"30 Lessons for Living" author Karl A. Pillemer shares life lessons from older Americans

Feb 22, 2012

Renowned gerontologist Karl A. Pillemer interviewed more than one thousand Americans over the age of 65 to get advice on all of life's issues from family and children to money and careers. Their wisdom is featured in Pillemer's book "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans."

Join Pillemer at noon on Wednesday, February 22. He will discuss the advice for living of people age 70 and beyond, and its relevance for people of all ages.

Gallery: 12 ways to live a better life

Read more : Cornell Legacy Project

Welcome to our chat today, looking forward to your questions and ideas. And of course, we’d love to hear your lessons for living, or ones you have learned from elders in your life!

I was engaged to someone until very recently, but with about 3 months to go before the wedding, I realized I had very real concerns about spending the rest of my life with this person, no matter how much I loved them. For a long time, I thought our differences made things exciting, but looking back I see we just had very different ways of looking at so many things, due to the ways we were brought up (different races, different socioeconomic levels, different regions of the country). This has been more story than question, but could you talk a bit more about this idea of marrying someone who's similar?

It’s true – one of the most surprising findings from the surveys is this: Based on 40, 50, or 60 years of marriage the elders say say: Marry someone a lot like you. Opposites attract, but they don’t make for long marriages. Find someone of similar background, interests, and most of all values. That said, they come down clearly on the point regarding values. As one 80+ year old told me: “If you’re a big spender, he’s got to be a big spender. That kind of thing.” When people shared similar core values, they were most likely to say: “We really don’t fight.” So some differences in more minor things like specific interests can enhance a marriage. But research also shows very similar findings: Marriages in which people are more generally similar work out better. That said: sometimes love conquers all, but the elders just want you to know that married life is likely to be harder with someone who is very different from you.

I just finished your book last night and really enjoyed it. My only issue pertains to the last chapter on faith. While adopting a religious faith was a repeated sugestion, and you were reporting on the advice of the "experts," I still found it a little troubling (admittedly as an atheist) to adopt a major religion -- any religion --because life would be easier. I certainly appreciate the benefit of having the support of a community, and recognize that this was traditionally accomplished through organized religion. Just a thought. Thanks!

You make a great point. And I will say that there were a number of the elders who did not endorse organized religion – a minority, but definitely some folks with those views. One category of people believe in some kind of faith or spirituality, but don’t see the need for organized religion. And a small group have no use for faith at all – they are atheists who just aren’t interested. Surprisingly, however, even some of the atheist group found comfort or connection when they engaged in a traditional religious practice. However, I would say that the most important thing – especially for successful aging – is the larger point to stay connected. If not through religion,
the elders are nearly unanimous that we need to make even stronger connections as we get older.

Did you receive a Government grant or monies to do your research?

A point worth clarifying! I do receive grant money (federal and foundation) for other research. However, I did not receive a government grant for this work.

I make good money, yet am starting to get tired of the rat race. I have no kids, just a girlfriend who is retired. I'm very unhappy in my job, yet need to keep working to pay some large bills. I might be able to unload some financial obligations, but would result in less $ down the road. All in all, when do you know is the time to do something when you are waking up every day not liking your life?

I can only channel to you what the consensus of the 1200 elders in the study was. From the end of life, they definitely have a "take a risk" attitude, when it comes to time versus money. They don't want you to do something that might bankrupt you, but if there's a choice to be able to live comfortably and have more time to actually live life, they recommend trying to make it happen. It is a balance between being financially secure and having more time, but they really encourage us to not stay longer in a job we hate than absolutely possible.

Did you you have any feedback from your interviewees about relationships with a substantially older partner?

I don't often get asked about something on which the elders didn't express opinions, but I have to admit you've given me one! They did not specifically recommend for or against relationships where there is a mjor age difference. They focused on other lessons for marriage: choosing carefully, marrying someone who is a friend as well as a romantic partner, not "keeping score" in the relationship. But age discrepancy wasn't mentioned.

Medicine can extend life, but how to avoid diminishing returns on happiness/quality so that living longer is a good thing (for us, for caretakers, for economic realities)?

The elders' take on health was fascinating. They say that we should stop justifying our bad health behaviors by saying "Oh, I don't care if I drop dead a year or two early - I like to smoke/overeat/not exercise, etc." Instead, they tell you that you are not likely just to "drop dead" after a lifetime of bad habits - actually, you will be sentencing yourself to years, even decades, with chronic illness. So they suggest focusing on what you can do while young. Beyond that, we have a societal problem - we've added years to life, but often not life to years. We need to refocus on quality of life in old age.

