Elder Wisdom for Living through a Crisis

The majority of our population has never lived through a global crisis like the current one. But there is a source of wisdom and reassurance for living through catastrophic times that has existed for as long as human beings have been human: The oldest people among us.

I began interviewing the oldest Americans in 2003, focusing on people in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. It was an opportune moment, because many members of the “War and Crisis Generation” were still alive. I was able to capture the advice of people who had lost everything in the Great Depression, fought in World War II or kept their families together during that time, or survived the Holocaust. Remarkably, I  interviewed over 60 people who lived through the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, to which the current one is being compared.

You can find detailed advice for living well through hard times in my book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. But there’s one point I will make here that stands out: You will get through this, and it will one day be a memory rather than a current reality. In hundreds of interviews with people who lived through world-shattering events, I saw how they survived and eventually thrived. Taking the long view at a time like this can help you maintain peace of mind.

As you hunker down, take some time to listen to the elders who gave their advice on our YouTube Channel. Here are three of our favorite lessons about being resilient and not giving up when times get tough.

People over Things

There is no one among the elders who does not prefer to be comfortable financially. What is clear from their lessons, however, is that they believe “enough is enough.” Time spent earning enough money is time reasonably well spent. Time earning an excess of money far beyond that required to meet one’s needs, however, is time wasted.

Very often, the elders pointed to a conflict between the pursuit of money and putting a priority on personal relationships. They stand firmly on the side of investing in relationships:

I have been poor, and I have been rich, but I feel best when I have a coterie of people who like and respect me for what I am, and not what I have. (Clinton, 67)

Surround yourself with people you love. It’s nice to have money and be able to live well, but loved ones are more important than possessions. (Malinda, 72)

Material things are useful, but good relationships with God and the people around you make life worth living. (Neil, 90)

Last but not least, money isn’t everything. Take time to have some fun in life. It’s not all dreary and dog-eat-dog. Stop and smell the roses. (Darren, 73)

Of all the elders who made this point, one in particular stuck with me, from Joshua, 74. He told me that it all comes down to making connections with and caring about others:

Well, who have you helped? What circles do you move in? Some people I’ve known, they never helped anybody. They were never in any circles – they lived their own life totally unto themselves. You know what? Nobody would go to their funerals. It would be as though they never passed by on earth. So if I stick my head in a hole and think of just myself, and I don’t try to do some good and get out and interact and use my braints to help people, then nobody will come to my funeral. And I’ll deserve it!

A Dog Story: What our Pets Can Teach Us

Although we don’t own a dog ourselves, we are very excited to have a new granddog, Otto (pictured below). This new arrival in the family reminded me of a number of elders who had learned very important lessons for living from the experience of owning a pet. Francine’s interview especially came to mind.

Francine, 74,  lives in a small, tidy home in an urban neighborhood. She was married for many years, but lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease after years of caregiving.

One of her dreams was to have a dog, but circumstances never permitted it. Recently, she fulfilled that dream, and it changed her life. I met the dog in question, whom she refers to as her “little buddy.” A bit of a misnomer, as her “little buddy” was a large and very energetic fellow. She told me that loving a pet is a a special enhancement to living (and a motivation for staying healthy):

I got my dog when he was about four months old, so we’ve been together now two years. People asked whether at this stage of my life, I really wanted a dog, and I said, “Oh yes, I’ve been waiting all my life.”

He loves me so much, I have to put him out every day for a certain time, just to have time for myself. If he’s here he’s right next to me like Velcro.

I couldn’t have a dog before because of my husband and work, and I did wait a year after Marty died before I got one. So now we live together, just the two of us.

I’ve learned that everything in life is on loan. And all these years I’ve been waiting to have my buddy, my dog. But I have seen people would lose their pets and be so upset. And I would say to them, “I know, it would be awful. But you see, the day you take that pet into your care and you’re responsible for it, you have to start letting go.”

When I asked her later in the interview about her attitude toward the end of life, she said:

I would say that I’m not worried about it, I’m peaceful about it. But now, I have wanted my little buddy who’s waiting out there so long, and I’ve accepted that we will have ten, possibly longer years in his life and he’s my big joy. So now I want to stay fit so that I live as long as he does!

A Different New Year’s Resolution: Doing Well for Others

For the New Year, we often make specific resolutions: Lose weight, get exercise, work harder (or work less), and so on. If we ask the oldest Americans, we might hear them endorse something more general: Resolving to be more compassionate.

Many elders thought of happiness in terms of compassion and service to others. Carmen, 80, has lived a very full life, and has thought deeply about the sources of  happy living. Her advice is to focus on others and to carefully consider the effects of our actions.

