2001 – October

October, 2001 Issue 7

The Positive Aging Newsletter

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen

Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice

In this issue:


Reconstructing Loss.

This past month has been heavy with stories of personal loss. A pall of grief is pervasive. There is an equally strong tendency to view loss as exclusively negative. One of the most important messages born out Robert Neimeyer’s recently published volume, Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss, is that loss is not loss is not loss. As this collection of 17 contributions – by psychotherapists, psychologists, and religious scholars – makes clear, death does not in itself constitute loss or trigger debilitating grief. Rather, the death of someone dear challenges survivors to engage in a complex process of constructing meaning. To be sure, such constructions may often include the sense of inalterable deficit – hopelessness, fear and remorse. However, the most uplifting message contained within this volume is that loss may be reconstructed in myriad ways that go beyond the negative. This possibility has long been present in many religious and spiritual traditions, and the present work underscores the value of these traditions as cultural resources. However, even in the more secular world, significant supplements to the negative may be located. We find, for example, that death as a gift, a sacrifice, an opportunity to celebrate the life of the lost one, an opportunity to rekindle family or community ties, or a challenge to live more fully – all are vital forms of reconstructing loss. A dedication to a more fully engaged life may also function as a continued honoring of the deceased and a means of daily carrying him/her within us. As many of these chapters also emphasize, the meaning-making process is inherently a social one. Whether relying on social traditions or ongoing relationships, making meaning is not a private but a cultural activity. The importance of family and communal relations in reconstructing loss cannot be underestimated.

Ken and Mary Gergen

For more: Neimeyer Robert A. (Ed.) (2001) Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.


– Coping and Joy: The Positive Potential of Stress

Most of what we know about coping has been related to the negativity of stressful situations. Very little is known about how positive feelings can also accompany times of stress. Susuan Folkman and Judith Moskowitz review research that indicates how coping strategies can generate and sustain positive emotions in the context of chronic stress.

Generally we don’t think that people under constant stress – for example, with debilitating handicaps – are going to experience much joy. However, research by Roxy Silver and Camille Wortman, for example, showed that people with spinal cord injuries experienced positive emotions significantly more often than negative emotions within a short time after the accident that caused their paralysis. Others have shown that future widows and widowers also experience more positive than negative emotions when caring for a dying spouse, and this ratio continues into the post-bereavement periods. Only at the time of death did negative emotions outweigh all others.

Researchers feel that many people maintain a positive emotional balance through coping strategies. For example, one useful coping strategy is to search for positive aspects of the situation. Is the glass really half empty or are there also other ways to see it as half full? This type of reframing is frequently employed by family therapists and cognitive therapists in working with clients. Problem-focused coping is also useful in that it helps to reduce the scope of a problem, indicates a pathway towards some type of resolution or brings about a shift in the gravity or span of a situation. If people can do something to improve their situation, then they can better adjust to it and feel more confident, calm and upbeat. Lastly there are coping strategies that add new dimensions of meaning to the situation. Ordinary life can take on new beauty or potential if attention is drawn to its deeper implications. Being able to see oneself as a witness to suffering and pain, for example, can create feelings of peace and purposefulness. Finding means of transforming a situation so that it entails some kind of spiritual quality can also produce a more positive psychological state. In their conclusions, Folkman and Moskowitz encourage researchers to engage in forms of qualitative inquiry that will better document the histories of stressful life events and how those affected manage to find joy, contentment, and meaning in such circumstances.

For details: Susan Folkman & Judith Moskowitz (2000) Positive affect and the other side of coping. American Psychologist, 55, 647-654.

– Planning Ahead: Antecedents and Positive Outcomes

In previous issues of the Newsletter we have reported on research indicating that future-oriented planning is significantly associated with an enhanced sense of control in daily life, and a greater sense of well-being. Future-oriented planning seems to keep one interested, engaged and enthusiastic about life. The present study expands on these findings by exploring antecedents of future-oriented planning. The research subjects were the 3,032 respondents of the MIDUS study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation. Ages ranged from 25 to 75. Future-oriented planning was measured in terms of whether respondents reported that they make plans for the future and set goals as opposed to focusing on today and living one day at a time.

Two of the most important findings included strong, positive associations between 1) life predictability and future-oriented planning, and 2) social support and future-oriented planning. People living under stable environmental conditions, and who had significant social support, engaged in significantly more planning than those whose living conditions were less stable and supportive. The first finding suggests that many seniors may draw benefit from the stability of their circumstances. The second finding ties in with much that we have reported in earlier issues of the Newsletter: active relations with others are highly beneficial to enjoying the aging years. The research also indicated that people who are open to experience are more likely to engage in planning. In other words, being open and curious about the world may encourage making plans for exploration.

