2002 – December

Dec, 2002 Issue 17

The Positive Aging Newsletter

December, 2002

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Issue No 17                               

In this issue:



One of the most exciting things about writing this newsletter is the responses we receive from interested readers from many parts of the world. This month I wish to share one of these letters, as it bears specifically on a question that has provoked discussion since the inception of the Newsletter: How can one remain positive in the face of obvious physical impairment and disease? Sometimes the question comes to us with a critical overlay, as if to say, “Isn’t the message of positivity misleading in its failure to take account of the pain and suffering that often accompanies aging?

I was pleased to hear from the present reader because he was in fact an old friend from high school; by chance he had read an article in a Dallas newspaper on positive aging that quoted me. I want to thank Ted for writing and sharing his inspiring answer to this crucial question. Here is an excerpt from his email to me.

Dear Mary, ….

I believe as you do that lifelong education is a major key to both mental and physical well-being. I have always prided myself on being inquisitive (nosy I guess) and learning everything I could/can about every situation I’m in. When I lived in Yugoslavia, I learned Serbian. When my wife and I spent a month in Bali in 1998 – where we first went with the kids when we lived in Singapore in the late 70’s – I tested my ability to learn at the relatively late age of 60 by jumping into Bahasa Indonesia 2-3 hours a day with a tutor. It went just fine. Learning keeps me young, informed and relevant. I think all three are important.

Now on to living a good life in spite of adversity. At last count I have about 12 chronic illnesses including four kinds of heart disease and seizure disorder. In fact I have a health resume that spells all this out for new people (e.g. doctors) who are not likely to believe that one person can have what I do and still be alive. The resume is not to make people feel sorry for me, but rather to have them understand that I lead a full, active and happy life in spite of these issues.

Years ago when the first of many life threatening illnesses came my way I decided I had a choice to make. I could let the diseases take control of my life, put a sour frown on my face, curl up in the fetal position and wait to die or I could seize control, put a smile on my face and do everything possible through attitude, diet, spirituality and exercise to lead the fullest, longest, happiest life possible. So far my choice has worked. In fact I believe that God has given me all that I have so that I can show others what is possible. And in case you’re wondering I didn’t see the inside of a church between the ages of 24 (my only marriage) and about 54 (my heart attack) except for other people’s marriages and funerals. I’m a late convert to spirituality and really not very interested in the ceremonies of religion. For the last few years I’ve been working on a book. The title is “Lifeforce – Living a Full Life With Multiple Chronic Illnesses.”
It will probably never be published, but as you say working on it probably helps me “keep my marbles”.

My hope is that Ted will continue to share his insights with us. I am reminded by his message that , during the last 10 years of August Renoir’s life, he was severely crippled with rheumatism and arthritis. His thinness and skin wounds also contributed to increasing pain. As his son, Jean, described, “the more intolerable his suffering became, the more Renoir painted.” Surely this would also exemplify Ted’s conception of the positive “lifeforce.” As the new year approaches, Ken and I wish all of our readers a year blessed with this sense of abundant lifeforce.

Mary Gergen



Many of us experience times when a loved one confronts life threatening surgery. Research indicates that taking an optimistic approach to recovery may be life giving to the patient. In this study, spouses of 226 males and 70 female patients who had been operated on for a coronary artery bypass graft were randomly assigned to three different treatment groups. In one group the spouses were exposed to a videotape that presented information on adopting an optimistic approach to helping their spouse’s recover. A second group watched a videotape that featured more ups and downs in the recovery process and a third group saw no videotape.

Results indicated that female patients with spouses who had seen the optimistic video demonstrated more favourable recovery from surgery. They were protected from many problems experienced by women whose spouses had not seen the video. These women were less likely to be readmitted to the hospital with special problems or to require medical assistance during the subsequent 6 month period following surgery. Interestingly, the wives’ ability to help their husbands through recovery was not affected by the videotapes. The wives’ support was generally as effective in its outcomes as if they had watched the optimistic video. In effect, the research suggests that women tend to be better caretakers of their spouses following this complex surgery, but that husbands who are given an upbeat orientation to their wives’ recoveries can be better helpmates than other husbands.
Given the costs of additional medical treatment, the effectiveness of the optimistic video in reducing potential medical costs is to be appreciated.

