Tne Secret about Aging You Need to Know

Looking for the best advice about aging? We asked over 1200 older Americans to offer their lessons on how toelder humor be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled. Some of the most interesting insights in the book from the project, 30 Lessons for Livingwere about aging itself. Of all these lessons (having hit 60 recently myself), there’s one I like the best.

Here is the elders’ secret: Being old is much better than you think it will be.

It’s a bit difficult to believe, perhaps, because of our negative stereotypes about aging as a period of loss and decline. But I found that the Legacy Project elders defied these stereotypes. Over and over, I got the message that being old (and sometimes really old) was much better than people ever expected. Let’s hear from three elders about their surprising experience of aging.

Ursula, 94, is surprised when people comment about her longevity. She told me:

Worry about aging? No. I wake up and I know where I am, I lead a very normal life. I eat, I drink, I like to talk, as you can see! I have an interest in what’s going on in the world. Flexibility, that is important. I don’t have to worry. I get very upset when people complain. You wouldn’t believe the complainers. I tell you, you have to think positively. And if you think positive, physically and mentally, things are all right. So one day I don’t feel so good, so what, you know? I think positive and that is my blessing. I have my mind and my wonderful memories. You need to do things, you see, or there’s no quality of life, sitting home and crying doesn’t help. I have been lucky to be healthy. I have everyday a glass of wine.

Davia,74, discovered her knack for business later in life and runs a successful bed-and-breakfast.

Well, when it comes to aging, it sure as heck not the way I would have thought old age or growing older would be like! I never thought it would be anything like this. I always thought: Oh, I don’t want to think about that or that sounds terrible. That was when I was young and I would be thinking about what old age might be like, if it somehow cam up as a topic of conversation.

But I still feel like I’m on the road of life to somewhere, and there’s so many things I still want to do, that I love to do. I don’t look at old age as something to be pitied or dismissed. Now very young people, they’re going to do that anyway I know, up to certain point in their lives anyway, they will.

But there are so many things I’d like to do. I’d like to do more traveling. I don’t have great funds to do it with, but I’m going to do some more. And I’m happy to have a bed and breakfast to run and it still excites me. It’s tiring when it’s busy, but I can sleep when I need to. I can manage to rest up. My health is pretty good and I make a point of eating healthy foods ands trying to go a little exercise on a regular basis. So I don’t feel like it’s the end of a life, not yet.

The most inspiring elder I spoke with was Edwina, 94: Whenever I worry about getting older, I take a look at her view of the later part of life:

My advice to people about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.  The world is a magical place in lots of ways.  To enjoy getting up in the morning and watching the sun come up.  And that’s something that you can do when you are growing older.  You can be grateful, happy for the things that have happened.  You should enjoy your life.  Grow a little.  Just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean that you need to stop growing. I used to think that when you got old you sat back in a rocking chair and let the world go by.  Well that’s not for me and that’s not for a lot of people.  I can’t dance anymore, but if I could I would.

There’s no reason for anybody in this world to ever be bored.  That’s one thing I’ve always said.  Well if I died and went to heaven, I’d be bored to death with how they say heaven is.  There’s no need for you to be bored in this world.  There’s so much out there.

Our society is filled with negative attitudes about growing old. But what if they are all wrong? Based on the elder’s advice, many of us can all look forward to a happier old age than we expect!

Why I’m Looking Forward to December

I’ve spent a lot of the past decade interviewing wise and fascinating older people. But I think I’m in for what may be my most exciting interviewee ever: Tao Porchon Lynch. For anyone able to get to New York City on lynchDecember 17 to join us, it should be a memorable event.

At 98 years young,Tao Porchon Lynch is still teaching yoga.  She marched with Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930 Salt March, helped Jews escape the Nazis as a French Resistance fighter during World War II, and walked with Martin Luther King. It would take much more than a blog post to list her other achievements, from being a contestant on America’s Got Talent (at age 96), to writing about the “spiritual side of being, to maintaining an active yoga teaching schedule.

The organizers of the series on life wisdom at the Rubin Museum have invited us to discuss “the secrets to a good life.” I can’t imagine a better source for information about that theme than Tao!

Vacation: Use It to Learn from Your Family’s Elders!

During the summer, people often get together with their extended families, offering a great opportunity for summer elder wisdomfun, recreation – and gathering elder wisdom!

Why not use this time to encourage your kids to have meaningful “elder wisdom” conversations with the elders in your family?

Older people are a unique source of advice for living for younger people. And we need to tap this source much more vigorously than we are currently doing — both for young people’s sake and that of our elders.

We often do ask our elders to tell their life stories. But that activity is very different from asking their advice. You don’t just want their reminiscences; what’s truly valuable are the lessons they learned from their experience and that they wish to pass on to younger generations.

So while we are visiting older relatives, why don’t we all  take an hour (okay, it can be before or after the trip to the beach) to consult our elders about their lessons for living?

