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All I Really Need to Know I Learned From a Senior

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenFebruary 29, 2012

Senior citizens’ practical advice for solving life’s problems offers a valuable and time-tested perspective, experts find.

We’re all familiar with the popular kids’ poem by Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Well there’s something to be said about early lessons that iterate the importance of morals, respect and enjoying the simple things in life. This poem made me think about how senior citizens are really society’s wealth of knowledge as they possess trinkets of life-learned wisdom. They seem to go back to this simple, sage advice that we seem to forget in our busy, everyday existence. After all, hindsight provides perspective on what’s truly important and reflection on life’s adventures, lessons and heartaches are what make someone truly an expert.

Senior citizen’s day-in-and-day-out living, in tandem with their hopes and dreams for their kin, make them an untapped resource for life’s ‘pearls of wisdom.’ And the good news? In today’s world of economic suffering and angst, seniors—the people who have been called the “Greatest Generation”— are being called on for their “practical advice for solving life’s major challenges,” according to Cornell University gerontologist, Karl Pillemer.

Aging Fearlessly and Well: What Seniors Have to Say

Pillemer targeted senior living communities for his research, and Brookdale Senior Living provided many interviewees for the project. What was one common response among the 1200 seniors? Generally, they all possessed a positive view about aging. “Embrace it. You still enjoy life, and there’s still purpose in your life,” said an 81-year old man. A 94-year old woman suggested that people need to “find the magic” when asked of her advice about growing old. A common theme in the interviews was that the seniors were very clear about what they wanted from life. This made me think that, perhaps, in the middle years of our existence, clarity about what’s important is muddled by careers, mortgages and overall responsibilities and busy lifestyles.

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Another interesting finding? Senior citizens felt “more free to pursue interests and clearer about their life goals and how to best spend their time.” And when asked how a positive and enjoyable old age could be obtained, the seniors had one general consensus: “The need to maintain strong social connections and to engage in meaningful roles as we age.” Being  social and staying curious were also common themes in living a fulfilling life. And going back to the basics of spending quality time with family and friends—and dedicating yourself to working hard when needed—were all contributing factors in being happy and successful.

Aging Gracefully and Responsibly — Elders Submitting Their Lessons for Living

This “Great Generation” who has survived the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam and now the Recession have a few things to teach us about life. Pillemer is continuing his research on the practical wisdom of older people, which he calls the Cornell Legacy Project. He created a website where elders can submit their “lessons for the living” and is working on an outreach program to enable elder service providers to engage their senior living residents as “advice givers” to younger people.

Applying Senior Citizens’ Advice to Daily Life

I know that my grandfather’s words resonate in my daily trials and tribulations: “Endure. You just have to endure.” These words have often got me through life, mortgage and marriage frustrations. Too often, these days, people expect immediate gratification and are spoiled with possessions and technology. Being grateful for what you have and enjoying the simple things have been forgotten, in many instances. And simply being patient, setting goals, positively looking forward and surrounding ourselves with loved ones, are lessons many people need.

Each wrinkle tells us a story. Living life, experiencing challenges and pulling through—these are all things we can learn from senior citizens.

To read complete details about the research, you may also read a copy of Pillemer’s book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, published by Hudson Street Press. It is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Dana Larsen
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Dana Larsen
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