2002- January

January, 2002 Issue 10

The Positive Aging Newsletter

January, 2002

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



Positive Aging: Renewing the Vision

As we now engage with the New Year it is appropriate to review the central mission of this newsletter, thus clarifying as well what you may anticipate and how you may participate as readers. Since its inception less than a year ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate – now reaching approximately 11,000 subscribers – primarily gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons. Many late-comers to the newsletter may be especially curious about the orientation guiding the selection of content.

Our primary aim is to bring to light resources – from research, practice and daily life – that contribute to an appreciation of the aging process. 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. Such a revolution vitally depends on the communities of research and professional practices that focus on adult populations, especially people over 55. It is within these communities that new ideas, insights, factual support, and practices of growth enhancement can congenially emerge. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging, and the availability of resources, skills, and resiliencies, research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice but creates hope and empowers action among older people. By moving beyond practices of repair and prevention, to emphasize growth-enhancing activities, practitioners also contribute to the societal reconstruction of aging.

Another aim of the newsletter is to reduce the distance between scientist and practitioner, and between professionals and the public. Through mutual enlightenment may come more relevant research and more effective practices. And of course, we hope that all of us might benefit personally from the venture.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If you have writings or practices that you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, you are invited to share them in future issues. We also review selected books and films, and carry announcements of relevant conferences and workshops. Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

To reintroduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, Delaware County.
Ken and Mary are both on the Executive Board of the Taos Institute, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of social constructionist theory and societal practice. Each has a long history of engagement with gerontological inquiry and therapeutic practice.

We hope you will join us in the present endeavor,
Ken and Mary Gergen


– Self-Efficacy and Recovery from Loss

Confronting the loss of loved ones is a normal part of living a full life. Yet, some people weather the storm of loss, while others seem relentlessly tormented. This research addresses the question of what contributes to successful recovery from loss. Specifically, the interest was in whether feelings of self-efficacy insulate one from debilitating grief. If you believe in your various capacities, do you in fact manage more successfully?

To explore this possibility, some 200 widows and widowers who had lost their spouses 4-6 months before were asked to fill out a battery of measures, including a test of self-efficacy. The self-efficacy test was also divided into several sub-sections, including self-efficacy in: interpersonal relations, emotional relations, instrumental achievement, social support relations, physical capacities, financial abilities, spiritual capacities.

A typical item in the interpersonal realm was: “I am able to make sure that my relationships with family and friends are as satisfying and rewarding as I would like them to be” assessed on a 4-point scale, from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

The participants were again asked to help out 18 months later by responding to a further set of questions. Of special interest were measures of quality of life and life satisfactions. The major question was whether early measures of self-efficacy would predict later levels of life quality and satisfaction. Several results were important:

1.Overall, the early measures of self-efficacy predicted with significance the later ratings of life quality and satisfaction. Although we don’t know about the early levels of quality and satisfaction, the strong suggestion is that feelings of self-efficacy seem to be good companions in times of loss.

2. Men and women differed considerably in the kinds of self-efficacy that were important. Widows were benefited by feelings of self-efficacy in areas of interpersonal relations, emotional stability, and spiritual health. In contrast, widowers gained by virtue of feeling competent in areas of instrumental activity, financial security, and physical health.

3. The age at which these men and women lost their spouse made little difference in their ability to forge ahead successfully. Income levels did make a difference, but in general this difference was less substantial than that resulting from feelings of self-efficacy.

The author of the study stresses that notions of self-efficacy can be modified through programmatic efforts by those who work with the bereaved. Of special import is the development of feelings of spiritual health efficacy, (e.g. “Even in hard times, the meaning and purpose I have found for my life provides me a sense of peace and harmony.”), which for women was very strongly related to positive recovery.

From: “Predictors of health-related quality of life perspectives, self-esteem, and life satisfactions of older adults following spousal loss: an 18-month follow-up study of widows and widowers” by P. S. Fry, The Gerontologist, 41, 787-798.

