2001 – July

July, 2001 Issue 4

The Positive Aging Newsletter

Thursday, July 26, 2001

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice

In this issue:


    Creative Arts Practices: Rekindling Development
    We were privileged this month to participate in the recent International Congress of Gerontology in Vancouver, Canada (July 1-6 ). As the columnist for the Vancouver Sun described it, the conference agenda “is an unsettling catalogue of the ways a human body might wither… [the session titles] go on and on,hundreds of papers and seminars on the decrepitude of advanced age.” It is precisely this blackwashed account of aging that the present Newsletter attempts to reverse. To be sure, there were a number of more optimistic contributions to the congress, but perhaps the most illuminating and engaging of these was a special program on “Creative Aging Through the Arts.” This program, put together by Pamela Brett-MacLean and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia, featured a rich range of scholars, gerontology practitioners, and performing artists, who treated such themes as:
    – Theater games to spark vitality in later life
    – Music for health, learning and community in later life
    – Creative storytelling with people with dementia
    – Intergenerational visual arts
    – Creative movement for the older adult
    – Healing Holocaust trauma through art
    – Live theater as a tool for exploring political passion
    The one major conclusion to be derived from these richly varied presentations is that arts programs for the elderly have enormous potential for rekindling the expressive, playful, and innovative impulses so characteristic of child development, but so often obscured or suppressed during “maturity.” In this sense, the later years may serve as an opportunity to return to development – with positive payoffs for health, the sense of well-being, and the building of stronger relational ties. Susan Perlstein, of the National Center for Creative Aging, is an outstanding source for further information. See her website at:
    www.center-for-creative-aging.org. (See also our June Newsletter review of Weisberg and Wilder’s book Expressive Arts with Elders.) Our hope is that these topics may also become focal for researchers.
    Ken and Mary Gergen


    – Aging and Emotional Development

    Research on emotional development has tended to study the early years. With regard to adulthood, there seems to be a tacit assumption that emotional development parallels biological changes, and thus, not likely to be found in the later years of life. In recent work, researchers have indeed challenged the assumption, and found evidence that improvements in emotional functioning continue into and beyond middle age, even into late age. The authors propose that awareness of “perceived time left in life”affects one’s choices, feelings, and perceptions. With advancing age, we more vividly know that life is finite, and we must enjoy what there is available. Our understanding of the shortness of life, the fleeting of time, and an appreciation for life’s offerings gain importance. Based on such reasoning, the researchers hypothesize that, relative to younger people, older people will evidence improved emotional functioning, including more differentiated emotional experiences and better regulation of emotional states. To explore this possibility, the researchers asked subjects between 18-94 for self-ratings of feelings at randomly selected moments in each day for a week. This “experience-sampling” approach is proposed to be more reliable than asking for global self-reports such as, “Do you feel generally happy or generally sad?” This is because the potential for self-censorship is higher when the global questions are asked.The general finding was that negative emotions declined in frequency until about age 60, then leveled off; positive emotional experiences showed no significant change over the life-span. At the same time, age was associated with sharper differentiation in emotional responses. In older age, positive emotional experiences lasted longer; negative ones less so. One kind of emotional experience more common to the older people was an experience of mixed feelings, such as glad-and-sad. As the researchers speculate, the increasing appreciation of time also helps account for the paradox that people suffering from terminal diseases often say their life is better than ever before.
    For details: Laura L. Carstensen, Monisha Pasupathi, Ulrich Mayr, John R. Nesselroade, “Emotional Experience in Everyday Life Across the Life Span,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79, 4 (2000), pp. 644-655

    – Spiritual History and Health in Later Life

    There is a growing body of literature advancing a positive association between late life health and some aspect of religious/spiritual involvement. While some of the literature is anecdotal, some is generated with high standards of scientific rigor. With keen attention to validity and reliability, four researchers from Duke University have developed and tested a “spiritual history scale” to facilitate future researcher study the health-religion relationship. In developing the scale the researchers found those who scored high on lifetime religious social support, and who sought and received divine assistance scored more highly in various health related behaviors. However, religious involvement is not a necessary path to health.Participants who reported that their involvement in religion had led to conflict or stress, reported greater depression. While the population on which the scale was tested was diverse, the researchers recommend further inquiry in other geographical areas with different ethnic and religious mixes.
    For details: Judith C. Hays, Keith G. Meador, Patricia S. Branch, and Linda K. George, “The Spiritual History Scale in Four Dimensions (SHS-4: Validity and Reliability,” The Gerontologist 44, 2 (2001), pp. 239-249

