2001 – June

June, 2001 Issue 3

The Positive Aging Newsletter

Friday, June 29, 2001

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

In this issue:

Focal Commentary: Positive Aging? Let’s Get Real!

This is the third issue of this newsletter, devoted to appreciating the process of growing older. The continuing attempt in the newsletter is – through the medium of research and practice – to reframe 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. There are critics of the growing emphasis on positive aging. As they point out, declines in bodily, mental, and social capacities over time are obvious and inexorable. A vast scientific literature documents such declines in detail. To paint a picture of aging as a new era of growth and enrichment is grossly misleading. Such critique is understandable, but limiting. First, the negative view of aging is pervasive within the culture. How many people “look forward” to their old age? Very few! Unfortunately, the vast share of gerontological research also supports the common bias. The positive aging movement offers a more hopeful picture There is first of all resistance to the “black-washed” picture of old age, with more careful analyses showing that age trends are not always in a declining direction. Much research indicates that many decrements in functioning are reserved for the very late years. More importantly, inquiry into positive aging reveals the many ways in which the aging years offer more, not less, in the way of enrichment, growth, and fulfillment. There is more: Changes in the body or in our behavior is not “decline” unless we interpret it as such. “Decline” is a value-loaded cultural concept used to organize our world. It is not a picture of the world itself. Other, more promising interpretations are possible. For example, some studies indicate that there can be uplifting, positive and profoundly meaningful dimensions to experiences of disease (Frank, 1997; Kleinman, 1988; Morris, 1993). The same is possible with other facets of the latter years of life. Positive aging explores the ways in which the glass may be viewed as three quarters full.

Ken and Mary Gergen
Frank, A. (1997). The wounded storyteller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kleinman, A. (1988). The illness narratives. NY: Basic Books
Morris, D.B.(1993). The culture of pain. Univ. of California Press: Berkeley

Significant Research

– Happiness and Longevity: The Nun Study
Recent findings suggest that finding happiness in life is related to longevity. Beginning in 1930, a group of 180 young nuns were asked by their Mother Superior to write a 2-3 page autobiography. Sixty some years later, psychologists analyzed these essays for their emotional content. How happy or unhappy did these women describe themselves in these stories? More importantly, did the nature of their emotional life as young women have any relationship to their longevity.

In this analysis, such words as “happiness,” “love,” “contentment,” “amusement,” and “relief,” were coded as positive emotions, while negative emotion words included “sadness,” “afraid,” “suffering”, hopelessness.” To illustrate an autobiography high in positive emotion: “God started my life off well by bestowing upon me a grace of inestimable value….The past year which I have spent as a candidate studying at Notre Dame College has been a very happy one. Now I look forward with eager joy to receiving the Holy Habit of Our Lady and to a life of union with Love Divine.” This story may be contrasted with one rated lacking positivity: “I was born on September 26, 1909, the eldest of seven children…. My candidate year was spent in the Motherhouse, teaching Chemistry and Second Year Latin… With God’s grace, I intend to do my best for our Order, for the spread of religion and for my personal sanctification.”

In terms of longevity, there proved to be a strong relationship between positive emotions as expressed in these early accounts and long life. The greater the number of positive emotions the longer the life. (There was no relationship between longevity and negative emotion words.) Of those nuns who used a low number of positive emotion sentences 54% had died by the age of 80. Of those who used the highest number of positive emotion sentence, only 24% had died by age 80.
The findings are provocative, but significant questions remain unanswered. Can we generalize from the life of nuns to the population more generally? One must be cautious, because the lifestyles of nuns are highly specialized. Most importantly, how are we to account for these findings? What is it about a sunny disposition that might add years to life? Are we speaking here of a biological propensity in which joy and long life are conjoined? It seems more likely that those who enjoy life might take better care of their bodies, or live lives of less stress. We look forward to further work on this important topic.

From: “Positive emotions in early life and longevity: Findings from the nun study.” by Deborah D. Danner, David A. Snowdon, and Wallace V. Friesen. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, 80, 804-813.

– Planning Ahead and Life Satisfaction

Researchers propose that planning ahead gives people a greater sense of control over their lives. This sense of choosing what one wishes, as opposed to being knocked about by whatever comes along, breeds a greater sense of security and satisfaction. Further, as this study suggests, the older person’s benefits from planning ahead are greater than for younger people. In effect, planning one’s future (whether immediate or more long term) may be especially useful for older people. To explore these possibilities, researchers examined how planning ahead was correlated with life satisfactions in a sample ranging from 25-74. As the results indicated, younger people planned more into the future than older people, but older people who did plan their futures were more satisfied with their lives than those who did not. Men tended to be more future-oriented than women, Among the sample of older people, one respondent in his sixties, who was high in life satisfactions, answered the question of “What do you do to manage your daily life?” by responding, “I get up every day, plan a 9-5 schedule Monday through Friday…. The weekends are planned five months ahead.” A man who was low in life satisfactions replied to this question, “I just get up and stumble through it.” Interestingly, people who scored highly on a measure of Openness to Experience were more likely to plan ahead. Those who scored high on Neuroticism (anxious and troubled about the present) planned less. Intellectual traits did not separate the planners from the drifters.

From : Planning for the future: A life management strategy for increasing control and life satisfaction in adulthood by Kimberly M. Prenda & Margie E. Lachman, Psychology and Aging, 2001, 16, 206-216.