While the present research did indicate that the tendency to plan ahead does diminish with age, and is greater among men than among women, earlier research has shown that age-related patterns of future-time perspective can be altered. Consequently, there is reason to believe that life satisfaction might be enhanced for older persons who are encouraged to plan for the future, regardless of views about the shrinking amount of time they have left.

For details: Kimberly M. Prenda and Margie E. Lachman, Planning for the Future: A Life Management Strategy for Increasing Control and Life Satisfaction in Adulthood. Psychology and Aging 16, 2, pp. 206-216

– A Community-Based Program for Enhancing Physical Activity

As commonly recognized, remaining physically active is one of the most important ways of remaining healthy; yet, research indicates that two-thirds of all older people remain “underactive.” To overcome this tendency a community-based program, called CHAMPS II, has been developed. Its design has taken into account many of the factors that help people of all ages to maintain a commitment to activity. Participants choose activities they like and which are geared to the individual’s particular health and ability levels. In addition the program offers information on how to exercise safely, create and maintain a balanced exercise routine, and how to stay motivated.

In order to study whether or not the program made a difference in people’s lives, researchers studied 173 people who completed a year-long program. Subjects were aged between 65 and 90; two-thirds were women. The results indicated that the exercisers, compared with a control group, expended about 500 calories more per week – the equivalent of a vigorous walk of 20 minutes 5 times a week. People who most benefited from the program were women who were most overweight, and those who tended to be physically inactive prior to the onset of the program. Two limitations of the American study were that the participants tended to be fairly well educated and few of them were from minority groups. The researchers stressed that the most important part of this highly successful program seemed to be the self-selected nature of the activities. (The major choices were walking leisurely or briskly, doing heavy housework, gardening, or doing stretching and flexibility exercises.)

For details: Anita L. Stewart, et al, (2001) “Physical activity outcomes of CHAMPS II: A physical activity promotion program for older adults” Journal of Gerontology, Vol. 56A, M465-M470.


James Hillman Interview.

James Hillman, sometimes said to be the “bad boy” of Jungian psychology, was featured on the ABC News segment, “21st Century Lives,” where he was interviewed by Peter Jennings. In Hillman’s view, “Most people, they’re afraid of growing old.” “Aging doesn’t seem to be anything but the machine running down. And that’s a sad way of thinking about a great part of your life. People in their fifties need to see role models,” he explains, “because they’re still imagining that old age is ugliness. They need to see the beauty of old faces.”

As Hillman writes in his recent book, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life (Ballantine, 2000), even the apparent losses of old age can be positive and meaningful. For example, diminished short-term memory prompts reminiscence of distant events and encourages us to re-evaluate our lives; the loss of physical energy may permit us a greater measure of inwardness and contemplation–what some have called the late freedom: As Hillman challenges, “Aging can free you from conventional constriction and transform you into a force of nature, releasing your deepest beliefs, your passionate intensity.”


Widownet: To enhance the process of meaning making in times of grief.
A self-help resource for and by widows and widowers. Topics include grief, recovery, and other areas for people of all ages, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations.

AARP: Grief and Loss programs.
Programs in which volunteers reach out to widows.

HealthandAge.com: Gentle Ending mini site.
People are often woefully ill-prepared for death, even when there is adequate advanced warning. Gentle Endings aims to help, by providing information for you and your loved ones about different aspects of dying. Items covered include grieving, hospice services, recommended reading (including book chapter extracts), links to useful sites, and so on.

ElderHope LLC: online support, forums, seminars, classes, and bereavement materials.

Website dedicated to series of 15 articles on the topic in the Philadelphia Inquirer, entitled “Finding our Way: Living with Dying in America”.


Handbook of Bereavement Research, Margaret Stroebe, Robert Hansson, Wolfgang Stroebe, and Henk Schut (Eds.) (2001) Washington, DC: APA Publications.

This volume represents an outstanding compilation of 31 essays by major scholars who treat the chief orientations, findings, theories, and practices related to the bereavement process. Specific sections are devoted to theory, methods and ethics; bereavement across the life span; bereavement in social context; concepts of coping; research on coping mechanisms; and care for the grieving. Specifically related to issues treated in the present Newsletter are illuminating chapters on bereavement and personal growth (Jeanne Schaefer and Rudolf Moos), grief as a cultural construction (Paul Rosenblatt), meaning making in family bereavement (Janice Nadeau), and reconstructing the meaning of grief in cognitive-behavioral therapy.


– 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. Topics include creatively constructing the future, generative relationships, reconstructing loss and pain, appreciative living, healthy wealth, and meaning across generations.
Workshop leaders include Ken and Mary Gergen and Robert and Sharon Cottor.
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 http://www.taosinstitute.org/

– 2001 – Gerontological Odyssey: Exploring science, society and spirituality. Annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Nov. 15-18. Chicago, Ill. Featuring sessions on well-being, self-determination, lifelong learning, and more. For further information: http://www.geron.org/

October 1, 2001 12:00 am