Class notes: How-to

How to live a full life

Pauline Riemer, MSW ’57, retired psychiatric social worker

Pauline Riemer has spent a good deal of her 92 (and counting) years on Earth helping others. As a clinical social worker for almost 50 years, she devoted herself to assisting both clients and doctors through various roles, including director of the social work and outpatient clinics at Syracuse University medical school (now SUNY Upstate Medical University) and director of the social service department at the Cayuga Home for Children. 

A fierce advocate for her clientele, she often took on public service agencies, including Medicaid and the welfare department, and never lost a case in court. Even in retirement, she has stayed active working for others, mentoring students from UB’s School of Social Work, helping city planners to beautify the landscape in Naples, Fla., where she now lives, and organizing benefit events for the Naples Philharmonic. We asked her for tips on leading a life well-lived.

Illustration by Jackie Besteman 

How to live a full life:

Help anyone and everyone you can
One of the best healers of a mind that’s upset is to go find somebody that you can help. Just go find anybody, a person on the street who needs directions—I don’t care what it is. It can be very small, but find other people who need help and your own life gets fulfilled. What you give to other people comes back to you. 

Make use of all your life experiences
My two life partners were not successes. My first husband was bisexual, something I did not know when I married him. My second husband was an alcoholic. If someone at our clinic needed to talk about alcoholism, I could tell them how an alcoholic behaves in the home, how he breaks every single glass in the house. I went through it. That was a help when someone would come to me at the clinic and say, “You can’t help. You wouldn’t understand,” and I’d say, “Yes, I can.” 

Don’t dismiss the little things
Here’s a classic. Lion’s Club gave me carte blanche to pick out eyeglasses for anyone I wanted in the university teaching hospital. This one lady wanted desperately to have “cat eyes,” glasses with rhinestones around the edges. She said, “Oh, if I had these cat eyes, I’d be so happy.” She had started going to a place called the Carriage House, for senior citizens. She’d met a man, and she said, “I just know he’d like me if I had the glasses.” I got her the glasses, and later she told me, “We play cards together all the time now. I’m so happy!” It was all I ever did for the lady, but it was enough.