– Teaching About Positive Aging in Middle School

This study alerts researchers and care providers to innovative sets of interdisciplinary teaching materials introducing middle school students positive aging. The curriculum integrates sample materials from geriatrics and gerontology into a range of classes, such as science and mathematics. The program was assessed by having students in two San Antonio, Texas middle schools draw a typical older person. The drawings were coded as to whether the image of the older person was positive, neutral or negative. An example of a positive image was one in which the older person was actively engaged in life, seemed healthy and was in a pleasant environment. A negative image was one in which the older person was infirmed, unhappy, lonely or in an unpleasant environment. Results indicated that after students were exposed to the “Positively Aging” materials, they were much more likely to draw pictures that illustrated a positive image. The researchers believed it important that the materials used were integrated into ordinary school work materials and not put forth as a special unit.

From: “The Positively Aging teaching materials improve middle school students’ images of older people by Michael J. Lichtenstein, Linda A. Pruski, Carolyn E. Marshall, Cheryl L. Blalock, Douglas L. Murphy, Rosemarie Plaetke, & Shuko Lee, The Gerontologist, 41, 322-332.

News Report

– The Continuously Developing Brain

 Many studies of deteriorating cognitive processes are based on the implicit assumption of cortical deterioration. However, according to recent studies by researchers at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the brain continues to develop new forms of transmission throughout middle age. Under the direction lead scientist, Dr. George Bartzokis, researchers measured brain development in 70 normal men aged 19 to 76. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) they found that the “white matter” of the brain, that is the transmission lines that send signals from one part of the brain to others, continues to develop in the frontal and temporal lobes on average until approximately the age of 50; there is no pronounced decrement following. This is especially surprising news to most people who think of the brain as fully developed by the time we are young adults. Dr. Bartzokis suggests that people at mid-life have much different brains from people at 20. The brain at 50 is a much better “computer” than the one at 20. Nor are there major decrements registered before the age of 80. See The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 15, 2001, A7.

– Are Old Drivers Bad Drivers?

Common talk has it that the “old geezers” on the road are causing a lot of accidents. This news article supports this idea with the suggestion that when people reach their 70’s they become road hazards. Like all stories there is a grain of truth to the accusations, but the statistics tell a more complicated tale. First, in terms of safety, after the teenage years, when accident rates are very high, driving safety records become increasingly better for every adult age group, and reach their best rate for drivers between 65- 69 years of age, with only 3.5 accidents per million miles driven. Thus, the best drivers in the country are older people. It is only at age 70 that the accident rates begin to approximate those of teenage drivers. Drivers over the age of 80 exceed the accident rates of the young. In terms of deaths per 100 million miles driven, new drivers between 16-19 have 7 deaths; adults from 30- 69 have slightly fewer than 3 deaths. People in their 70’s have a slightly higher rate than people in their twenties. However, from 80-84, the death rate soars to 11, and then to 15 for drivers over 85. Clearly driving after 80 is a risky business! There are many factors to consider here, but what seems most needed are affordable, effective alternatives to driving a car, for all ages, but especially after 79. See The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 2001, A1, A-18.

Book Alert

Expressive Arts with Elders: A Resource, 2nd edition, by Naida Weisberg & Rosilyn Wilder. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publ. (2001). Naida Weisberg and Rosilyn Wilder have gathered a group of practitioners who describe their work in developing capacities for artistic expression in older people. Among the arts programs described are those related to visual arts, dance and movement, drama, oral history and folk tales, music and writing. As artistic expressions are integrated into the lives of the elderly, new enthusiasms about life and creative potential emerge. The settings include schools, nursing homes, hospitals, community centers, and mental institutions. The detailed descriptions of the various programs makes the book especially useful for gerontological practitioners, including therapists, care-givers, and teachers, who might want to expand their repertoires.

Net Resources

Many subscribers to this newsletter will find much of value in a related newsletter, Human Values in Aging Update. This newsletter, rich in materials treating the quest for meaning, is published by the Institute for Human Values in Aging, and co-sponsored by the Institute for Medical Humanities, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. For more information see www.HRMoody.com or write to Harry Moody at hrmoody@yahoo.com.

Reader Commentary

Dorothy B. Stulberg,an attorney from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, wrote “One of the most uplifting stories I have read was in the Oct. 12, 2000 USA Today…. It was about Stanley Kunitz: a poet laureate at 95. His poem “Touch Me” is wonderful. It was fun to think that he likes rap–I do too. He thinks it is part of the spoken tradition that will influence poets today in the same way English street ballads influenced the poets of the romantic movement two centuries ago. He said “I’m exploring new territory” “The adventure of my life is a continuing story…”.

Upcoming Events

– The ASA Summer Series on Aging (San Francisco, July 23-26, 2001) will offer a range of relevant workshops, on topics such as “The Search for Meaning in the Second Half of Life,” “Spirituality and Mental Health,” and “Creative Aging.” For information see www.asaging.org/summer-series/rocky/index.html, or call 800-537-9728.

 – The United Nations 2nd World Assembly on Aging will take place in Madrid, Spain, in April, 2002. This is an excellent venue for presenting materials on positive aging to an audience of scientists, practitioners, and policy makers. For more information wee www.valenciaforum.com.

Posting Information

If you have material you wish to offer to newsletter readers, please write to Mary Gergen.

June 1, 2001 12:00 am