From: Mahler, Heike I. M. & Kulik, James, (2002). Effects of a videotape information intervention for spouses on spouse distress and patient recovery from surgery by Heike I. M. Mahler & James A. Kulik, Health Psychology, 21, 427-437.


This provocative study suggests that older people who feel good about the support they give to others will live healthier lives. Women over 65 were queried on their level of satisfaction with the support they gave to their family, friends, and community organizations. Their health was then monitored for three years. The prognosis for women who were highly satisfied with the support they gave to others was far superior to that of women who were dissatisfied. Their general level of health was more robust. Most interesting, in comparison to the women who felt most satisfied with their giving, those in the lowest quartile of satisfaction were 28% more likely to be hospitalized during this period, and 52% more likely to die!

The reasons for such findings remain unclear. Possible differences in initial level of health cannot be ruled out. Satisfaction with support may be correlated with a generally more active participation in life. It is also possible that satisfaction with support reflects a more generally optimistic orientation to life, which in turn, is related to auto-immune processes. Regardless of explanation, it is interesting to suppose that caregiving can also be life-giving for the giver.

From: Ostir, G.V. et al. (2002) Satisfaction with support given and its association with subsequent health status. Journal of Aging and Health, 14, 355-369.


Does exercise help people with depression feel better? And if it does, what kind of exercise is the best? To explore such questions, researchers compared aerobic exercise with weight-training among a sample of 438 older people who suffered from depression and arthritis. (The average age of the participants was 69 years old.) The sample was surveyed after 3, 9 and 18 months for symptoms of depression and level of physical function (disability, walking speed, and pain). Results indicated that in comparison to a control group, aerobic exercise significantly reduced depressive symptoms. Further, this reduction occurred without regard for the depth of despair. Those who benefited the most were those who were most faithful to the exercise regimen. Interestingly, the weight training did not prove successful in reducing depressive symptoms. Both types of exercise improved the physical functioning of the participants; whether aerobic or weight training exercises, there was an increase in walking speed and reduction in pain.

It is not clear why aerobic exercise has such a salutary effect on depression. However, it is important to note that in additional research, aerobic exercise proved as effective in reducing depression as antidepressant medication in a sample of older, clinically depressed persons. (Blumenthal, et al, 1991). This is a significant message for those who wish to reduce chemical dependency. It is not clear why aerobic exercise has such a salutary effect on depression. However, it is important to note that in additional research, aerobic exercise proved as effective in reducing depression as antidepressant medication in a sample of older, clinically depressed persons. (Blumenthal, et al, 1991).

From: Brenda W. et al., (2002) Exercise and Depressive Symptoms: A Comparison of Aerobic and Resistance Exercise Effects on Emotional and Physical Function in Older Persons with High and Low Depressive Symptomatology. Journal of Gerontology, Psychological Sciences. 57B, P124-132.
Blumenthal, et al (1991). Long-term effects of exercise on psychological functioning in older men and women. Joiurnal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. 46, P352-P361.


 – WOMEN AND AGING: TRANSCENDING THE MYTHS, By Linda R. Gannon (New York: Routledge, 1999)

Gannon invites us to resist the call to hormones as the fountain of youth, health and longevity for women. The invitation is especially pertinent given recent findings on the inefficacy and negative side effects of hormone replacement therapy. The general point made by Gannon is that current scientific literature, as well as most other literatures, regard women as biological creatures who live and die by their hormonal clocks, while men are subject to their lifestyle choices. Gannon debunks the role of hormones in the aging process and looks to other factors such as weight bearing exercise, psychological dispositions, diet, and environmental conditions as significant variables in the quality of older women’s lives. One of her goals is to undermine the myth that menopause is the chief culprit in the story of women’s aging.
Focusing on research methodology, she discredits many studies that have emphasized the impact of menopause on women’s lives. She notes, for example, that cross cultural research does not support the universality of this view. In Indonesia, for example, women report about half the hot flashes that American women do. This book is especially useful for those working with older women in medically related settings, and for older women themselves. Gannon’s message is very positive about the possible variations in women’s lives other than living with the supposed curse of the loss of the “curse.”