    – No Longer Disengaged

    For over thirty years aging specialists have used disengagement theory to describe (and potentially prescribe) a pattern in which the aging gradually withdraw from community involvement. Times have changed.Two researchers have examined participation in voluntary associations by people in all age groups and found that older people (60-85 years) are in many respects more active in voluntary associations than their younger counterparts. To strengthen their case, they looked for involvement in associations other than church-related or labor unions, where lifetime membership can be assumed. They looked for and found active patterns of involvement. Their findings support the observation that older adults often search for options that help them to understand themselves as contributing to some greater good. At least until 85 years of age, engagement, not disengagement, seems to prevail.
    For details: Jon Hendricks and Stephen J. Cutler, “The Effects of Membership in Church-Related Associations and Labor Unions on Age Differences in Voluntary Association Affiliations,” The Gerontologist 41, 2 (2001), pp. 250-256


    Good News in the “Key Domains for Aging Policy in the New Century”
    In a summary article for the National Academy on an Aging Society, Fay Lomax Cook, Director of the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, has highlighted the findings of various Congressional Briefing papers, excerpted below:
    – Work:
    Between 1960 and 1997, the proportion of men aged 55-64 who were retiring from the workforce continued to rise, while the proportion of women in the workforce increased from 37% to 51%. Today, 18% of women aged 65-69 are working, the highest percentage since 1960. The trend toward early retirement appears to be tapering off in the last few years, and people are choosing to work longer. Most baby boomers say they plan to continue to work, at least part time past 65. One reason for working longer is that Congress voted unanimously in Spring, 2000 to remove limits on how much money Social Security recipients can earn without losing part of their retirement benefits. This incentive was geared, in part, to an increasing need for older workers in a robust economy.
    – Income:
    Older adults in the 21st Century are better off than they have ever been. Between 1965 and 1998, poverty among the aged dropped from 33% to 10%. This improved status was due to many factors, chiefly, increases and cost of living adjustments to Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid. Today 91% of the elderly receive Social Security compared to 69% in 1962. Pockets of poverty continue to exist, especially among minority women; those women who have never married or been divorced are the worst off.
    – Health:
    Most people are active and independent for most of their lives. Only 5% of people aged 65-74 living in the community have a need for assistance with one activity of daily living; 9% of people 75-84 and 18% of those over 84 need such assistance. In terms of people who need help with three or more activities, at most only 12% of those people aged 85 and over need it.
    – Family Life:
    Older people are living more independently today than in former times. In 1960, 25% of older people lived with relatives, while in 1990, about half that many did. Older people living alone increased from 19% in 1960 to 31% in 1990. This change is mainly due to “the elderly’s success in the domains of income and health.” Still, in 1997 about 60% of all care giving was performed by children and other relatives. This number is expected to decrease as family size continues to shrink and more women (who are presumed to be the primary caretakers) engage in paid labor.
    From: Living longer, living better: The challenge to policy makers, an overview by Fay Lomax Cook, The Public Policy and Aging Report, Spring, 2001, 11, 2-4.


    Psychology and the Aging Revolution: How We Adapt to Longer Life, edited by Sara Honn Qualls & Norman Abeles. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2000.
    This book focus on the changing life patterns of mostly healthy older people. The crux of the matter in most cases is that where there is decrement in life, there is also ample evidence of adjustment. In this way, there is continuous development across the lifespan of new and effective strategies for coping. For example, where there is decrement in thinking processes, the elderly often compensate by knowing more than younger people. One chapter concludes that healthy adults’ emotions improve with age, echoing the research reported above. Another chapter reviews how older adults preserve their sense of well-being despite inevitable losses. The volume is useful for the helping professionals, for researchers searching for interesting new topics, and for the general public.


    Lorraine Hedtke, of the Tucson Medical Center’s Hospice program, writes to announce a workshop:
    Living Legacies: A New Way to Understand Death, Dying and Bereavement Tucson, AZ, Sept. 19, 2001
    As she describes, “This workshop – primarily for counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, ministers, psychologists and students -will bring together stories about death and dying using a social constructionist and narrative counseling approach. We will look at commonly held assumptions around death and dying that do not serve the continuation of our stories and in fact may even be harmful when creating a respectful death and bereavement period. Through conversations, exercises and reflections we will come to understand how we can more effectively experience grief and the death of a loved one by affirming that relationships do not die following a physical death but continue to grow.This perspective can inspire invigorating and appreciative conversations that promotes re-membering rather than disremembering those who have died. It focuses on death as a period of relational transition rather than on the ultimate finality. For further information call Lorraine Hedtke at (520) 299 – 0893.”


    – The New Aging: Challenges of Creative Growth, a workshop exploring vital potentials for living and learning from maturity to late adulthood, for professionals and others who work with an older generation or wish to explore for themselves. Sponsored by the Novartis Foundation for Gerontology, The Taos Institute, and the Institute for Creative Change. Phoenix, AZ, Nov. 9-11. For more information see www.taosinstitute.net

    July 1, 2001 12:00 am