The Wisdom of Elderhood; Fact or Fiction?

There is a common cultural ideal that the older one gets, the wiser one grows.  Perhaps that is why we say “there’s no fool like an old fool” — by the time you’ve reached a certain age, you’re supposed to know better.

But is it true that with age comes experience, knowledge, and wisdom worth sharing?

Dr. Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, has been applying scientific research to this question and the results can be found at “The Legacy Project: Lessons for Living from the Wisest Americans.”

The practical advice that Dr. Pillemer and his team collected from over 1500 Elders aged 70 and over is reported on the Legacy Project website, and will be published in a book to be released this fall.  It confirms the idea that Elderhood is a time of continuing growth, and that Elders have much to share with us if we will take the time to listen.

Photo by Doug Belshaw via Flickr

Please visit the Legacy Project site by clicking HERE to learn more, to make your own contribution, and to browse through the lessons learned on a variety of life issues. 

As Dr. Pillemer says, the Wisdom gathered includes gems on “how to be happy on a day-to-day basis, the secrets to a successful marriage, tips on raising children, ways to have a fulfilling career, strategies for dealing with illness and loss, and how to grow old fearlessly and well.” 

I don’t know the average age of the Elders who shared the advice learned over a lifetime, but if the average was 80 years, and there are 1500 contributors, that’s 120,000 years of Wisdom from which we all can benefit!

Here’s an ever better idea — Why not visit an Elder today and ask them how they’ve coped with life’s challenges, what they wish they could do differently, what their secrets to happiness are?  

Make that phone call you’ve been putting off – your favorite Aunt is waiting to hear from you, and to share her Wisdom! 

Many thanks to Dr. Karl Pillemer and his research team for taking a strength-based approach to Elderhood, and for sharing these results in such a generous way.  


Lisa Kendall is a clinical social work psychotherapist and clinical gerontologist in Ithaca, NY.  She is an Eden at Home Educator with The Eden Alternative, serves on the President’s Council for Family Life at Cornell University, and is teaching the Gerontology Fieldwork seminar for Ithaca College this fall.

10 Responses to “The Wisdom of Elderhood; Fact or Fiction?”

  • Lisa – excellent blog post! Thanks so much for sharing – I’ve made this the top story at Can’t wait to read the book.

    • Lisa Kendall:

      Thank you, Kavan; I’m honored to be on the blogstream and have put on my “Fieldwork in Gerontology” course website at Ithaca College so our students will plug in, too!

  • To be sure, as one ages there are more opportunities to learn from one’s mistakes (or those of others if you are lucky). Even so, this topic reminds me of this observation:

    Wisdom comes with age but sometimes age comes alone.

    • Lisa Kendall:

      Thank you for your thoughtful (and accurate) observation. In the African tradition, not every old person is granted the honored title of “Elder” — it is something that has to be earned.

      Unfortunately, here in the west, we’ve made no room for old people at all – wise or foolish — as we don’t seem to recognize Elderhood as a specific phase of life. I love the way Dr. Bill Thomas lays this issue out in his book, “What Are Old People for? How Elders Will Save the World.” If we can start to embrace Elderhood, and recognize that Elders have something to contribute, perhaps we can get past the ageism that would paint them all with one brush — whether that is as all wise, all foolish, or all just older versions of “adults.”

      Thanks again for visiting and for your comments! Come again.

  • Pat Kendall-Lloyd:

    Thanks for letting me know about this.I love the work you’re doing.

  • Lisa,

    I just wanted to say thanks so much for this post about the Legacy Project (and to your readers for the kind comments!). Many Ithacans were interviewed for the project, so it has a bit of a local flavor.

    All the best in your great work!


    • Lisa Kendall:

      Thank you, Dr. Pillemer, for this project and everything you and your team are doing! I’m glad my trackback found its way to you so you could check in on this post. I’m happy to try to spread the word about your work. Take care, Lisa K.

  • Chris Perna:

    Thanks for sharing. This goes to the heart of what we teach at The Eden Alternative every day. We will be sure to share it with the rest if the Eden family.
    Keep up the great work.

    • Lisa Kendall:

      Thank you, Chris – the Eden Alternative Culture Change movement contains everything we need as a society, within our organizations, and in our families to overcome the three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom that cause so much suffering for Elder care partners and everyone else on the care partner team. When we recognize that Elderhood is a period of growth, and that Elders have something to offer, gifts to give, we start to move away from the very damaging paradigm that currently holds sway. Everyone who is interested can find out more at!

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