2001- November

Nov, 2001 Issue 8

The Positive Aging Newsletter

November, 2001

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice
Issue No 8

In this Issue:


 Appreciative Aging

The later years can be experienced as positive growth, a period to be welcomed rather than feared. At least this is the implication of a practice called Appreciative Inquiry. For several years now we have worked with organizational development specialists whose enthusiasm for Appreciative Inquiry is unbounded. The practice both inspires and sets in motion new visions of an organization, as well as reduces existing conflicts. It is now used around the globe both in the profit making and non-profit sector. A movement to create a United Religions, equivalent to the United Nations, is now facilitated by Appreciative Inquiry practitioners who are bringing together representatives of religions whose animosities span centuries.

The elements of Appreciative Inquiry are simple. Rather than focusing on “the problems” that so often occupy organizational and personal life, participants are charged with exploring stories about positive events, for example, about incidents in which the organization was particularly successful, and/or in which they themselves were inspired. Through the sharing of these stories, visions of positive possibilities are distilled. Participants then begin to develop plans that can realize these possibilities, and ways of ensuring their implementation.

Professionals working with the elderly have begun to adopt this kind of orientation, and with good effects. They are drawn to an appreciative stance because it represents a complete turn-around from the pervasive tendency to see aging as vast sea of problems to be confronted. Seldom is aging understood in terms of the openings and opportunities that are available, and the forms of growth that many people experience as they age. Further, we seldom consider how problems themselves are not negative; even illness and disability harbor positive potential. Finally, we don’t often stop to consider whether something commonly labelled “a problem” is deserving of this name alone. For example, many authorities speak of the period when children leave the home as “the empty nest problem”, while many parents describe this period in their lives as rejuvenating.

Several examples of an appreciative orientation at work are contained in the personal communications featured below. We also had an opportunity recently to witness the possibilities in a workshop for health care workers – who, like all of us, were also concerned with their own future well-being. As one participant initially revealed, he saw everyday life as replete with problems; life was about solving problems and he expected the problems only to become more severe with aging. To explore the positive alternatives, participants joined in an experiential learning task to create positive visions of aging. Pages were filled with these visions; not only were the visions hopeful, but essentially inviting. One would scarcely want to miss the adventure! In further tasks, participants were confronted with a range of events typically experienced as problems – wrinkled faces and sagging bodies, chronic disease, disability, and the death of intimates. Could they tell stories in which people had located in such events opportunities for significant development, creativity, invigoration, or inspiration? Gradually the stories came forth, and with the sharing the workshop began to hum with enthusiasm.

In later newsletters we will report on the details of some of these appreciative reconstructions.

Ken and Mary Gergen

For more on Appreciative Inquiry see: http://www.taosinstitute.net/
Also: Watkins, J. M. and Mohr, B.J. (2001) Appreciative Inquiry. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Cooperrider, D. et al. (1999) Appreciative Inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change. Champaign, IL: Stipes.


Theresa M. Bertram (bertramt@bellsouth.net), CEO of the Cathedral Foundation, Jacksonville FL, writes:

For its first thirty-five years, the Cathedral Foundation was a national leader in providing the “answers” for the elderly by offering caretaking services, housing and nursing home care for thousands of seniors day in and day out. For the last five years, using Appreciative Inquiry, we have begun to understand elders in a new way. We now see elders from a position of strength, not of weakness. They are creative, rich with history and filled with ideas for the future – they are robust, often reaching across generations to build a better society – and they are spiritual and take the time to explore fully this dimension of their lives. They are so different from the sick, frail, sexless, weak, disabled, powerless, passive, and unhappy persons portrayed in many segments of our society.

An understanding of elders at their best has led to major changes in our organizational practices. We have moved away from the market driven, medical model that responds to the physical and environmental needs of the elderly, while subtly or not so subtly, making nearly all decisions for them. We now understand that we do not sustain our elders – their presence sustains us.

Today, we are exploring ways to undergird seniors in their daily living rather than fostering dependency by doing everything for them and making decisions on their behalf. Early results are highly promising. Our elders are leading advocacy efforts by showing up at town meetings and making their political voices heard – raising funds for projects important to them including $60,000 for a wheelchair-accessible bus — and expressing themselves in music and art. One group has organized an African-American choir that performs in the community. Most exciting is the expanding horizon of achievements and further innovations we see deriving from an appreciative collaboration with our elders.

Pam Willis writes on the appreciative potential inherent in the concept of resiliency:
I think “resiliency” is a very positive word that has facilitated ‘helpers’ and ‘helpees’ look beyond the distress and the gloom to an appreciation of the wonderful capacity of each and every human being. Like appreciative inquiry, it moves a person from a deficit position to one of assets and strengths and reinforces and builds on what is right and what works well. Furthermore, it does this by acknowledging reality – life really is hard sometimes, bad things do happen to people, the future can look pretty bleak. Resiliency is about more than just survival. It’s about having the ability to find the life and spirit inside oneself (or group, or community) that leads us to optimism during and following difficult times. I think ‘resiliency’ and ‘appreciation’ are soul-mates.

Naomi Kahane writes:
I am a 69 year-old, who went to university at age 62 for a BA and MA degrees, and am now two years into a new career as a consultant. I use Appreciative Inquiry whenever I can, and work to incorporate the philosophy in my attention to my aging. It is not only a time for losses!


– Positive Thinking and Feeling Good

The importance of an appreciative approach to aging is suggested by recent research in Germany. Here a team of researchers asked questions to a sample of over 4,000 people, aged 40 to 85. The participants were asked about social contacts, activities, personality, feelings of well-being, and about how they thought about the aging process. Of special interest, they were able to locate many people who thought of aging as a period of continuous growth.

