How to Survive a Crisis: Advice from the Wisest Americans

Who better to tell us how to survive and thrive in a crisis than elders who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and even the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic? It’s a pleasure to share these insights from the Cornell Chronicle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has us asking difficult questions: How will we survive this? What are we willing to sacrifice? What comes next?

In a moment that feels unprecedented, we can learn from the hard-won wisdom of a generation that weathered the most devastating events of the 20th century and lived to tell the tale.

Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development, began a 10-year project interviewing older Americans in 2003, his research described in his 2012 book, “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.”

Pillemer is also professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology. His major research interests include human development, with a special emphasis on family and social relationships in middle age and beyond.

For his research, Pillemer started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. The average age of his interviewees was 77; the oldest was 108. Approximately 1,000 of them outlasted the Great Depression, 1,200 endured World War II and 60 survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?

Take the long view

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the nation, the very longevity of the oldest Americans is proof this crisis will end and rebuilding will begin. The elders can provide us with the long view, confirming in a literal sense that “this, too, shall pass.”

“I met Holocaust survivors, refugees from many of the early 20th century’s other major conflicts, and people who lost everything in the Depression,” Pillemer said. “By the time I sat with them 40, 50, 60, or 70 years later, they had built comfortable, often successful and fulfilling lives. Their message was extraordinarily clear: Crises occur, societies change and, with resilience, we recover and move on.”

Focusing on what your future can be a decade or more from now can provide an antidote to worry, the elders advise. This lesson is also a reminder: Present actions are the future stories of how we survived. What story do we want to tell?

Be generous

If you want to help yourself, the elders said, help others. Pillemer noted that their own poor families helped out even poorer ones during the Great Depression. They remember World War II as a time when communities came together and everyone joined hands and hearts to support one another at home.

“Generously assisting other people to the extent that we can is a major way people are able to feel a sense of control,” Pillemer said. “Whether that was helping other people during the Great Depression or assisting the war effort during WWII. Generously helping others is a very good, self-interested strategy.”

Don’t worry – prepare instead

The oldest Americans have experience worrying about an event, going through the event and dealing with the fallout. According to Pillemer, they overwhelmingly agree: At best, worrying wastes time; at worst, it increases your suffering.

“They found that the best antidote to gnawing worries was taking action,” Pillemer said. “Preparation for the worst doesn’t just make sense for your protection; it also makes you feel empowered. From their experience of crisis, they advise that conscious, rational planning greatly reduces free-floating worry.”

Enjoy small daily pleasures

The last lesson Pillemer shared was the importance of experiencing joy and savoring small daily pleasures. When people seek happiness, they often think about “big-ticket” items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. The elders tell us that a positive attitude in a crisis depends on thinking small.

“A morning cup of coffee … a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” he said. “Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.”

Pillemer’s research highlights the wisdom of a disappearing generation, and the inestimable value of the stories and knowledge of the elders among us. And so, with no small amount of urgency, one final lesson taken from Pillemer’s lead: Ask your elders your questions while you can, and find comfort in their resilience.

Written by E.C. Barrett who is a freelance writer, for the Cornell Chronicle.

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!

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.

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.

What You Don’t Have Can Teach You a Lot About Happiness

How can you be happy without a lot of material things? Families are dealing with that problem today.

The experts on the issue are oldest Americans, the last surviving witnesses to the Great Depression. Bonita, 96, tells about a childhood most of us can hardly imagine. Living on very little, Bonita, her family, and her friends found it possible to be very happy.

Here’s her story:

People now think they need so much to be happy. We were happy in my family, and just think of what we didn’t have!

To give you an idea of what we lived without, here are a few practical things that I have had to learn over my life:

• To use electric lights rather than kerosene lamps.

• To use electric stoves and later a microwave oven instead of a wood stove.

• To use an electric washing machine instead off a scrub board, boiler on the stove, and three galvanized wash tubs.

• To use an electric clothes dryer instead of hanging the clothes on the line outside.

• To have a faucet in the kitchen rather than getting water by the pail-full from a spring in the meadow a fourth of a mile away.