Regarding your answer about religion, you state the need to "make even stronger connections as we get older". Could you please elaborate on what those connections could consist of?

Sure. Both the elders in my study, and a lot of research in gerontology, shows that as we get to middle age and beyond, staying socially connected can become a challenge. And that's a problem, because social relationships are very predictive of health and even mortality. The key things are: involvement in social networks (having friends and acquaintances); meaningful social roles; and civic participation (like volunteering). You don't need to be a social butterfly, but being very isolated is just not good for us as we age.

I have been told by experts that social interaction is vital to good mental health. I find that I really enjoy my autonomy in my old age of 76. i do have social involvements plus travel, but as the years go by, I am enjoying my time away from the social interaction more. Should I be concerned?

You make a great distinction. While extreme isolation is generally not good for people, there are huge individual differences in how much contact we need. So for some people, having one close confidant and a small network may be fine. We don't all need to be extroverts, and it really depends on your level of happiness. One way to look at it is the difference between solitude and loneliness - one can be very enjoyable for some people, but the other becomes a problem.

What are some suggestions for how to grab life and live in the moment? This question spans your topics on fitness, as well as taking advantage of the time we have. How can we remember this on a daily basis?

Yes, this is one of the "easier said than done" recommendations. In the book, the elders offer a variety of tips (many of which,, incidentally, are supported by research). Here are few: 1)practicing "savoring" - intentionally becoming aware of pleasant small things as much as possible; 2) practicing gratitude - many elders described themselves as reminding themselves to be grateful for aspects of daily life; 3) attending to excessive worry, and changing worry to planning. These may sound a bit pat, but they are described in more detail in the book.

How to deal with the loss of a sister who was a life time companion?

I think you may find the elders' discussions in the book about how the overcame this kind of loss to be helpful. And as someone who is very close to my siblings, I can only imagine how difficult this must be. The elders' told me that they are able to move beyond loss to enjoying positive memories and previous time spent together. But they would acknowledge how hard this is.

Did any significant number of the people that you interviewed not have children and did not regret it? Of course, the quality of friendships and family relationships is one of the main determinants of happiness in life but if one decides not to have children, is one necessarily limiting the potential for one's happiness?

That's a fascinating question. I can't resist noting that a lot of research has been done on this issue, and in general people who are childless in later life are just as satisfied with life and are as happy as people with children. This is somewhat suprising, but it's quite a robust finding. In my book, I wasn't able to do a systematic comparison, but a number of childless people did express satisfaction with that choice, and many became involved with nieces and nephews, or helped out with other kids in some way,a nd found that very fulfilling.

I used to state that laughter and being happy are good advice for health and long life. I then had a physician tell me that there have been no studies proving that and that this belief is a myth. Did many older people interviewed discuss happiness and laughing and the roles they play in their lives?

What the elders argue is that people have the ability to choose to be happy on a daily basis, in spite of physical challenges, life difficulties, and personal losses. We have to remember that everyone over 70 has experienced these kinds of difficulties, and they argue that at some point, everyone has to make that choice. In terms of research more generally, there is definitely accumulating evidence that positive emotions do contribute to health.

Did people talk about longevity as neutral, or desirable? My work is with those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers, and I see longevity as great if one is healthy.

I'm so glad you raised this point. There definitely are two paths in later life, I believe. People, even with severe health problems, are able to compensate and retain enjoyment of life. But dementia changes the game entirely. We know little about what quality of life means for Alzheimer's patients, or how to promote it. I agree with you - longevity can be a blessing even with a burden of other chronic diseases - that's what the elders told me. But we should be devoting massively more resources to finding a cure for dementia, because that is truly the tarnish on the "golden years."

Yesterday, there were news articles about a study that claimed that fasting, or limiting calories to under 500, every other day could extend one's lifespan. Have you heard of such advice from people who have lived long lives? What advice have you heard about diet?

You can take a look on the web at the evidence on caloric restriction. It does seem to dramatically extend life in other animals, but of course it's hard to test this in humans. Among the elders I interviewed, people who suffered from chronic diseases related to poor diet were very regretful about the choices they had made. The core lesson they offer is "Live like you will need your body for 100 years" - because you very well may!

Both my son and daughter want to communicate more and more via social media. How can I possibly keep up with these ever changing social media concepts which are focused on young people and their lifelstyles. My phone call frequencies are diminishing.

