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.
Nothing is more exciting for an author than anticipating a new book coming out. And 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage will be out in a little over a month (January 8). There’s a lot of attention and activity starting already.
First, visit our great new website for the Marriage Advice Project. Check out the video on the new book, connect to our Youtube channel with videos of elders sharing their lessons on love, relationships, and marriage, and add your own lessons for loving.
Second, here’s your chance to get a free copy! There’s a giveaway on Goodreads between now and December 8. Enter to win a free copy of the book, hot off the press.
Gerontologist Pillemer shares findings from his survey of 700 people in “very long marriages” (the shortest here have lasted three decades, the longest, more than five) for tips on maintaining successful long-term relationships. The respondents, charmingly called “the experts” by Pillemer, share “storehouses of invaluable lived experience” on areas including questions to ask yourself before settling down, domestic violence, and late-in-life sex. Communication is discussed at length via six lessons, including being polite to your partner within “the comfortable informality of married life” and choosing the appropriate time for serious conversations. The experts break down conflict by examining the “five major stressors” that affect most relationships, with rules for dealing with the in-laws and properly delegating household labor. In addition to summarizing his survey’s results, Pillemer shares the experts’ own words. One respondent describes divorcing her husband and remarrying him 64 years later, while an 88-year-old “rough and tumble” Korean War veteran suggests taking an interest in your partner’s preferred activities, remarking, “I went to operas. Operas!” The benefits of such a comprehensive study incorporating so many years of experience should be ample, for newlyweds and contemporaries of the respondents alike. The advice is astute, fresh, and well selected by Pillemer. This book would serve as an excellent gift for newlyweds.
Stay tuned for more announcements as we count down to January 8 (including a surprise media appearance…)!
Once again this year, I’m proposing a new holiday. Or rather, a new use for an old holiday. I believe that we should make Thanksgiving the day when we celebrate elder wisdom by asking older people to tell us their advice for living. Here’s why.
Occasionally, the question runs through younger people’s minds (whether they admit it or not): What are old people good for? Our society’s unremitting ageism portrays older persons as sick, frail, unproductive, and even the culprits for busting the federal budget.
Earlier retirement and increased residential separation of older people has broken age-old contacts between the generations. Indeed, our society has become extraordinarily segregated by age, such that young people’s contact with elders is almost exclusively within the family (and even that is limited). Combined with the persistently negative images in the media, this question – What good are old people? – lurks in the background.
But the answer is amazingly simple. For as long as humans have been humans, older people have played critically important roles as advice-givers. Indeed, anthropological research shows that survival in pre-literate societies was dependent on the knowledge of the oldest members. It’s easy to forget that it is only in the past 100 years or so that people have turned to anyone other than the oldest person they knew to solve life’s problems.
Now here’s the important point: Old people are still 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. That’s why I’m proposing that we make learning elder wisdom a part of our families’ Thanksgiving holiday.
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.
Now for the holiday. Thanksgiving is something most Americans celebrate, regardless of religious persuasion. And it’s the one time in the year when families are most likely to gather — and include their older relatives. What if we all take a half hour (okay, it can be before or after the football game) 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 Thanksgiving (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. We’ve used these questions in interviews with hundreds of elders in the Legacy Project, and they work very well). More information is available in the book 30 Lessons for Living.
So let’s declare Thanksgiving (or a part of it) Elder Advice-Giving Day. Our elders won’t be here forever, so this year is a good time to start!
Questions for the elders:
- 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 your own! And ask your elders!
Our summer interns are back! Three great undergraduates spent part of the summer interviewing older people about their advice for living. Here’s the post from Ryan, a rising senior attending York College at the City University of New York, majoring in Gerontological Studies and Services and minoring in Black Studies. He learned an important lesson about making the most of one’s life – travel!
Vacations are great opportunities to escape. They allow for time to de-stress from all of the work and anxieties left back at home. When traveling, though, perhaps more significant than what you leave behind is where you go. Retirement provides a great opportunity for traveling, but there is something to be said about traveling at a young age. When George, 73, was asked about a turning point in his life, he did not have to think twice for an answer:
When I left General Motors, before I went into teaching, I decided I was going to take my retirement. And at the time I was perhaps 35 at the most. So I decided I was going to retire. And I took that time to travel. And I traveled throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. And that changed my life a great deal, because it taught me a lot about cultures and the value of having the experience of other cultures and to compare cultures and to see how other people lived and how they did things. And I’ve been pursuing travel ever since then. And that was one of the key turning points in my life, probably when I was about 35, and determined that I wanted to retire to see what retirement would be like in the future. A weird choice, but I’ve always been a little weird.
