SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
By Suzanne Gerber
You’d think that nothing could shock Karl Pillemer, when it comes to the lives of older folks. After all, the distinguished gerontologist, family sociologist, Cornell University professor and leading researcher on aging (he runs the Cornell Legacy Project) wrote the 2011 bestseller 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice for the Wisest Americans.
And yet, he says, “I was surprised at how important sex is to a couple’s relationship even into their 80s and 90s. I shouldn’t have been, but I was also hit over the head by how open and willing older people are to talk about sexuality with an interviewer.”
Pillemer is referring to the thousands of hours of interviews he and his team conducted for his latest book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationship, and Marriage. Over the course of two years, they talked with some 700 folks whose marriages lasted an average of 43 years and came away with valuable lessons for everyone — including himself.
View From the Finish Line
Published this month, "30 Lessons for Loving" picks up where the first book left off, but instead of offering advice on a host of topics, this one, as the title suggests, focuses on love and marriage. Pillemer chose that subject partly in a leap of faith and partly because of the strong feedback he was receiving from readers.
The leap of faith was the result of the research he kept encountering. “Study after study showed that people in their 70s, 80s and beyond were actually happier than younger people,” he says.
And the data shows that successful relationships are very important to the next generations, leading Pillemer to conclude that “marriage is here to stay. Nearly 100 percent of young people plan to get married and think it’s a good thing. I know they’re receptive to hearing advice from people who made it 50 years because they’ve got credibility.”
Readers were also writing to him asking for more material on love and marriage. One woman told Pillemer she gave a copy of the first book to her son when he got engaged and at the wedding the couple had a “Lessons for Living” station, where guests were invited to leave comments. Dozens of other readers told Pillemer they gave their children copies and bookmarked the lesson, “Don’t Rush Into Marriage,” as a not-so-subtle hint. Thus, 30 Lessons for Loving was born.
A Dangerous Experiment
According to Pillemer, this is the first time in history that young people have little to no contact with older people except maybe a grandparent. “New data shows that less than one-third of people over 65 have had meaningful conversations with people under 30 in the previous month,” he says. “Take out family, and it’s less than 5 percent. People are more likely to have friends of another race than friends more or less than 10 years apart.”
Not only is this shocking to Pillemer, it’s deeply disheartening. “I think we’re in the midst of a dangerous experiment,” he says. “This is the most age-segregated society that’s ever been. Vast numbers of younger people are likely to live into their 90s without contact with older people. As a result, young people’s view of aging is highly unrealistic and absurd. “
So now, Pillemer says, “I’m focusing on older people’s wisdom and helping creating positive new images. That’s one of the reasons for this book.”
Love and Marriage
Lessons for Loving is divided into five sections — Lessons for Finding a Mate, Communication and Conflict, Getting Over the Hard Parts, Keeping the Spark Alive and Thinking Like an Expert About Love. Each of these is further broken down into six lessons, such as “Give Up Grudges” and “Accept Your Partner As Is.”
The book reads like a candid and entertaining advice column, which is precisely what Pillemer intended. “As an academic I had to learn to write in a whole new genre that I felt younger people could use,” he says. He succeeded. The book is eminently readable.
The “experts” — the author’s solution to the dilemma of what to call folks in this age range — had surprising and enlightening things to say.
Pillemer recently got to put one such gem of wisdom, from a 71-year-old interviewee named April, to good use. When he and his wife were having what he calls persistent and irreconcilable differences about a bathroom renovation, he recalled the woman’s words: “It’s important to let some things go, to figure out what matters and what really doesn’t matter. If [my husband and I] were in some sort of struggle, we would stop and say, “Which one of us is this more important to?” And when we could figure that out, the other one found it so much easier to let go.”
In describing his bathroom drama, he says, “My wife wanted a claw-foot tub, and I wanted a stall shower. The disagreements went on and on until I recalled April’s advice and realized how important the tub was to my wife. So I let her have it. It might sound small, but it was huge to us.”
The best thing about researching and writing this book, Pillemer adds, was the long view it’s afforded him. “It never hit me before, but marriage is really a discipline, where you agree to forgo something for long-term success.”
His other big takeaway: “I have a renewed sense of hopefulness that we can keep things vibrant and exciting.”
Now, that’s exciting.