What Elders Know That The Rest Of Us Don't

Karl Pillemer's new book 30 Lessons for Living results from an effort to collect wisdom from more than 1,200 older Americans. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Pillemer and Helene Rosenblatt, one of the elders featured in the book, about what we can learn from our elders and why we don't listen to them more often.

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TONY COX, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll bring you the tips you need to get ahead on your holiday shopping for Black Friday. That's just in a few moments. But first, it's Thanksgiving, one of those rare American holidays where two, three, even four generations gather around a delicious meal and talk and share. But as you sit next to grandma or grandpa, ask yourself this. How often have you asked them for advice on, say, your relationships, your career, or your life?

Older Americans have gone through the biggest events of the 20th and so far the 21st centuries, from the Great Depression onto two world wars, Vietnam, and the current Great Recession. Yet Americans often choose to get advice from countless self help books rather than ask the very people who have, simply put, been there done that. That's what drove Professor Karl Pillemer and Cornell University's Legacy Project to survey more than 1,200 older Americans to ask them to share their collective wisdom.

Wisdom that covers a combined 30,000-plus years of experience with work, marriage, and raising kids. The result is the book "Thirty Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans." We're joined now by Karl Pillemer, who wrote the book and is the creator of the Legacy Project at Cornell University. Also with us, Helene Rosenblatt a former research assistant and interviewee for the project. They join us from our NPR Studio's in New York City. Professor, Helene, welcome to the program.

HELENE ROSENBLATT: Thank you.

PROFESSOR KARL PILLEMER: Thanks, it's nice to be here.

COX: Professor, I'm going to begin with you. What inspired you to begin this?

PILLEMER: Well, you know, I'd spent about 25 or 30 years as a gerontologist, someone who studies older people, until I had the realization that a lot of my work was focused on older people as problems - elder abuse victims, people in nursing homes, having Alzheimer's disease, and a few things happened to me that made me really stop and think, what can we do to see older people as resources? Maybe we ought to be looking at the question what older people know that the rest of us don't.

And that lead me on a six year project, perhaps a quest, and in that process we asked over 1,200 older Americans to share with us their most important life lessons that they would like to pass on to younger generations.

COX: Now, Helene you're one of those people, right?

ROSENBLATT: Yes, I am.

COX: Tell us why you decided to do it and what did you think was the thing that you could most offer?

ROSENBLATT: Well, my reasoning is a little more complicated because I came back to Cornell as a student and studied with Karl and when I graduated I worked with him on research and all of a sudden I saw what he was developing with my own cohorts and I said, I'd like to join it.

COX: Let's talk about one of the people in the book, Professor, if we can. A woman that you saw at a nursing home, her name was June Driscoll, you said you were taken aback by her high spirits. Why was that?

PILLEMER: You know, it was a remarkable experience for me. I do a lot of research in nursing homes and happened to be in one, and a nurse who knew I was looking for interesting older people introduced me to her. It was your standard somewhat depressing nursing home setting. She was sitting back in the corner looking extremely frail. I knew she didn't have much longer to live, and to my surprise when I was introduced, it was one of the most positive people I've ever met.

And I somehow blurted out to her really what's going on here, and she basically informed me that she felt it was her job to be as happy as she could in her current, you know, circumstances, and that really struck me. I left that interaction thinking there has to be some way to record how people who experience loss, have experienced extraordinary historical events, have a big burden of chronic disease and yet are often happier than younger people. It seemed to me critical to understand that and to try to pass it on to the younger generation.

COX: Helene, you are 87-years-old and I want the audience to know that you gave me permission to tell your age before we said that out there.

ROSENBLATT: Yes.

COX: Why do you think we Americans do not listen more to our elders or turn to them for advice?

ROSENBLATT: Well, when you're young you think that you've discovered what's happening and you are in the new know-it-all and you will listen but you will really not take it in too much. They'd say fine, that was your life, now this is mine.

COX: What do the seniors say, if anything, about when this wisdom hits them? Is it a certain age?

ROSENBLATT: It appears we recognize it like after the age of 60, because your life has slowed down, you have more time to talk, and you have more experiences to talk about. From then on you could have another 30 years.

