Not long ago, Karl Pillemer had a revelation.
A gerontologist with close to 30 years of experience, Pillemer, who is director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, realized that his research was "entirely focused on older people as problems."
"It's something a litte bit embarrassing for me," Pillemer told a crowd at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Wednesday, as he described his work in areas involving pain, elder abuse, Alzheimer's, dementia, and problems of family care giving. "I got to a point in this revelation that it seemed like I was writing the 'Book of Job' for old people."
But Pillemer, who is also a professor of human development at Cornell University, remembered that his job also engages him with "vibrant, engaged, healthy, exciting, and active older people."
The paradox intrigued him, as did the countless surveys conducted over the past 10 years revealing that the elderly tend to be significantly happier than people decades younger. That knowledge, combined with what he called "a disturbing sense that we lost an age-old and time-honored activity of not just asking older people for stories, but asking for their actual advice for living," led him to create the Legacy Project, a study of almost 1,500 people, ranging from their 70s to over 100, who shared their wisdom about life.