An Elder’s Advice for Getting through the Crisis

We have been asking older people for their advice on how we can cope with the current corona virus crisis. They have lived through other cataclysmic events, so we should take their suggestions very seriously. We’ve opened a new site where older people can share their advice, or younger people can interview their elders and post their advice. Please join in!

Ken, age 82, offers his advice to younger people:

The COVID-19 pandemic is a highly unusual period in everyone’s life. It has seemingly turned life up-side-down. I have experienced a variety of crisis in my 82 years, such as World War II,  the polio epidemic, deadly hurricanes, floods, and other traumatic events. There was a common thread that runs through each of them. That is, the people who truly care put their shoulders to the grindstone and do whatever it takes to help others survive and carry on. By pitching in and following the prescribed protocols and mandates, we will be helping to mitigate the virus’ deadly threats. That’s the least we can do.

We can do more if we live in a neighborhood or a community that needs help. Know what is happening to people’s lives as we work our way through this challenge. Start with one’s own family, one’s extended family, and one’s community. Families are making huge sacrifices and their concerns are not limited to health but to economics as well. It doesn’t matter if a person is 4 years old or 104 years old, there may be things that can be done to help one in need. Yes, be concerned about one’s own situation but focus on the greater good that could be done. Every day in life we are presented with a question. Am I contributing toward goodness or not? When we do contribute we can look back and not complain about the past but to have gratitude for how we were able to respond. Our gratitude can be for all the medical personnel and first responders who are on the front lines protecting us. We need not overlook all the essential workers and the legions of volunteers who devote   their time to make lives better for their communities. Yes, these are indeed challenging times but as all life on this amazing planet, we are all interconnected   and what we do to help others makes life not only have much meaning but makes us more human.

One brief story. I live in the Adirondack Mountains but I grew up along the coast of Rhode Island. As a child during WW II, we had many more governmental restrictions than the current virus restrictions. Most  everything was rationed or totally not available. Many food items were no longer available. Most everyone had to walk anyplace. There was limited gas   for cars. No cars were being made anyway. Auto makers were only making tanks. We had to use ration stamps when purchasing things. We could purchase only one pair of shoes each year. We had total blackouts on many nights do to German subs waiting off-shore to sink American ships. Daily practice bombing runs took place over our home by the Naval Aviators. So what do little kids do in my community? We had our little wagons and went door to door asking for scrap metal of any kind and rags. The metal went into making military weapons and the rags were for the war effort at home where they were need in the factories. Everybody pitched in to defeat the enemy. There was great fear on the part of our community but we all stuck together and did whatever we could to survive. Neighbors helped neighbors. That was then and this is now. Neighbors still help neighbors.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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!

Elder Wisdom, the Pope, and 30 Lessons for Living

I have to admit that I never expected to be compared to Pope Francis! Now if I am totally honest, I wasn’t exactly compared to the Holy Father. However, my book, 30 Lessons for Living, was just favorably compared to a book by Pope Francis and Friends, which still feels pretty flattering. And the Pope’s book is a very interesting one.

Pope Francis published a earlier book with his answers to children’s questions. He followed it up with this one:

Now in his 80s, Francis has published Sharing the Wisdom of Time, along with 250 interviewees, as well as editors and writers at Loyola Press and elsewhere — curated by Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica.

Ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s, the participants muse on the meaning of events in their lives that relate to work, struggle, love, death and hope as they share pivotal moments and the lessons learned.

Both wealthy and poor, educated and unskilled, the participants had worked as farmers, historians, teachers, recyclers, priests, pastors, chefs, nurses, writers and film directors, among other occupations. There’s also a 98-year-old veteran (he died several months before this book was published), who reminiscences about his bombing runs during World War II.

Whether Catholic or not, the book is of interest (and possibly inspiration) to anyone interested in elder wisdom and how it can transform our lives.

Make Thanksgiving “Elder Wisdom Day!”

Once again this year, I propose 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?

Now add your own!

And if you would like more ideas, I was interviewed by NPR with one of our wonderful Legacy Project Elders about holidays and elder wisdom. You can listen here.

 

Jeanie, 90, An Inspiration to Girls Everywhere – Our Intern Reports!

We are so lucky at the Legacy Project to have wonderful student interns who join us to learn about aging issues, and elder wisdom in particular. We ask them to profile lessons from an elder they interview. Emily Hoyt is a junior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, majoring in Human Development. Here’s what she learned from Jeanie.

Jeanie, age 90, has lived and continues to live an incredible life. Born in 1927, Jeanie overcame adversity to become a successful career woman. According to Jeanie, “you could be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher; that was about it.” Jeanie broke out of these traditional roles by going back to school in her thirties to complete her undergraduate degree and receive a graduate degree in Art History. She noted:

If I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t be where I am now.. One of the reasons I made it was because I had a group of friends, our husbands were successful, and we weren’t quite sure what we were doing. One of them said ‘You know when you get between 35 and 45 you either just gel and become frozen into what you are, or you really develop,’ and I thought, “Oh my God!”

Inspired to go back to school, Jeanie pursued her dream of completing an arts education. Because careers in art are hard to come by, Jeanie found the collegiate atmosphere “backbiting and competitive.” This pressure, however, taught Jeanie “how to handle [her]self and handle other people.” A great life skill for anyone in any field of study.

Jeanie told me that going back to school “absolutely was a life changer.” Her advice to girls today? Take advantage of every opportunity you are given. According to Jeanie, “the horizon [for girls] is so much greater now.” She advises girls to capitalize on the groundwork laid by previous generations of women.

After a successful 25-year career as a museum curator, Jeanie has learned a thing or two about working life. The saying “if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life” rings true for Jeanie. In fact, Jeanie felt “guilty about being paid for her job.” The intrinsic benefits she received from her job were payment enough.

Jeanie serves as an example for girls everywhere of breaking barriers and further progress for women. As women, it is our job to continue down the path that Jeanie has paved for us. We must jump at opportunities and continue to chip away at the glass ceiling until it shatters.

 

 

Having Trouble Facing Monday? Listen to this Elder!

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, and I was a bit overwhelmed looking forward to the coming week. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job. But facing the emails and tasks that are waiting can take a bit of the usual spring out of one’s step.

So I went back to the Legacy Project Elders, and I found what I needed. Flora, 80 and still very active, suggests the following idea. I’m trying it tomorrow (and I feel better already)!

Flora’s approach to living is to embrace the pleasures each day holds, and she reinforces that attitude with a daily habit:

I like to start out the day with a list of ten things that I’d like to do that day. Now, I’m not going to accomplish all of them and probably only one of them is going to work out, but I never know which one, at the beginning of the day. It’s not a “to do” list—it’s just a list of what I would like to try doing. I’m always looking for new things to try. They don’t have to be difficult things—I’m probably not going to take up hang gliding or something like that. Something simple. Finding new opportunities and new challenges each day.
If I were to give any particular word of advice, I would say, go about the business of the day, humdrum as it might be, but walk on your tiptoes, waiting for the “aha!” experiences. That happens when you’re going around the corner doing the normal, everyday things. So be prepared for those “aha!” experiences that may happen anytime. That way you’re always open to, and watching for, something different—watching for a feather from an angel’s wing.