 – Dr. Leonid A. Gavrilov, Center on Aging NORC/University of Chicago invites visitors to a website providing scientific information on prolonging human longevity:

– Retirement Living
Lists communities for both Active Retirement Living and Supportive Retirement Living. Vital information concerning average age of residents, specific kinds of recreation available, and staff-to-resident ratios. Also contact Senior Hospitality Institute, 107 E. Front St., Wheaton, Il 60187; (630) 665-8360
Listings of communities by 30 different types of retirement needs. In addition there are about 20 care categories to choose from, including behavioral/psychiatric ones. The Retirement Living Information Center, Inc. has other services for older people, as well as a monthly newsletter about new retirement communities.
The organization offers myriad links to sources for retirement communities, financial and insurance services, medical and health care. Information is also available for buying and renting homes in 10 states.

– Beating the Blues
Of major interest to anyone troubled by depression is an extract of Robert Griffith’s book, Beating the Senior Blues (New Harbinger, 2002), found on this site. Once on the site, look in the ‘Public’ area, go to the ‘Depression’ topic in the Health Centers and open the article entitled: ‘Beating the Senior Blues’. Griffith demonstrates various strategies for defeating negative “self talk.”


  – Positive Aging Newsletter available in Spanish.: Many of our readers are Spanish speakers, and many have friends and colleagues in Spanish-speaking countries (including the U.S.). We now have developed a Spanish version of the newsletter and have a small but growing list of people who would like to receive the newsletter in Spanish. If you are interested, or know someone who would like to join the Spanish list, please contact Dr. Cristina Ravazzola, our Argentinian colleague on the newsletter at her email: mravazzo@fibertel.com.ar

– Religion, Spirituality and Health Care. Conference. (Sept. 20, 2002, Austin, TX). Speakers include Harold Koenig, M.D. For more information, contact Christopher Ellison at: cellison@mail.la.utexas.edu

– A new journal, Transformative Education, will soon appear, and is seeking relevant papers. The journal is devoted to enhancing all dimensions of the educational process for mature adults. The intent is on building the resources of the aging so they may contribute even more potently to the society and the global community. For more information on submissions and subscriptions, see www.sagepub.com/jted, or, contact the editor, Will McWhinney, PhD, directly: Will@isote.org

– Call for Papers on Positive Adult Development The Society for Research in Adult Development invites papers and presentations for its annual conference in Tampa, Florida (Apr. 24-27, 2003). Deadline for applications is December 10, 2002. Submissions on all aspects of positive adult development are invited, including altruistic behavior; caring for parents; consciousness studies; development of the self; futurism, and more. For information, visit www.adultdevelopment.org/ Send proposals to Michael L. Commons at Commons@tiac.net

– “Making Our World a Good Place to Grow Old,” is the theme of the the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) and American Society on Aging (ASA) conference in Chicago, March 13-16, 2003.
Addressing more than 4,000 professionals in aging this education and networking event will explore a vast array of subjects such as adult day services, care management and family caregiving issues, consumer direction, cultural and ethnic minority issues, education, end-of-life issues, health promotion and wellness, housing, public policy and advocacy, transportation, workforce issues, and more.
Visit the NCOA-ASA Joint Conference website at www.agingconference.org for complete information, or contact ljones@asaging.org.

– 2003 Summer Series on Aging: Continuing Education for Professionals Who Work With Older Adults. Presented by the American Society on Aging.
San Francisco: June 17-20
Philadelphia July 22-25.
Phone: 800-537-9728


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

December 1, 2002 12:00 am