So, I began to ask myself, basically, what’s that all about? And I went on this — really a personal quest and a series of scientific studies to find out that — what older people know that we don’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Karl Pillemer from Cornell University, thanks so much for your time.

The book is called “30 Lessons for Living.”

Thanks for being with us.

KARL PILLEMER: And thanks very much for having me.