Your children are the best ones to start this conversation and they can ask questions that are highly relevant to them. Is Sammy concerned about bullying? Some elders (especially immigrants) were ferociously bullied as children. Is Pat concerned about finding the right partner? You have elders who have long experience in relationships, but who are rarely asked for their advice about them. Are your college kids worried about the job market? If so, how about advice from people who went through the Great Depression?

Remember that this is different from asking Grandpa “What did you do in World War II?” or Grandma “What was life like in the Depression?” The goal is to genuinely and interestedly ask for advice: “What lessons for living did you learn from those experiences?” Taking this approach elevates the role of elders to what they have been through most of the human experience: counselors and advisers to the less-experienced young.

Give it a try on vacation (and let me know how it went!). Here are some questions to get you started; it can help to send these in advance to your elders so they can ponder them a bit. More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.(and you can watch elders sharing their lessons on our YouTube channel).

  • What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
  • Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
  • As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
  • What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
  • What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
  • What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
  • What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

Add go ahead and add your own. I guarantee it will enrich your summer vacation this year!

Join Me at The Shift Network’s Transforming Aging Summit!

I hope you can join me and other experts on aging in a unique on-line event – that you can take part in from the comfort of your own computer! And it’s entirely free of charge.

This event features a new multidimensional paradigm of aging — infused with vitality, passion and purpose, as well as continual growth and service. I’ll be joining other top conscious aging experts — including Joan Borysenko, John Robbins, Rick Moody, Mary Catherine Bateson, Richard Leider, Connie Goldman and others — who will help empower you to make your later years your “greater years.”

Presentations will feature:

  • A positive vision of aging & conscious aging approaches
  • More purpose, passion & a higher vision for your life
  • A powerful pathway for being “relevant”
  • Dynamic mentors who are embracing elderhood
  • Access to many invaluable conscious aging resources
  • A supportive community of kindred spirits

It’s March 1-3 — and all the information is here.


Ask Your Elders: Pearls of Wisdom from a Reader

We love it at the Legacy Project when our readers offer their wisdom. One such person (who wishes to remain pearlsanonymous) read an article I wrote in Aeon Magazine about why we need to see older people as sources of life wisdom. I think you will enjoy the insightful response – and the beautiful poem.

 I wish more young people (including myself when I was young) paid more attention to old people as sources of all kinds of things. My grandmother was a pioneer emigree to an cattle ranch, from  an English drawing room in the early 1900s. Instead of embroidery and piano recitals she coped with 13 children, winters, a log cabin and wolves around at night. But she died before I was old enough to talk to her much  or appreciate what she might have told me about her thoughts and ideas about life in those years. Perhaps you could lead (or are leading) a movement to revalue the old, who are not all wise and wonderful but at least have experiences to share that offer some insights into life as is. I have to say magazines etc. for old people don’t play their part in showing the depth of what old people can offer, since so much of their material has to do with health, finances or travel. I once tried to get my retired teachers’ magazine to have ideas about life as  a theme for one issue, but they didn’t bite and so we still get issues on hobbies and pets and cooking etc.  etc. Pity!

And I just had to send you this poem – one of 60 in a book I self published for my kids when I was sixty, 15 years ago.

Sociologists study the old, write theses

On how people fit into society

Or don’t.

Their machines survey,

 Make graphs, collate pages

On finances, food habits, maladies,

But they don’t tell the true tale

On their tables and charts, how things strike the mind, the brain.

Sixty years hand in hand with experience

Don’t  show on an axis.

As I walk by the sea, watch a child,

Study the stars,

Feel wonder and terror,

Only I know my real statistics.

Young and Old Together Sharing Wisdom: Doesn’t Get Much Better than This!

I’m a firm believer in the power of older people sharing their wisdom and advice for living with younger folks. But rarely do I get to see it in action the way I did at the University of Rhoda Island a few weeks ago. It was a powerful testament to the way the generations can come together both to share important ideas – and to enjoy each other’s company.

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To our South Korean Fans: 당신의 도움이 필요합니다!

I hope I got that phrase right! For those of you who don’t speak Korean, it should mean “I need your help!”South Korea edition

Specifically, I would love some help in understanding something that’s wonderful, but a bit mysterious: the astonishing reaction to the Legacy Project’s message in South Korea.

After the book on the Legacy Project, 30 Lessons for Living, was published, translations have come out in German, Chinese, and Japanese, among others. Everywhere, we’ve gotten great feedback about the elder wisdom portrayed in the book.

But nowhere has the interest been as overwhelming as in South Korea (where the title is 내가 알고 있는 걸 당신도 알게 된다면).

The book was published in South Korea (with the cool cover, above) one year ago. It has been on the South Korean bestseller list since then  (right now it’s #4) and has sold  over 160,000 copies. On a site that publishes book reviews (similar, I gather, to Goodreads), it is one of the most reviewed self-help books – and mostly with top scores.

So I would love to know: Why has 30 Lessons for Living been such a hit in South Korea?