As the results of the study indicated, people who approached aging as a period of continuous growth felt less loneliness, a greater sense of hope, and more positively about their health than those who did not view aging in this positive way. Further, the more positively oriented were found to be more open to new opportunities, and to have a greater variation in their emotional lives (including feelings of suffering that may come from risking new things). The researchers did find that education and income contributed to viewing age as a growth period, but there were many respondents without extended education or resources who maintained a positive orientation. Overall, researchers also concluded that how old one is may not be the central factor in finding life satisfactions and a rich emotional life. Psychological factors and one’s social resources proved to be generally more important predictors. The research suggests that physical decline is not so powerful as a predictor of life satisfaction, but “may be seen as trivial and generally accepted as a normal part of the aging process.”

For details: The personal experience of aging, individual resources, and subjective well-being. By Nardi Steverink, Gerben J. Westerhof, Christina Bode, and Freya Dittmann-Kohli. Journal of Gerontology, 2001, 56Bm P364-373.

Related article: ” Mind and Body: Turning Connection into Advantage” by Shachi D. Shantinath, PhD.

– Social Support and Physical Health: A Closer Look

As reported in this newsletter and many other venues, a robust relationship is often found between social support and both health status and recovery from illness. Those who benefit from social support (which may include emotional, instrumental, and informational resources) are likely to suffer fewer illnesses and recover from illness more rapidly.

At the same time, much of the existing research measures health status with self-report measures, such as check-lists and interviews. Such measures may be unreliable as people who are in good spirits may often bias their health ratings in the positive direction, and vice versa. The present study represents an improvement, in its assessing actual physical symptoms (e.g. blood pressure, cholesterol, and immune competency as measured by natural killer cell activity). The research also improved on much earlier investigation, in its assessing health across time. Earlier research was often limited to “single-shot” assessment that masked any changes occurring across time.

The present research used a sample of over 160 elderly persons.
The results did support the view that over time, social support is an asset to physical health. However, the pattern of results revealed an interesting difference among participants. The close link between support and good health indicators was largely found in lower income groups. As the researchers reasoned, lower income people have fewer physical assets to help them in time of need. Thus, they are more likely to turn to the support of others who they feel close to in order to cope. The important point, however, is that social/emotional support really does make an objective difference, above and beyond just promoting good feelings about one’s health.

For details: Peter Vitaliano, James M. Scanlan, Jianping Zhang, Margaret V. Savage, Beverly Brummet, John Barefoot, and Ilene C. Siegler. “Are the Salutogenic Effects of Social Supports Modified by Income? A Test of an ‘Added Value Hypothesis’,” Health Psychology 20, No. 3 (2001), pp. 155-165.

Related article: ” Smashing Myths about Breast Cancer, Part II : Do Stress and Social Support Play a Role?” by Mariah E. Coe.


– Gibson, Hamilton B. “Loneliness in Later Life” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

Gibson challenges the stereotype of the “lonely old person,” and the assumption that the most important factor in preventing loneliness among older people is their connection to their family members. The book is based on British survey results, along with a sample of autobiographies.

Gibson believes that being alone does not necessarily have the negative outcome for older people that others presume. Instead he believes that being alone often helps people to attain new levels of positive growth. The contemporary historical context is a major factor here. The elderly in modern society are more active, independent, and healthier than heretofore, and thus more able to be self-determined in their life choices. They do not necessarily require family members in order to be sustained. Bereavement and loss of status are two factors that do make older people vulnerable to loneliness; however, the same case can be made for younger people.

– Myers, David. “A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss”. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Some 350 million people worldwide live with hearing loss. This volume explores their experiences of pain, humor and hope, and most importantly, assays the resources available to assist those with developing loss. Drawing on both his own experiences and his expertise as a social psychologist, Myers recounts how he has coped with hearing loss, and what it has meant for his relationships with others. Valuable information is provided on new technologies and groundbreaking surgical procedures now available. As Myers outlines, the family and friends of the hard of hearing also face adjustments. Myers addresses their situation and provides advice for them on living with and providing support to those with hearing loss.

– Related to appreciative aging, Kathy Linstrom recommends: Polly Young-Eisendrath’s, “The Resilient Spirit:Transforming Suffering into Insight and Renewal”. (New York: Perseus, 1997). She writes, “I highly recommend this book both for the depth and poignancy of the stories as well as the author’s insights into the transformational process of those she interviewed.”


“Old Enough to Know Better”, a film by Ron Levaco, and distributed by First Run/Icarus Films. (1-800-876-1710)

This 58 minute film is the story of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, as seen through the eyes of its students and teachers. Since 1976 the Fromm Institute has provided the elderly a place where they can learn, interact socially, actively participate in society and teach each other. The students and their teachers (all retired professors) talk about the struggles and personal gains experienced in returning to a college education; a theme of enrichment and renewal predominates.


– SPIRITUALITY and HEALING IN MEDICINE: Practical Usage in Contemporary Healthcare Conference (Dec. 15-17, 2001, Boston, MA). Sponsored by Harvard Medical School Mind/Body Institute. Featuring Christina Puchalski, MD, Herbert Benson, MD, and others. For conference registration information contact Harvard Medical School at 617-384-8600; or e-mail at: hms-cme@hms.harvard.edu


If you have material you wish to offer to newsletter readers, please write to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

November 1, 2001 12:00 am