Related mini site “Gentle Endings”:

– The Spreading Effects of Optimism

In the research reported above, the sense of self-efficacy seemed to be a valuable asset in recovering from loss. However, people who feel effective may also be more optimistic. Is it possible that optimism is also an important resource in the face of stressful situations? These researchers set out to study this possibility. Their sample in this case were entering college freshmen, presumed to be facing a stressful first semester. The students were measured for their levels of optimism at the beginning of the semester. When the semester was ended, four additional measures were taken:

– Sense of stress
– Coping strategies
– Perceptions of social support
– The size of their friendship networks

As the results suggest, entering college with optimism seems to pave the way to a better first semester. Optimists tended to experience less stress, and they used more active coping strategies. Of special importance, they were able to interpret events in a positive light. Further, the optimists were more likely to figure out ways to face the challenges of the new situation, and perhaps even become better because of them, and they were less likely to bury their heads in the sand or run away. The optimists also believed that their social support networks were more reliable than did the pessimists. Researchers did not find that optimists had more friends by the end of the semester, although they conjectured that they made them early and kept them throughout.

The authors encourage more research to further expand the relevance of their findings to other domains; in particular, they suggest that optimism also is important among older adults, as they move into new residential settings including retirement villages and assisted living quarters. We think it is likely.

From: “The role of optimism in social network development, coping and psychological adjustment during a life transition” by Ian Brissette, Michael F. Scheier, & Charles S. Carver, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, 82, 102-111.

Related article ” It pays to be cheerful”:

– Elderly Employees are More Satisfied

Previous research in the U.S. indicates that older employees are more satisfied with their jobs and indicate a higher level of well-being than their younger counterparts. The present research set out to explore the generality of this finding. It was carried out with three samples of Asian managers (N=634) in Hong Kong. As the results indicated, indeed age was positively related to the managers’ sense of well-being and to their job satisfaction. Further, the older managers indicated a higher level of mental well-being. Older managers reported fewer sources of stress, better coping and a greater sense of being in control of their outcomes. The correlations between age and well-being were higher than in Western samples, and the authors propose that this difference could be due to Chinese cultural characteristics of filial piety.

In both the U.S. and China, the key factors that account for the “older is better” finding appear to be (1) greater sense of control over events, (2) more successful coping skills, and (3) higher managerial level in the organizational structure. Length of tenure in the particular organization was not a significant factor.

From: “Age Differences in Coping and Locus of Control: A Study of Managerial Stress in Hong Kong” by Oi-Ling Siu, Paul E. Spector, Cary L. Cooper, and Ian Donald. Psychology and Aging, 2001, vol. 16, pp. 707-710


The Expanding Brain

Various researchers who have studied the human brain are now making claims that the aging brain is more resilient, more vigorous and far more fertile than was previously believed. According to neuropsychologist Marilyn Albert, of Harvard Medical School and PBS’s The Secret Life of the Brain, “Brains have an innate capacity for change no matter how old we are.” That change is not from active and creative to passive and inert, but rather, the potential of the brain to make new connections and to revise the old continues throughout the life span.

While the aging brain is slower at recall and at manipulating information, the capacity to reflect and to draw on the extensive knowledge that has accumulated over time, allows for better ideas and decisions to emerge at an older age. Older people seem to use different parts of the brain to solve problems than their younger counterparts.

One of the most important things to do to keep one’s brain at its peak of performance is to challenge it on a regular basis with mind bogglers of many sorts. Four new free booklets on the brain from AARP’s Andrus Foundation and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives have been produced. These booklets, some in Spanish, emphasize ways of keeping sharp. Available at www.andrus.org

From: “All in your head” by Richard Restak, M. D. Modern Maturity, January/February 2002, 58-64.


– “Linking Quality of Long-Term Care and Quality of Life”, Edited by
Linda Noelker and Zev Harel. (2001) New York: Springer Publishing.

