Don’t be afraid

April 17, 2012 —

What are you afraid of? When he turned 50, Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor at Cornell University, became increasingly anxious about aging and what began to feel like “imminent death.” Then, as the Washington Post recently reported, “he had a conversation with a nearly blind, waxy-skinned, jubilant 90-year-old named June. ‘Young man,’ June told him, ‘you will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are…It’s my responsibility to be as happy as I can.’”

That switched Pillemer’s focus from the problems of older people and the “problems” they cause for society to their joys and wisdom. Over the past six years, he and his research team gathered the advice of 1,500 Americans age 70 and older for a new book titled 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. He continues to share and post life lessons on his ongoing study’s website, The Legacy Project.

Pillemer was inspired in part that the lessons he collected sidestepped platitudes like “live life to the fullest.” And many came from people who were in poor health, who had regrets and who otherwise had made mistakes in life. “The lessons aren’t all from exemplary, positive, high-functioning people,” he told the Washington Post. “But the view from 80, 90, 100 years old is that life is really short. It’s precious. And we shouldn’t waste it worrying about getting old.”

One lesson Pillemer says changed his own approach to life is to not worry about things he can’t control.

“One woman told me that waking up in the middle of the night, panicking and staying awake ruminating about life – that’s a 35-year-old’s game,” he said to the Post. “People in their 90s talked about finally feeling ‘free.'”

What lessons for living have you gained from older family members and friends? What advice would you give to younger generations?


Endlessly curious and easily entertained, Barb Dietrich Boose loves being a member of the friendly, fascinating DMU community and its creative communications team. The University's publications director and DMU Magazine editor, Barb is always on the hunt for story ideas, good books and new recipes to try out on her family, such as her surprisingly tasty pork-and-bean bars.

Comments

  • Karl Pillemer

    Thanks so much for this post about my book! I think one of the most positive lessons is this one you have selected – to stop worrying about aging, and instead (as many of the elders told me) to embrace it as an adventure.

  • Barb Boose

    Well said, Dr. Pillemer. My best lessons for living have come from my children (find miracles in small things, like insects and bubbles, and giggle as much as possible every day) and my grandparents (find miracles in small things, like grandchildren and hugs, and don’t take yourself too seriously).