2001 - April

April, 2001 Issue 1

The Positive Aging Newsletter

Friday, April 20, 2001

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen

Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Issue No 1

In this issue:


This is the introductory issue of a newsletter devoted to appreciating the process of growing older. The attempt here is to recreate the concept and experience of aging. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline, we strive to create a vision of life in which aging becomes an unprecedented period of human enrichment. Such a revolution vitally depends on the communities of research and professional practices that focus on adult populations, especially people over 55. It is within these communities that new ideas, insights, factual support, and practices of caregiving and growth enhancement are likely to emerge. Productive dialogue between research and practitioner communities is infrequent. Research tends to circulate within scientific journals, and knowledge of practices within communities of practitioners. Our aim here is to reduce this distance, and to provide a vehicle for mutual enlightenment. The hope is to engender more relevant research and more sophisticated practices. And of course, we hope that all of us might benefit personally from the venture. You are receiving this first issue because of your recognized engagement in relevant areas of concern. The Newsletter will be appear monthly, and is free of charge. Each issue will feature a brief discussion of a central topic, and contain brief summaries of particularly stimulating research or innovations in practice. In addition we shall highlight recent books of significance, and send on additional information of relevance. If you have work or information you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, you are also invited to share.To introduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, Delaware County.Ken and Mary are both on the Executive Board of the Taos Institute, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of social construction and societal practice. Each has a long history of engagement with gerontological inquiry and therapeutic practice.
We hope you will join us in the present endeavor.
Ken and Mary Gergen

Focal Commentary

 - The New Aging
As Michael Harrington described in 1969, "America tends to make its people miserable when they become old. (They are) plagued by ill health; they do not have enough money; they are socially isolated." Responding to such conditions, the social sciences have devoted substantial resources to understanding and treating the problems, shortcomings, and decline of later years. While humane concern with progressive infirmity is surely desirable, there are also two significant shortcomings. First, as deficit characterizations are disseminated to the culture, they contribute to common expectations and action. For many, retirement becomes essentially a "door to death." Self-esteem and sense of empowerment may decline, depression is invited, and engaged activity may suffer. The official vision of decline becomes self-fulfilling. Further, the deficit view of aging is increasingly misleading. Not only has the population 55 and over become increasingly powerful economically, they are living longer and healthier lives, and have acquired an unparalleled political power. In many respects we are confronting the emergence of "a new aging," a period of renewed growth and vitality. In our view, the social sciences can play a vital role in bringing about the reality of this vision. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging, and the availability of resources, skills, and resiliencies, research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice but creates hope and empowers action among older people. By moving beyond practices of repair and prevention, to emphasize growth-enhancing activities, practitioners also contribute to the societal reconstruction of aging. The positive psychology movement serves as one significant step in this direction. Readers of this Newsletter are positioned to create the future.
For a more complete account, see Gergen, K. and Gergen, M. (2000)The New Aging: Self Construction and Social Values. In K. W. Schaie and J. Hendricks (Eds.) The evolution of the aging self. New York: Springer.

Significant Research

- Aging and Wisdom.

Traditional research has emphasized the decline in mental agility with advancing age. In contrast, Paul Baltes and his colleagues call attention to the possibility of another form of intelligence called wisdom - defined as an expertise in "dealing with the meaning and conduct of life." The wise person has a superior level of knowledge concerning important and difficult questions about the "good" life, including the limits of knowledge and the uncertainties of the world.The present article provides longitudinal evidence revealing the prevalence of wisdom in the aging. The 533 subjects - ranging in age from 20 to 89 - responded to a series of life dilemmas. The responses were judged by a group of independent raters. As the results showed, there was no decline in wisdom with age. In fact, among the the top 20% in wisdom ratings, the preponderance were older people. An additional study confirmed these results, and suggested that older people benefited more by having conversations with others about the dilemmas at stake. Future research will investigate if being wise makes a difference in living well. For details, see: Wisdom: A Metaheuristic (Pragmatic) to Orchestrate Mind and Virtue Toward Excellence by Paul B. Baltes and Ursula M. Staudinger, American Psychologist, Jan., 2000, 55, 122-136.

- Reading Comprehension Can Increase with Age.

In two experiments, younger adults (average age19) were compared with educationally equivalent older adults (average age 72) for reading speed, sentence recognition and reading comprehension. The participants read long passages about historical events, such as the Dutch tulip-craze in the 17th century. Results indicated that there was no strong age difference in reading speed. Younger people did prove more adept at recognizing specific passages in the text, that is, their surface characteristics. Most important, older people were more able to comprehend what the text was about. While many explanations of these differences are discussed, it appeared that the older adults were more likely to make inferences beyond the actual text to probable events than were the younger people; the latter seemed more literal minded. It is also possible that over time people become more effective at distilling the important details from the mass of information. Other researchers suggest that older readers are more likely to use plausibility strategies, that is picking out the information that seems most likely to be useful in comprehending the text.

For details, see, Situation models and aging, by Gabriel A. Radvansky, Rolf A. Zwaan, Jacqueline M. Curiel, and David E. Copeland, Psychology and Aging, 2001 16, 145-160

- Positive Disposition Predicts Greater Social Support for Cancer Victims.

This research explored social support levels among the spouses, women family members and friends of 51 Hispanic women undergoing early stage breast cancer treatment.Both emotional and instrumental social support proved helpful in reducing the distress level of the women.Differences in the women’s expressions of distress predicted the support they later received from family members and friends. When women expressed a more positive orientation to their condition (less depression, anger and anxiety), emotional support from family members and friends was increased. With the exception of spouses, the more buoyant a woman was in the face of her condition, the more others clustered around her to give her support.

Unhappiness seemed to invite people to keep their distance. It is unclear how generalizable these results are to other ethnic groups. For details, see: An Exploratory Study of Social Support, Distress, and Life Disruption Among Low-Income Hispanic Women Under Treatment for Early Stage Breast Cancer, by Susan M. Alferi, Charles S. Carver, Michael H. Antoni, Sharlene Weiss, and Ron E. Durlan, University of Miami. Health Psychology, 2001, 20, 41-46.

Book Alert

Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss, Edited by Robert Neimeyer (APA Books, 2001) This volume demonstrates through systematic research and clinical cases that meaning reconstruction in response to loss is the central process of grieving. Special attention is given to the life-enhancing growth that may result as one integrates the lessons of loss.

The Evolution of the Aging Self: The Societal Impact on the Aging Person, Edited by K. Warner Schaie & John Hendricks. (Springer Publishing, 2000). This volume stresses the importance of the social context for the sense of self and well-being among the aging. Of particular interest is Linda George’s chapter, marshalling evidence to show that three very important indicators of well-being — self-esteem, locus of control, and self-efficacy — do not decrease during latter life. In addition, older people report fewer stressful life events than younger people do.

Affirmative Aging, A Creative Approach to Longer Life Edited by Joan E. Lukens. (Morehouse, 1994)A useful resource for those working with the elderly, this book offers "straight talk" on a variety of subjects, including aging as a spiritual journey, the gift of wisdom, the church as a family, and the life enhancing potentials in preparing for death. Many chapters are written by religious scholars.