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Words from the wise: Legacy Project collects senior wisdom

When turning 50, "I began to notice some differences in my perspective on life," says Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer. "The things that bothered me didn't irk me so much anymore. You begin to take a longer view of things -- you see how individual events find their place in a larger context."

This led Pillemer to ask: Is there something older people know that the young don't about how to live?

To find out, Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology and professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, and colleagues collected pearls of wisdom from more than 1,500 older Americans about living better, happier lives.

In July he launched the Legacy Project blog to share hard-won insights, recommendations and philosophies of living.

"Try as much as possible to avoid thinking about yourself. ... you should put yourself out of the picture as much as possible in any situation and try to think objectively, almost as if you are a camera (with emotions and feelings) recording what goes on around you and responding to it. I think one will enjoy life to a much greater extent than if thoughts about yourself govern how you react to a problem or situation."

"Enjoy and love people."

"Enjoy animals."

"Take care of yourself physically."

"Be open-minded as much as you can."

--Frederick, 68

"More important when you look back on your life are the unselfish things you have done, the love and support you have given to others, and the sense that you have made the most of your talents and opportunities. I have learned that growing up is the work of a lifetime."

--Maurice, 77

More life lessons:

"Save your money, take care of yourself, play golf."

"Choose to be happy. I even wear my Clinique perfume called 'Happy.'"

"Don't wear a miniskirt when you're 68."

"Well, I don't think my life would have worked without God in my life because my husband is Mexican-Italian and I'm English-Irish, along that line, and if we hadn't had God in our life, we just wouldn't have made it."

"Stick with your beliefs but listen to other people's sides. A couple of times I think I even voted for Democrats."

"Learn new things, don't sit back and stagnate."

"I've learned that it's much easier to be positive than negative, it's easier to smile than to frown, and when in doubt, eat chocolate!"

"A lot of my research has been on what one might call the negative or dark side of aging -- studies on elder abuse, nursing home care, Alzheimer's disease and chronic pain," Pillemer says. "But research also shows that older people are often happier than those in middle age and younger. I wanted to understand why that is and make their advice of happier living available to younger people."

Consulting the academic literature, Pillemer found that although there have been studies on "elder wisdom," older people have not been systematically asked to share practical advice about leading a happy life. Major themes emerged from his interviews, which Pillemer distilled into a set of "life lessons" in such categories as love and marriage; child rearing; work and career; aging well; avoiding regrets; dealing with loss; and prescriptions for happiness.

Contributors have submitted lists, one-line answers and what Pillemer calls "long, existential, soul-searching answers." In-depth interviews were conducted with about 600 elders across the country.

"At 70 and beyond, studies show, many people do develop a sense of purpose and serenity," Pillemer says. "We captured that perspective in hopes that younger people could learn from it."

The Legacy Project website will continue indefinitely, Pillemer says, and it welcomes new submissions from people age 60 and up, as well as comments and discussions. A new life lesson is posted daily, with plans for audio and video content to enhance the site soon.

Reading all this advice has changed Pillemer's life, he says. "One of the strongest lessons from the elders is this principle for dealing with your adult children: Don't interfere! I have two adult daughters, and I really took that advice to heart and became much more careful to offer advice only when asked. The elders give that kind of clear advice that all of us can use in everyday life."

Other major lessons: Don't worry so much; elders say they deeply regret time spent needlessly worrying. Marry someone a lot like you, who has similar values. Avoid showing favoritism to children. And get on the road: Not having traveled enough is a source of regret for many seniors.

Pillemer says the elders he interviewed "have a unique ability to advise us. We've gotten used to motivational speakers and pop psychologists instead of individuals who are right next door or in our families. People in their 70s and beyond can teach us how to meet major challenges in life and to learn to focus more on small-scale, day-to-day happiness. People into their 90s told us they feel a kind of freedom they've never felt before; they can live as they want to; they have less responsibility and are less concerned with what people think."

Another goal of the Legacy Project, says Pillemer, is to capture this practical wisdom before this oldest generation is gone.


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Joe Schwartz