When I went into the classroom, I went in telling students, ‘If you don’t travel, you don’t become educated.’ Because to be educated you gotta have a whole panorama of experiences and those aren’t going to come from home. Especially when I got to teach in New Jersey, where kids had not even left the state. Had never even left the state and were in college. And that was kind of sad to me that they had nothing, no point of reference in which to place things, you know? And so that was kind of sad and scary and so I’ve always preached ‘Travel is the second part of education.
As I get closer and closer to graduation, George’s suggestion to travel becomes more and more appealing!
One thing we often forget is that parents and children spend the majority of their lives together after the kids become adults! The elders in the Legacy Project had very useful advice for negotiating relationships between parents and their adult children. Two elders share their lessons for negotiating this very important, but sometimes touchy, relationship.
Marv, 83, successfully raised two children. He points out that all the stress of child-rearing doesn’t end when they become adults:
I think to a certain extent your offspring are always children. One always wants one’s children to be happy, and I suppose it’s the most disturbing thing for parents is when they can’t see happiness in their adult children’s lives or their children’s relationships or in their marriages.You worry about aspects of their interactions with their partners and when you can see that the way they’re interacting is not productive. You worry about your children. When they’re adults, you worry about as much when they’re adults as when they were not adults.
Of course, one outgrowth of this worry is the desire to give advice. Charles recommends that it it possible to advise children, but that the approach must be subtle.
I think giving advice requires great subtlety. Well, your adult children sometimes ask you for advice, and sometimes it becomes clear that they are not looking for advice, they’re simply looking for understanding of their points of view. So I think it’s easy for children to misinterpret your real feelings about them, and feel more pressure than one thinks they should be feeling. It’s up to the parent to be subtle enough that you are able to refrain from expressing your attitudes, so that the child feels intruded upon, or that you are judging.
Renata, 79, focused on accepting adult children as they are:
With our kids now, there’s good feeling, good relationship. You keep your mouth shut. We made out mistakes, we let them make their mistakes. But I don’t give advice unless they really ask for it. . I feel I can say most anything I want, except I would not interfere with them, even though I see something that I think should be done differently, I wouldn’t express it.
I think some parents expect too much of their kids. I think you have to accept what your kids are willing to do for you and not complain because they don’t do more for you. I think you just have to sort of give them freedom to live their lives knowing that they’re there if you need them and they know you’re there if they need you. So I think you have to stand back.
Any advice for getting along with your adult children? What’s worked for you?
John MacGregor, 70, lived much of his life looking toward the future, striving in his distinguished academic career. His lesson is to learn to live more in the moment. He learned this in his sixties, but suggests younger people learn it sooner.
I don’t say people shouldn’t think about the future. But when you really give yourself up to the present, when you’re in the room and you look around you, and there are other people in the room and you’re able to really zero in on those other people, and being able to really sense what they’re feeling and tap in to their own presence, then it’s not aimless at all. You feel very connected, very grounded, and it’s energizing. So you receive energy by making those connections in the present moment.
And it’s not just with people. The same thing is true with a walk in the woods. If you can really open yourself up to hearing the sounds and smelling the smells, and feeling the touches, the wind, and all those things, then you increasingly feel like an integral part of that system, so that you too have feelings, and they begin to connect with what’s going on around you. You may feel small, but it’s not a very frightening smallness. Instead it’s a feeling of being a part of a larger something. There’s a connectedness that is very, very reassuring. So that’s what I mean by being present and being connected to now.
I think you inevitably look at the future, but to the extent that you can still appreciate what is going on today and at the moment, then exactly what that future is going to be continues to be an open question, and that openness I think has great value. You’re allowing in some sense your intuition to play a role, and not being afraid that somehow that intuition is going to compete with and overwhelm your reason. That the two can work together, and support one another, influence one another.
It’s not easy, particularly for those of us who spend a lot of time in academic institutions or other jobs where the rational part of you is applauded. Living in the present and enjoying life isn’t something that you complete, or accomplish; it’s something that you strive toward, something that you work on, something that you engage with. It’s a process, at least in my experience.
It’s been a while since we posted one of the elders “Lists for Living.” We love these organized lists, in which some of the Legacy Project elders were able to sum up a lifetime of wisdom in a few key points. Liza, 68, has some thought-provoking ideas for living the good life:
1. You will NOT experience regret over a decision to remain single and childless. Creating your own life can be as exciting as the predictable stresses (and even the joys) of the procreation and education of progeny.
2. Friendships should fit your emotional and intellectual needs. You should have many different kinds of friends – never depend upon just one or two. Understand that you, and thus your friends, should be expected to change over time. Llife is far richer if you vary the nature of your relationships – it is stifling to hitch yourself to/depend upon/share experiences with only one other person.