This is my response about the most important lessons I have learned in my life. I am an 80 year-old woman and have been married for 56 years. I graduated from law school, practiced law for five years, and then left the practice to raise a family.

The single most important lesson that I have learned is that personal happiness depends on doing the best you can for the people to whom you owe a duty. The best attitude with which to approach life is to recognize that what others do to you does not matter. What counts is what you do to others. The greatest enemy of one’s own happiness is guilt about one’s own actions. All of our life choices should be guided by the goal of avoiding decisions that will make us feel guilty.

The greatest waste of time is to worry about how others may have mistreated oneself. The actions of others are their problem alone. The best use of our lives is to discharge our duties with joy and to recognize that we can only be truly happy when we do as well as possible whatever we undertake to do. With the caveat that one is not engaging in activities that are harmful to others or to oneself, what counts in life is not what one does, but how well one does it. The lowliest job done properly is more gratifying than the most elevated activity done poorly, and when both activities are done well, they are of equal value.

The best guiding principle for achieving a guilt-free life is to adopt philosopher Immanuel Kant’s imperative to treat everyone as an end in themselves and never as a means to an end and to never take any action which you would not want all people in a similar situation to take. As I near the end of my own life, my only regrets are about the things I might have done better and those things all relate to the happiness of others. There is no such thing as personal happiness divorced from the happiness of others. We cannot be truly happy when we cause unhappiness to others.

Home for the Holidays? Here’s Wisdom on How to Enjoy It

It’s the time of year when extended families – who may not see much of one another during the year – come together to celebrate the seasonal holidays. If popular culture is to be believed, many parents and their adult children (and in-laws) look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and worry about how everyone will get along. My surveys of approximately 2000 elders translate to the experience of around 160,000 Christmases or Hanukkahs. Here’s their elder wisdom for how families can have a harmonious holiday together.

Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion

When you are together at the holidays, the elders advise, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The elders say that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. The elders’ advice: Get your family to make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; they mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car).

Gwen Miles, 94, after many angry family fights over Democrats versus Republicans put her foot down: “I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about politics, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” The elders recommend applying this same rule to other “hot-button” issues  When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, “just saying no” to the debate is an excellent – and potentially relationship-saving – option.

Don’t Try to Fix Each Other’s Life at the Holidays

When it comes to parents relating to their adult children, the elders are unequivocal: Let them live their own lives. They sum up this principle as: Don’t interfere unless they ask for your help. As Harriet, age 79, told me: “Give your kids their own lives. Don’t make demands on them. Just be there for them when they need you. And certainly don’t tell them what to do.” Joyce, 90, agreed: “It’s their life. It’s not my life. They all have their own way to do things and if they get into trouble and want some help, they’ll come to me.” Christmas dinner is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another.

Don’t Take Everything Personally 

The elders recommend an important strategy when the family is all together: de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Annie, 81, lived near her parents-in-law for most of her married life and the relationship was not an easy one. But when they got together on holidays, she made this rule: “Rather than assume the worst, it’s more helpful to assume that they are saying things to you because they want to help their child and you. Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can’t change the way they deal with others in their life.” Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.

Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It

This final tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer – both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Christmas gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Talking about in-laws, Gwen said: “You may not like your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them.” According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the mince pie with a minimum of stress.

 

Some Reflections for the Holiday Season: Samuel’s List for Living

We always love what we call “Lists for Living” we receive from elders. As we enter the holiday time, Samuel’s list of advice for younger people has many points to ponder.

It is with a sense of gratitude and gratification that I take the opportunity to express the feelings and thoughts which I gathered over the years. I am hopeful that the younger readers will appreciate these experiences. I am 87 years old, male, boasting an active mind, with healthy body, sound vision and using my own set of teeth.

 Family

            Family life has been the established group living for centuries. There is no substitute for that in terms of gratification, self-worth, and completeness. It provides the best combination for physical, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. At the end of the day, I could say: I am glad to be alive. Of course, I was fortunate to have found an ideal mate.

 How to Succeed

            To succeed in any art or endeavor, one must love it passionately and that comes with the admiration of the masters who had contributed to its development.

 Making Decisions

            Do not decide on major matters at abnormal times, places, or moods. Try to be alone in a calm and secluded place, away from the environment which caused the problem. You will then discover or uncover an inspiring solution.

 Prepare Yourself An Alternative

            When you face a situation which seems difficult or impossible to resolve, despite a persistent perseverance, do not get discouraged. Instead, find an alternative to lean on. This will help you face the problem with a positive solution and avoid the feeling of disappointment. It works!

 Heed Your Feelings and Thoughts

            Your instincts are worth pursuing all the way towards achievement. If you cannot do what you like, then LIKE what you are doing. Go as far as you can see, then see how far you can go!

