(Photo by Annie-Spratt, from Unsplash)
In times of great uncertainty, wouldn’t it be great to be able to consult an expert? Maybe talk to someone who really knows their way around Life, around difficult times? Someone who’s been there, seen that? Has advice worth listening to?
That’s exactly what Dr Karl Pillemer, professor of gerontology at Weill Cornell Medicine, did when he began his research interviewing hundreds of elders. He started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. The average age of his interviewees was 77; the oldest was 108. Approximately 1,000 of them outlasted the Great Depression, 1,200 endured World War II and 60 survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?
We might wonder why it is that we don’t seek out folks who know. How is it that we think times of difficulty might be limited to our times? What the elders told Dr Pillemer isn’t rocket science but it is worth considering and sharing with your kids. These are the top, most often repeated pieces of advice:
1. Take the long view – Someday, elders tell us, this will be over. It will be in our rearview mirrors. We’ll look back on it and our kids will likely tell their grandchildren about the pandemic of 2020. Like the Holocaust, like the Great Depression, like both World Wars, this will end. The elders remind us that our current actions become the future stories of our survival!
2. Be generous – While this might sound like a selfless act, in fact so often during crises an act of kindness comes back many times, sometimes even as survival. Prior to the Nazi invasion of Hungary, the employees in my father-in-law’s factory had been so well treated by our elders that, when the Holocaust began, much of our family was sheltered by employees, returning favors and kindnesses of a lifetime despite very great peril. Even DURING a crisis, being generous expands our very own sense of well-being.
3. Don’t worry_ prepare instead – Worrying has a way of depleting us, making us feel weak and vulnerable. Preparation has the possible benefit of maybe actually helping down the line. But for the immediate, it feels better to be doing something. Speaking of fretting, set time limits around your worry. For example, set a time of day and a length of time when you allow full attention to the risks at hand; do all the “What-If-ing” you wish; then lean into “what can I do about that?”
And while you’re thinking of time limits, what might you need to limit as far as your media exposure and news coverage?
Select one action, even tiny, and take it.
4. Enjoy daily pleasures – One thing elders coach is not to view happiness as a state, something one can enjoy continuously, “if only…” or “once we have….” Happiness they tell us, is in the small stuff: a steaming cup of coffee; a fragrant rose; the giggle of a child; whistling a favorite song. We don’t have to wait for pleasure or happiness.
Which leads to another thought: we shouldn’t wait to consult our elder/experts!
In the midst of all the COVID-19 situation, there is a lot of conversation about the vulnerability of elders. Many point out the importance of being in touch with the senior members of our families and communities. What better way than to call and, like Dr. Pillemer, ask for your loved one’s hard-earned advice. Here are some prompts from The Legacy Project list:
- What are some of the most important lessons you feel you have learned over the course of your life?
- Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give examples of what you learned?
- As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed over the course of your life or set you on a different track?
- What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
- What are some of the important choices or decisions you made that you have learned from?
- What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
- What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?
WHEN WE LOOK BACK AT THIS TIME, and the elders tell us we WILL look back, wouldn’t it be great to recall how we made use of the time to tap into our beloved experts, experts on Life? Who can you call or visit this week?
To learn more about The Legacy Project, https://legacyproject.human.cornell.edu/category/30-lessons-for-living/