This is a fascinating point! Many of my interviewees turned out to be grateful for the new social media, and in particular Skype. The chance to see grandchildren "in person," for example, was greatly appreciated. I do think it's okay, however (and based on the elders' advice) to try to encourage phone calls with younger people. The problem is that they see texting as "talking." I'm finding (with my own kids) that I'm having to adopt "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!"

I really enjoyed reading your book, and I learned such a great deal of wisdom from it. What is the most important lesson that you feel we can take away from the book?

I love that question! I think the most important one (although it is hard to choose) for me was "Live like your life is short." The older the respondent, the more likely he or she was to say "I've learned that life passes by in a second." (One man said "in a nanosecond.") They say this not to depress younger people, but to get them to look carefully at how they spend their time, and to make better choices. Many other lessons i the book are based on this sense of the preciousness of time.

What's your advice for the always single / never married crowd who'd still like to pair up? Besides eat healthy / make friends / do something meaningful with your life?

I would say that the elders I interviewed have two thoughts on this topic. First, they suggest that you never stop trying to find the right partner. A surprising number of people found their "true love" later in life, sometimes reconnecting with a high school friend, or through activities they were involved in. And for those having difficulty finding a partner, they suggest making sure that you stay socially engaged in other ways, through social activities, volunteerism, etc. But everyone acknowledges that the gender ratio in later life does not favor woment looking for men!

Not many plan to become caregivers; they plan to retire, travel, relax. How about word from those who became caregivers to a spouse, family member or friend? Did you hear from those who are naturally resilient and creative, or who could and were willing to learn how to gain these abilities in later years?

Caregiving (which many of the elders were involved in) was typically described as a mixed experience. There's no question that there was stress and strain - sometimes even severe. But many elders also reported the positive aspects and uplifts of caregiving, and the heightened sense of self-worth that came along with it. Many respondents also cited the need to seek out support as a caregiver, whether informally from friends and relatives, or formally in support groups or programs. You are very right, however, that some people with great plans have them dampened when their partner needs care.

How did the elders suggest NOT showing favorites, especially if one child is more rambunctious or petulant than the others?

A big surprise for me had to do with parental favoritism. On the one hand, the elders said it's natural for parents to have favorites - or at least to feel differently about their kids. On the other hand, they say: Accept those feelings - then bury them deep! Some elders had very negative memories of being disfavored (pain that lasted into their 90s). So they say "favoritism is natural, but never show it!" And to my daughters - I don't have a favorite, I promise!

Are there any hints on how older Americans react to cognitive dissonance? Specifically, I'm thinking about facing society's predjudice against aging when so many find it the best time of life.

Ageism is a key point in the book - I think it's an extremely serious problem. From the lack of older characters on prime time TV, to ageist humor that permeates daily life, to treating the old as non-persons. And our society is extremely stratified by age, where outside of our families, we rarely interact with people 10 years older or younger than we are. The elders I interviewed suggest that we embrace aging, and give up "anti-aging" strategies. However, despite aging, people do seem to handle it well. We see in our studies what some have called the "paradox of happiness" - you experience problems in old age, but people are generally happier than younger age groups.

Hi Karl, The tile of you book indicates they are the "wisest Americans" did you do anything special to select them or did living long put them in the "wisest Americans" group?

Great question! Yes, I did term them "wisest Americans," because the underlying premise of the book that there is something special about older people that makes their advice particularly useful, based both on life experiences and their position in the life course. In terms of methods, I tried to obtain a very representative sample of older Americans, rather than handpicking "wise" ones. And as you will see in the book, many lessons come not from people's successes, but rather from situations where they feel they failed or acted unwisely. The book isn't, then a "best and brightest" book of success stories. It includes both people who feel they made wise decisions, and those who didn't and regretted it.

Thanks to everyone for sending in these fascinating questions! This was one of the most interesting discussions I've had. And we are looking for more life lessons at our Cornell Legacy Project website, so please join in the conversation there!

In This Chat
Karl A. Pillemer
Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Professor of Gerontology at the Weill Cornell Medical College. An internationally renowned gerontologist, his research examines how people develop and change throughout their lives. He has authored five books and over 100 scientific publications, and speaks throughout the world on aging-related issues. In a recent set of studies, Dr. Pillemer decided to find out what older people know about life that the rest of us don't. This project led to the book: 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, published by Hudson Street Press in 2011.
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