3. Always take advantage of an opportunity to have new experiences – travel, activities or in the realm of ideas. You learn as much from unpleasant experiences as you do from pleasureable ones.
4. Strive throughout your life to achieve a clear sense of who you are, what you want, what you want to be recalling as you die, and how you wish to be remembered.
5. Devote as much time as possible toward understanding the evolution and history of the universe and of humankind This long-range perspective makes you grateful and more generous.
First, let me say that I love the holiday season. But, as Christmas approaches and we are inundated with advertisements and messages to spend wildly, it’s worth taking a break for elder wisdom. In the Legacy Project, over and over the elders told us that people and experiences matter more than things. In hundreds of interviews, they unanimously caution that time spent getting a lot more stuff than you really need is time wasted. The holidays seem like the right time to listen to our elders and think twice about how much we buy.
Steve, 78, tells how he learned to put material rewards in perspective, focusing instead on the accumulation of love for family and friends. As I’m planning my Christmas shopping, I try to keep his lesson in my head!
We were among the very lucky ones. Both my wife and I were born into middle class merchant families, with caring parents in small communities where you knew and were known by your neighbors. My wife lost her father when she was only 13. She, her mother and sister moved to another, beautiful small community where life was comfortable though not luxurous and values for the young were set by the example of parent and community. My childhood with loving parents and an older brother was uncomplicated and also filled with good values set by example. Owning and accumulating was not an important part of life for either of our families.
This upbringing undoubtedly established most of our values and attitudes for the adult years. Honesty, integrity and compassion for ones fellow human beings remained the anchor for all decisions. As we matured, reared and educated four children and attempted to pass along those values to them, we learned that listening is far more important than lectures, and though it sometimes seemed we were not heard, the example of our lives spoke loudly to our youngsters.
Now, at 71 and 78, as we progress through our senior years, living comfortably — not luxurously — we are increasingly aware that accumulating STUFF is of little importance. The accumulation of love for each other, of our children and of life-long friends and extending that love to those less fortunate than we have been is the centerpiece of our lives, of humanity and civilization.
Sometimes the elders spoke with nearly one voice. So it was with their advice to take advantage of every day given to you. They didn’t feel the need to elaborate too much on this point; their message is more along the lines of “just do it!”
If you need motivation, post these four comments from four of the wisest Americans on your refrigerator:
Live each day to the fullest. Life is an adventure worth living. Smile! (Juanita, 87)
Well, my mother used to say live every day as if you had forever to live and yet also it was your last day. So make every day count. (Mei-Zhen, 76)
One of the things that comes to my mind is to do whatever it is that presents itself to you, rather than to let that opportunity pass and then regret a lack of involvement in it. Don’t miss an opportunity! (Eddie, 68)
I’ll put it this way. Yesterday is a cancelled check. Tomorrow is a promissory note. Today is cash in hand, spend it wisely. (Morris, 91)
Thanks to our summer intern, Laura Museau, for learning Jack’s lesson for a happy old age, and sharing it in this guest blog!
It is said that experience teaches wisdom. During my time with the Risk and Resiliency Internship Project, I had the good fortune to have been taught wisdom by listening to the experiences of older adults. The Legacy Project interviews that I conducted this summer contain valuable information that will be useful as I journey into adulthood. One of the key themes discussed by those I interviewed highlighted using passion as a guiding force in life. Passion can make the difference between living a life filled with regrets and one of contentment. For even if accomplishments fall short, the heart’s desires have been satisfied.
The thoughts that Jack Bronsen, a writer from southern California, shared with me expressed this best. He was clear that having something that he is passionate about has been the critical factor in having a good quality of life in older age:
At the end of your life or in the latest years is when you look back and you assess what was important. I was passionate about my work. I still am. I did a specialized type of drawing, still doing it, for almost 60 years: making India ink drawings of inventions for patent attorneys around the country. I loved to play golf. I still do even though I’m in my 80th year. I don’t do it very well but I still do it twice a week and I do walk a full course.
I love to write. I’ve written 3 novels and quite a bit more as a restaurant reviewer and newspaper columnist. I’m also passionate about acrostic puzzles which I love to do. I do the New York Times one every other week on Sunday.
My father loved his work. He worked until he was 82. Then he retired and he watched television all day. He went straight down hill. And the same basically happened to my mother who lived to that same fine age of 91 but did not seem to have any real passions. And they both kind of faded away mentally and that would be my concern: that if I let go of my passion, I let go of my mind, of my life.
He emphatically stated that each person should “have something you are passionate about. All through your life. Not a person, but something that you do yourself that you love to do.