Old people's wisdom, for everybody else

Wed Jan 28, 2009 1:30pm EST
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By Nick Zieminski

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a quest to define what wisdom means, how to get it and what to do once it's found author Henry Alford spent a year talking with old people, including his mother, then wrote a book about it.

The result, "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)," mixes travelogue, family memoir and elaborate character sketches..

On his quest, Alford met a woman who walked across the United States, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, and a man in Malibu, California, who takes recycling to extremes. He also talked with actress Sylvia Miles, literary critic Harold Bloom, and playwright Edward Albee.

Woven through the book is the story of Alford's own family, after his mother's decision to divorce her husband and move to Raleigh, North Carolina -- at the age of 79.

Reuters spoke to the 46-year-old author about aging baby boomers, self discovery and honing survival instincts.

Q: Did you come to a conclusion as to what defines wisdom?

A: "It's such a slippery topic, it's like sculpting with mashed potatoes. There are about 9 million definitions, but you can talk about five general principles -- reciprocity, doubt, non-attachment, working for the social good, and discretion. I never point-blank say wisdom is this, because it's so many things."

Q: With the aging of the Baby Boom generation, is this a good time to start paying more attention to older people?   Continued...