• To have an indoor bathroom rather than taking a bath in the wash tub in front of a kitchen wood stove.

• To have toilet paper rather than an old Sears and Roebuck catalog.

• To use an indoor toilet rather than the privy behind the house.

• To live in a home with an electric iron rather than a sad iron heated on the stove.

• To listen to a TV rather than a Victrola.

• To answer the telephone when it rings rather than having to check out the special ring on a party line.

• To use frozen and prepared foods from the store rather than baking bread and eating garden and home canned foods.

• To buy ready-made clothes in a store instead of those made by a dressmaker who came to our house.

There are so many things people take for granted today, that we didn’t have. For example, life without a bathroom is hard to describe. One has to live it to know what it is like. Our bathing in those days was done in a basin of water that we carried to our bedrooms. In the winter, this meant trying to undress as near as possible to the stovepipe which added a bit of heat to the bedroom. During the winter, Mother tried to see to it that we each had a bath of some sort once a week. In the morning we washed a bit in the kitchen.

Our toilet was a small shed about six feet square. They were always built with three holes so daily trips to the privy often meant that it could be a social affair. My other memory of this building is of the swarms of flies in the summer. They buzzed and hummed around beneath you and kept you company whenever nature called you to this place.

The other big job before running water was doing the family washing for ten people. It started on Sunday night when a big copper wash boiler had to be filled with water from the spring up in the meadow. This would bring the water up to the room temperature during the night. Then Mother would heat the water to boiling on the wood stove. All the white clothes were boiled first and then washed. It was supposed to be more sanitary to boil the sheets and underwear. Then the hot clothes were removed with a “clothes stick”- a long bleached pole- and carried by the pail-full to the back wash room where we had three galvanized tubs on a large bench. In one tub, we rubbed the clothes on a wash board with Fels Naptha Soap. We rinsed the clothes in the second tub and then put them thru bluing water which seemed to counteract the yellowish color that the clothes often had.

The four older girls all took turns at the wash board in 15 minute shifts. The clothes were put through a hand wringer that had two rubber rollers and squeezed out some of the water. The clothes were then hung outside on a clothes line in the side yard or on the porch in the winter. I can see the long underwear during the winter as it froze stiff almost as soon as it was put on the line. Later in the day we had to bring the clothes back into the house and thaw them out and finished drying them on racks by the wood stove. The clothes really did smell sweet and clean after being out in the fresh air. Mother’s hands were always cold and sore as she went out on those cold winter days to hang out the clothes. Often she would heat the wooden clothes pins in the oven so that they would warm her hands for a few minutes.

Ironing was started on Tuesday and often took all week to do. Flat irons called “sad irons” were heated on the stove and then wiped on a cloth containing paraffin. I think this was to wipe off any smoke from the stove and to make the irons slide easier. We had both irons with handles fastened to the iron and detachable handles which we preferred. As the iron cooled off it had to go back on the stove and we’d try to find a hotter one to use. In those days we always ironed the sheets and pillowcases, and usually had two tablecloths along with everyone’s personal clothes. It was a really big job.

This house was lighted with kerosene lamps. They were smoky and smelly. On Saturday we had to collect all of them and wash the chimneys, rinse them and dry them. The wicks had to be trimmed. The base of the lamp was filled with kerosene and then the lamps were each returned to the rooms where they belonged. The light that they produced was not very good.

The lamp was usually placed in the middle of our large dining room table and at night we all sat around it to do our homework. The older members of the family checked on the younger ones to see that pages of addition were completed and correct or that we had memorized our spelling words for the next day. We practiced our reading assignments by reading to some older member of the family from our reading books. Our teachers wanted each of us to memorize a short poem each week and we were expected to recite it in front of the class during a Friday afternoon assembly. “October’s Bright Blue Weather” and “Robert Reese” were two of my favorites.