With the help of a Korean-speaking colleague, I explored the media and blog attention to the book, which gave  ideas like these:

  • Readers in their 30’s and 40’s expressed how the book helped them to think about their current concerns, like parenting, marriage, and fear of getting old.
  • Historically, young South Koreans were supposed to respect elders, but this attitude is being replaced with views of the older generation as old-fashioned and outdated.
  • The book appealed to nostalgia for times when there were stronger links between the generations in South Korea.
  • The book included questions that the readers wanted to ask their own parents and grand parents.

These reasons all seem plausible, but still don’t seem to explain entirely why 30 Lessons for Living has resonated so strongly with South Korean readers.

Any ideas out there? If so, please share them as comments!



Ask Your Elders While There’s Still Time: Six Great Questions

This year, I lost two important elders in my life. Ruth was my undergraduate mentor – a professor who took meNEWS  under her wing many years ago and brought me into the field of gerontology. Helene came back to my university 20 years ago, got her degree in her early 70s, and worked with me as a research assistant into her 80s. She remained a trusted friend and advisor. Both of these remarkable women passed away this year, leaving us with wonderful memories.

But in each case, they left us with something more: a statement of their lessons for living. And that’s because I interviewed both of them for the Legacy Project. Their friends and families now have a record of the advice they offered to younger people for living a happier and more fulfilling life, learned over their long lives (87 and 89, respectively).

In this post, I urge you to do the same – before it’s too late.

One goal of the Legacy Project is to encourage people to talk with elders – older family members, friends, neighbors –  about their lessons for living. But people wonder about the kinds of questions we used to get elders talking about their advice for younger people. We’ve got an answer – and now is as good time as any to ask your family’s elders (or your older friends) about there lessons!

After interviewing hundreds of older people about their advice for younger generations, we were able to identify questions that work well to get the conversation started. These six questions were particularly thought-provoking for our respondents and brought a wide range of interesting answers.

1. If a young person asked you, “What have you learned in your ____ years in this world,” what would you tell him or her?

2. Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give an example?

3. As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed the course of your life or set you on a different track?

4. What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?

5. What can younger people do to avoid having regrets later in life?

6. What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?

And after you’ve talked with your elder – don’t forget to post some lessons on our “Share Your Lessons” page!

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 to lists of top gift books.

Christmas is a time 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 30 Lessons for Living was to make sure their wisdom is not lost, and to pass it on to generations to come.

We’re Back! And Welcoming Our Summer Interns – And Guest Bloggers!

It’s been a great break for two months, allowing the Legacy Project team to concentrate on our new project, in which we’re gathering the advice for love, committed relationships, and marriage from the oldest (and wisest) Americans. We’ll be back to posting new elder wisdom regularly (including hot-off-the-presses lessons from the new Marriage Advice Project). We hope you missed us, and we’re glad to be back!

And what better way to start up again than to introduce you to our two fantastic summer undergraduate interns who have been part of a very innovative program developed by our partner Risa Breckman in the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Risa is director of the New York City Elder Abuse Center, which addresses many issues related to mistreatment of older people.

The interns spend time both learning about older people in difficult situations, including elder abuse and neglect. But they balance out that challenging work with Legacy Project interviews, seeking gems of elder wisdom about living a happy and fulfilling life. This unique combination of experiences provides a tremendous background on both the possibilities and the difficulties of aging.

We’ll be posting their guest blogs on elder wisdom soon. But first, join us in welcoming these budding gerontologists!

Laura Museau:
Laura Museau is a rising Junior at Cornell University majoring in Human Development on a pre-medical track. During her sophomore year at Cornell while taking a class on adulthood and aging Laura realized that she was largely unaware of matters concerning older people, especially elder abuse and neglect. It is for this reason she chose to apply to the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project (RRIP). As an intern with the RRIP, she is looking forward to learning how different agencies and systems in New York City are responding to elder abuse. Laura is also excited to hear the wisdom elders have to share by conducting interviews with them through the Legacy Project. She hopes to leave this summer with a newfound appreciation for the elderly and a plan to help others on Cornell’s campus open their eyes to the value of older adults and the unique challenges they face. She believes that the elderly are undervalued in our society, but that raising awareness through education can prevent issues such as elder abuse from slipping under the radar.

Austin Lee:
Austin Lee is rising senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University. He is double majoring in Sociology and Biology & Society and minoring in Gerontology. Austin’s interest in the elderly was sparked when he joined the Cornell Elderly Partnership (CEP) as a freshman and began regularly volunteering and working with older adults within the Ithaca community. As one of the two students working with the Risk and Resiliency Project Internship for the summer of 2013, Austin hopes to learn more about the nuances of elder abuse. He is excited by the opportunity to interact with professionals and organizations within the field of aging and elder abuse and work alongside them. The Risk and Resiliency Project’s partnership with the Legacy Project is an appealing aspect of the internship because it provides a unique chance to interact with older adults in a research setting that is focused on learning from their experiences in life. Gerontology has become a true passion for Austin, and he plans to pursue a career in the field. With this in mind, he is looking forward to taking a more active role in advocating against ageism and elder abuse through all that he learns this summer.

Stay tuned for their guest blogs!