Too often providers of long-term care have centered on issues of “quantity” (how much, for how long) as opposed to “quality.” This volume provides a valuable counter to this tendency, in the attempt to link both quality and duration. The book is especially important in its deliberations on what constitutes high quality living in long-term care facilities. The volume is primarily intended for care providers, and features special chapters on residential care, home care, and nursing homes. However, the lay audience will find useful chapters as well on practitioner judgments and caring for the isolated elderly.

– Aging and Saging

This 29 minute video offers thoughtful commentary contributing to the redefinition of the elderly as role models of healthy and graceful living. Discussions of the changing role of the elderly is moderated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ram Dass. Also an excellent source for starting discussion on public policy and aging. Available through Films for the Humanities and Sciences www.films.com


– From Heather Halabisky (halabcoles@earthlink.net): I was very excited to read your newsletter regarding aging and Appreciative Inquiry. It parallels the work my colleague, Nancy Robinson, and I have been doing in our work with women and aging. Nancy has been running a workshop, Tools for the Rest of the Adventure, that is grounded in Appreciative Inquiry and I have been teaching a class for dis-enfranchised women also based on an Appreciative approach. Because of the positive response and success of both these ventures we have collaborated our learnings and are writing a book called Growing Old with Spunk, Sass and Style or what to do when you see your mother in the mirror. We are propelled forward by our belief that women need a new paradigm as they age – a paradigm with a strong appreciative approach!

– The Psychology of Positive Aging, a wellness and motivation program for older adults by Barbara L. Miklos, is available. The program has been successfully used as a marketing tool and a team builder in a variety of settings, including hospital community education programs, senior centers, retirement communities, intergenerational family programs and community college classes. For more information or to order, contact Barbara at (630) 887-1636 or bmiklos@aol.com

– From Miriam Cameron (camer008@tc.umn.edu): Readers of the Newsletter may be interested in my new book, “Karma and Happiness: A Tibetan Odyssey in Ethics, Spirituality, and Healing.” In the book, I report my NIH-funded research, “Ethical Problems Experienced by Elders.” The book describes my trip to Tibet, and in the process teaches Tibetan values about how to live and die well. There is a chapter about Tibetan medicine and a good death, which includes interviews with Tibetan physicians and a nurse in Lhasa, Tibet. The ideas are universal and applicable to anyone, regardless of culture or beliefs. Dalai Lama wrote the foreword. Fairview Press (http://www.fairviewpress.org) just published the book in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing (http://www.csh.umn.edu).


– FROM AGE-ING TO SAGE-ING (Feb. 20-22, 2002), San Francisco, CA). Sponsored by the Spiritual Eldering Institute with presenters Rich Kessler, William Cox and Marian Eisner.

Workshop topics will include:

– Moving beyond cultural views of Age-ing
– Life Completion – Facing Our Mortality
– Life Review and Life Harvest
– Forgiveness and Gratitude
– Elder Blessings, Celebrations and Rituals
– Creating a Dynamic Elder Vision
– Leaving your legacy for future generations

For more information or to register contact:
Rich Kessler 952-884-1128 or rich@allaboutaging.com

– The Chicago Center for Family Health (CCFH) is sponsoring a conference on February 22, 2002 at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center in downtown Chicago: Seize the Moment: Repairing Troubled Relationships.The conference will feature Monica McGoldrick, an internationally recognized family therapist and expert in the area of reconciling family relationships. One area of focus will be helping adult children and aging parents resolve past differences. For information contact Susan Soest, 312- 372-4745 or see www.ccfhchicago.org

– United Nations (UN) Second World Assembly on Ageing
Madrid, Spain, April 8 – 12, 2002
Call to: United Nations – New York: Tel. 212-963-5855, or visit the web site: www.un.org/esa/socdev/ageing


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

January 1, 2002 12:00 am