Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter
February 1, 2012
Wouldn't it be great if we could get a "do-over" in life, like when you were a kid and a ball rolled into traffic? Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University, can't fix the mistakes of the past, but he does have some ideas on how we can have fewer regrets in the future.
Pillemer interviewed more than 1,500 elders ranging in age from 70 to 100-plus in search of what they know about life that the rest of us don't. Their insights on everything from love to loss, work to parenting became "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans" (Hudson Street Press). You can also see many of the interviews at legacyproject.human.cornell.edu. Here's what the 57-year-old Pillemer learned:
Q. Why did you embark on this project?
A. We have such a negative viewpoint of aging. We researchers focus on all the problems of old people, which is what I wanted to get away from.
Q. Most of us don't fear dying as much as physical and mental declines. But many seemed to take their disabilities in stride?
A. One woman said to me 'Do you sit around thinking about how you can't run as fast as you could when you were 18?' Her point was that you adjust at each phase of life. Sure we're slower, but the changes are so gradual that most people adapt, the same way we do now.
Q. One surprise is that elders seem to be happier than young people, despite chronic illness and loss. How to explain?
A. They know how short life is ... which makes them savor small, everyday experiences. They want us to be aware of this limited time horizon — not to depress us, but so we make better decisions about how we use our time.
Q. So what's their biggest regret?
A. Worrying. ... I heard that over and over. 'I wasted years worrying about something that never happened — and I wish I could have those years back.' And these are people who grew up with a lot more to worry about, like the Depression and World War II. ... But I'm the first to say that it's easier said than done.
Q. Other recurring themes?
A. Do work that is satisfying to you. Say things to people you love while they're still here. Live within your means. That happiness is a choice we make, not a condition that happens to you. It all gets back to the realization that life is extremely short.
Q. So much about life is about acquiring more stuff — cars, houses, etc. But possessions turned out to be extremely unimportant.
A. Yes. ... Even people in low-income senior housing had the same message: Invest in relationships and experiences, not things. Working 18-hour days to buy more things is a waste of time ... and if you have to choose between travel and a kitchen redo, take the trip.
Q. What advice did they have about parenting?
A. Not to play favorites. I was profoundly surprised that the topic was so emotionally laden and how many people struggled with memories of parental favoritism their entire life.
Q. How about interactions with your adult children?
A. Not to interfere in their lives. That it's OK to be a resource, as needed, but I have daughters who are 25 and 30 and I could micromanage a lot. After talking to (the elders), I have backed off.
Q. Were you sad when this research was over? You had to know that many of these folks wouldn't be around much longer.
A. Coming to the end of the interviews was a poignant thing for me. I absolutely loved the excitement of getting to know one more person ... and just being in the presence of someone who could say to me (as my 108-year-old respondent did), "Oh, I remember my first day of work very well — it was the day World War I ended!" People let me into their lives for a few hours, and talked about deeply personal things — what they value most in life, what went right and what went wrong. ... So I do miss the continual adventure that this project provided.
I also feel the poignancy regarding the individual elders themselves. One thing that is a necessary part of befriending very old people is the knowledge that you are likely to hear one day that they have passed on. I would guess that since I began the Legacy Project, nearly a quarter of the elders in the project have died. In 10 years ... probably fewer than a quarter will be left. However, instead of sadness, I do feel more inspired by all of these lives well-lived. The fact that as a group they were mostly accepting of the end of life and not anxious about it ... has helped me personally feel more accepting about growing older.