COX: You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with Professor Karl Pillemer and Helene Rosenblatt of Cornell University's Legacy Project. That's an on going effort to collect the advice of hundreds of older Americans. Let me come back to Karl Pillemer now because you say that some of the lessons are surprising and end up trumping what we know to be conventional wisdom. Give us an example.

PILLEMER: Absolutely, and I would say I kept on being surprised, you know, because my fear with a project like this is maybe we'd just get back a bunch of cliches, but when it came to work, I imagine that this generation who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression would tell me get a job that pays well and strive for your financial security. That was really what I expected to hear. In fact, almost unanimously America's elder's advice on work is find work you love and don't worry about the compensation.

If you have to get up in the morning to a job you dread, they say get out, that really life is too short to spend time doing something that doesn't feel purposeful and meaningful.

COX: You know, one of the ways the book is divided, let's put it that way, you talk about marriage, careers and work, growing older and aging, and happiness. Helene, what did you contribute specifically in terms of what you said in the book?

ROSENBLATT: Well, I feel the same as a lot of others, that a positive attitude and belief in yourself is so important, so I acted it out by going back to college. I didn't let anything stand in my way. It was 50 years after I had first started, so I had doubts and I had worries and I thought things might not be so good, but I found that these doubts and worries may never materialize. Just go for it, go do it.

PILLEMER: Helene, I think some key insights of yours, though, that came into the book are keeping your family close. I don't know if you want to share that.

ROSENBLATT: Yes, with a big family, the main thing was everybody doing things for each other. If one had a basketball game, we'd all go. If one had a play or whatever, we'd all go. There was no way to say oh no, I'd rather be with my friends. So it got to be a regular thing.

COX: Karl, speaking of holidays, we are in holiday mode right now. Is there anything in the book or any one of these elders that you included in the book who spoke to this, the issue of families coming together and overcoming resentment, hurt feelings, the kinds of things that tend to pop up when families gather around the holidays?

PILLEMER: Yes, absolutely, in fact there were several different lessons which I think are extremely appropriate to what families are experiencing today. One of the most important lessons is to avoid the kind of brutal lasting rifts which occur between parents and children. And that was a term people use - avoid the rift. And they also argue that people should say things now. So one regret that many older people have is not having said something which should have said. And so those are two lessons in the book. I would put it together and say that you can use holiday times when families are gathering together to patch up old grievances, extend and olive branch if there's been a rift or a break in the family. The unhappiest elders I spoke with are people who had had a permanent rupture with a child and for whom that child was no longer a part of their life. And a key lesson was to do what you can to patch that up. And it seems to me that a day like today is a great day to start and it meets those two lessons of saying important things while people are around, to say them and doing your best reconcile with estranged family members.

COX: How multicultural, Professor, is this collection, and what differences are there in the responses of people from different ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds?

PILLEMER: You know, that's a great questions, and it was a very representative group. One of the several studies was a truly nationally representative sample. I would say that one big difference is the kind of adversity that people went through. So for example, one person in the book is one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen who describes his battle with racial discrimination and adversity. And a lot of the African-Americans in the book had this as their examples of adversity. What they all have in common, though, is the resilience, is the ability to overcome these kinds of negatives and turn them into positive growth experiences.

So I would say overall in terms of the key lessons, there was not a major difference region, ethnicity, race and income.

COX: The name of the book is "Thirty Lessons for Living," and I was going to, Professor, come to you for the last question. But having read the book, I recognize now that we need to pay tribute to the senior citizen of this conversation; that's Helene. So Helene, you get the last question instead, which is this: If you had to choose one overarching takeaway lesson about what wisdom older Americans gain when they reach a certain age, what would it be?

ROSENBLATT: In my case, it is to bring – keep the family together, bring it together, have it enjoy – have them all enjoy one another. And I start when they first get married so that we're friendly with the in-laws and we pay attention to them. And that's part of our family now. And it has worked with the young marrieds, and it's just the overarching feeling is together.

COX: Helen Rosenblatt is a former research assistant and interviewee for the Legacy Project at Cornell University. Karl Pillemer is the author of "Thirty Lesson for Living," and he is the creator of that project. They both joined us from our NPR studios in New York City. Thank you both very much.

ROSENBLATT: Thank you.

PILLEMER: Thank you.

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