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Book shares seniors' practical and useful lessons

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By Jackson Holtz
Herald Writer
  • Dr. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y.

    Dede Hatch.

    Dr. Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University in Ithica, N.Y.

The oldest Americans, people in their 70s and older, possess a vast resource of wisdom.
This isn't Yoda-like aphorisms about aging. Their advice is practical and applicable.
Say it now. Travel more. Don't hit your kids. Make the best of a bad job.
These examples and many more fill the pages of "30 Lessons of Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans," a new book by Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist and professor of human development at Cornell Univeristy in Ithaca, N.Y.
He recently spoke about his research in Everett at the annual Hospice Hearts Luncheon, a benefit for Providence Hospice and Home Care of Snohomish County.
Older people are happier, he said. A positive attitude is critical and happiness is a choice, not a condition.
"You discover you have to take responsibility for your own happiness," Pillemer said. "That's what you have to do at 90."
Taking charge of personal emotions doesn't have to be for seniors only, he said. There's a lot younger people can learn if they listen to the seniors in their life.
Pillemer interviewed hundreds of seniors for the book and as part of the Legacy Project, an ongoing research program based online and at the university.
The collected stories and advice in the book come from seniors whose ages ranged up to 108, but averaged about 78, Pillemer said.
They were a diverse group, often content, sometimes bitter, not always successful, divorced, impaired and sometimes quite depressed.
"Nevertheless, they offered really valuable lessons," the professor said.
For decades Pillemer focused his work on issues commonly associated with aging, such as elder abuse, illnesses and frailty.
"It seemed that everything I was doing was based on old people's problems," he said.
Then he started noticing research that showed older people were content and happy. He thought they might be able to talk about their life experience in a way that hadn't been asked before. Instead of telling their life stories, seniors could talk about what they learned.
The professor learned that older people have lots to say about some of the biggest challenges in most people's lives: marriage, family, careers, avoiding regrets, successful aging, coping with end-of-life issues.
Many of the people interviewed for the book survived the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, plus the social divides of the '60s and '70s. Their experiences informed their advice, he said.
Plus, having these conversations creates a meaningful way for younger generations to interact with seniors.
"It honors (the older people) in a way that's different than going into a home and singing songs," Pillemer said.
Plus, most World War II veterans likely will be gone by the end of the decade.
"We really ought to do it before this group is gone," Pillemer said.
Story tags » BooksSenior issues

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