 Taking Risks

            Nothing ventured is nothing gained. In cultivating a close relationship with a special woman, for example, take chances; you may be surprised. When you pursue this relationship, bring out the best in her. Love is such a wonderful feeling. Make the most of it, with patience and perseverance. Your mate may be hard to understand sometimes; but try to conquer her or him with love and companionship. That is precious.

 Spirituality    

            No matter what faith one follows, there is a need for the spiritual link with Creator, God, as well as relationship with the universe. Life is richer and deeper with this connection.

Give the Gift of Elder Wisdom this Year (It Never Wears Out!)

Looking for a more meaningful gift this year? What about practical advice from the wisest Americans?

One of my local heroes (yes, she lives near me) is the advice columnist Amy Dickinson (otherwise known as Ask Amy). She has come up with a great idea: That everyone on Christmas morning should get a special gift: A book placed on the end of their bed for when they wake up in the morning. Amy’s point is one of the best presents we can give still comes in the form of an old-fashioned book.

At the Legacy Project, we hope you might consider giving the special gift of elder wisdom this year. 30 Lessons for Living; Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans offers the advice of over 1000 elders on topics like marriage, work, child-rearing, and growing older. Reviewers have praised it, like Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People), who wrote: “I can’t imagine anyone whose life will not be enriched by this book.” And it’s made it onto lists of top gift books.

And if you know someone who is searching for a partner or looking to make a long-term relationship work, the Legacy Project also has a book for that! A great gift is 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. They can learn from hundreds of people who have been happily married for 30, 40, 50 and more years.

Christmas and Chanukah are times when many of us see our older relatives and most of us think back to those with whom we celebrated the holiday in the past. The goal of these two books is to make sure their wisdom is not lost, and to pass it on to generations to come.

Love Life! The Key to Successful Aging

Harry is 81 years old and having a great time. He offers his advice for successful aging. He conveys the kind of exuberance and joy I discovered in many of the elders I interviewed.

Love life! Yes, just being alive to experience the joy, exultation, love of one’s wife/husband, the satisfaction of succeeding in a task set before you, the challenges you face and overcome, the social intercourse of friends and their imparting of knowlege you could never otherwise know. The wealth of memories

Seeing your child grow to a successful adult and then the blessings of sight, sound, taste, feel along with the feats the wondrous body can accomplish!

Those are the very essence of well-being when recognized as being the very basis of life. Not a guided tour but a never ending series of experiences, not all of which are welcome but in which one can take comfort in the one great truth that “this too shall pass away as shall all things.”

In my own life, now 81 years, some of my most creative years came after 70. The result is it opened a whole new world of admiring friends and business associates nationwide and I work at least two full days and 3 half days a week on the phone, fax and computer in the business and play golf the other half days for exercise and the joy of competing on the golf course with many more long-term close friends.

My choice is to live to the fullest until my time to depart when my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can grab the baton and carry it aloft for as long as their allotted time. To me, life is for living as long as I am physically able to get up and move.

The Problem of Ageism: How Does it Affect Both Old and Young?

The problem of ageism is coming out of the shadows and into the public eye. I had the opportunity to be part of a fascinating panel hosted by The Atlantic, where we discussed the growing problem of age discrimination and what can be done about it. I was able to talk about my work with the World Health Organization, which is working to combat ageism around the world. Please share your thoughts on this important issue!

Adapting: The Key to Successful Aging

When we’re young, we tend to associate aging with loss. We often look ahead with concern or even dread at losing favorite activies. What you learn when you talk to a lot of older people, however, is how well many of them adapt to the inability to do favorite activities, substituting other enjoyable pastimes for them. I talked with Manny, age 73, about this, and he told me:

I mean, when somebody says, “Jeeze, you’re 73,” I think, “Yeah, well if I was dead, I wouldn’t be, you know?” So I’m quite happy. But I think that as you age, you are unable to do things that you could do, but you change your thinking such that you don’t have the same need to do whatever it is.

And I’ll give you an example. When I was young, I loved to play baseball, and I was pretty good at it. And there was a period of time, I couldn’t wait to spring, I couldn’t wait to get out and practice, to do any of that kind of stuff. But I got to college, I played one year, and I wasn’t good enough to play – there were several better ball players around,. So, I found something else to do, and then I played softball and did things.

But after about 35, I stopped doing it and I didn’t miss it. When I was 18 years old, I never dreamed I wouldn’t miss getting out and throwing a baseball or hitting one. But the body changes, the mind changes, and you adapt. At least, I did. And I think most people adapt if they allow themselves to. For most people, you know, you have to adapt to what happens to you to the best you can. And try to look at the upside of it, not the downside. I don’t have the need or the want to do the things that I at one point in my life I would have died for, if you know what I mean. I went on to other things.