With no television or record players, we had to make our own fun and entertainment. When we were through working on our school work for the next day, we often played games. We had checkers, dominoes, caroms, and card games like flinch, authors, concentration, and spit. Sometimes we played hide the thimble or spin the platter. We loved to play dress-up in the old clothes that were sent to us from relatives in California or the Lessells family in New York. We had names like Mrs. Colburn and Mrs. Osborn and would talk to each other at great length about our children, our husbands, and our lives while dressed in long black skirts, fancy lace blouses, and pretty old evening dresses form our relatives who were a bit better off than our family financially.

The Old Cliches about Living the Good Life Apply

It’s summer and the livin’ is easy, which leads us at the Legacy Project to ponder what “living the good life” really means. Miguel, 79, tells us that tried and true wisdom pretty much gets it right.

Past generations had it about right.  Most of the old cliches about living the good life apply.  One should eat healthfully, get a full night’s sleep, exercise regularly, set priorities, not sweat the small stuff, spend a lot of time with family, follow your heart, plan ahead, never look back with regret, give it your all, not take life too seriously, try everything — you only go around once.

Live beneath your means, make new friends, but cherish the old ones, admit mistakes, learn to listen, keep secrets, don’t gossip, never take action when you’re angry, don’t expect life to be fair, never procrastinate, call your mother.

Most important: (1) choose your parents with care – they will provide the good genes and set you on the right path; (2) pick the right spouse — everything else pales by comparison.

Life Gets Better after 90: Cecile’s Lesson

In Cecile Lamkin’s living room, a wall of windows looks out through the still-bare trees to a calm lake below. This house has been Cecile’s home for over 50 years, only she recently gave up daily swims, she said, “Because I can’t get down the stairs anymore.” Widowed several years earlier after 68 years of marriage, Cecile, 93, explained that live after turning 90 has brought her a sense of wholeness, acceptance, and the ability to enjoy small pleasures.

I am much clearer now. I say that as an older person, not just as an adult, but as an older person, things are much clearer. I was just telling my daughter, I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been thinking about why it is that I’m happier now. I came up with a lot of stuff. First of all, things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important. The second thing is, I don’t feel responsible in the same way that I used to feel. I’ve been a pretty responsible person, but I don’t feel that responsibility anymore. My children are in charge of their lives, and whatever they do with them, they will do with them.

And I live in a place, my house, that I love. In the summer here it is wonderful, and I live outdoors at that time. My family comes, friends come, and I use it like a vacation. I’ve also given up feeling that I have to entertain people. If there’s someone coming up, they will bring such and such. It’s very liberating for me. And I just feel a contentedness that I’ve never felt before. I’ve heard other people my age say the same thing.”

In the Legacy Project, so many people told us that they were happier than ever in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. So why do we all fear growing old so much? Please comment and share your thoughts on that question!

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!

Lighten Up! A Good Lesson for the New Year

Isn’t it ironic to see all the media stories at this time of year about “holiday stress?” How did what should be a relaxing and restorative time become yet another stressful event? As I think about the life lessons of the Legacy Project elders, one message seems to me helpful in staying relaxed over the holidays: Lighten up.

The elders often pointed out that a key to savoring each of life’s wonderful moments is developing and maintaining a sense of humor. Here are two takes on that theme from Alison and Margaret.

Alison, 79, has traveled the world after her retirement for a career as a teacher. She gave this advice:

You should see the fun in the world instead of dwelling on the unhappy things. Take each day and live it, love it, it might be your very last day here. Don’t be aggravated, don’t aggravate anybody else, and just keep a smile on your face. You’ll be happier and everyone around you will be, too. Try to remain upbeat, no matter what, and never lose your sense of humor, even if your jokes are awful. Keep cracking your jokes to whoever you see. Find something fun and pleasant and happy to say to them. You’ll lead a much better life that way. Look at the glass as half full – be positive – look at a problem as to how it can be made to work out, not that it cannot.

Margaret, 71, whose responses sparkled with good humor, wrote:

It’s like I’ve taken the attitude of what difference does it make? So I eat my chocolate, I have my martini at night, I don’t take as good care of myself since I’ve gotten older. But I feel pretty darn good to be as old as I am!

Many elders have learned to take a lighter attitude toward life – perhaps this is a good New Year’s resolution for all of us!