2002- March

March, 2002 Issue 12

The Positive Aging Newsletter

Thursday, March 28, 2002

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

In this issue:


The Promise of Narrative Gerontology

We understand our lives through stories. These stories can lend order to the past, significance to the present, and direction to the future. On a personal level our lives acquire meaning through narrative. They inform us that we have participated significantly in the world, that we have witnessed, and possibly achieved something of value. On a social level our stories are a major means of forging and sustaining connection with others. They bring others into our lives; they allow us to share our lives with others. They create fascination…and entertainment. These are some of the conclusions emerging from the mushrooming study of narrative in the social sciences. Especially benefiting from series The Narrative Study of Lives, published by the American Psychological Association by editors Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, and Dan McAdams, such inquiry has become central to current understandings of adult development. Of special interest to the readers of this newsletter are those works that have given birth to narrative gerontology. Recent works, such as Randall and Kenyon’s Ordinary Wisdom: Biographical Aging and the Journey of Life, and Kenyon, Clark and de Vries’ edited work, Narrative Gerontology: Theory, Research, Practice provide excellent entries into this literature.
Narrative gerontology has promising implications both for understanding aging and for policies and practices related to this period of life. This approach stresses the important potentials carried by the elderly for giving life meaning and sustaining connection through storytelling. The capacity is there to remain the author of one’s life story. Dependency models of elder care thus give way to empowerment models. Common conversation may be one of the most important resources available for living meaningfully through the latter years. As many caregivers are now finding, facilitating conditions for the exchange of stories may be of enormous benefit to communities of the elderly. Our own step-father (in-law) spent the last 10 years of his life writing an autobiography of his WWI experiences. He died at the age of 92, pleased to learn that his work was to be placed in a historical archive.

Kenneth and Mary Gergen

Randall, William and Kenyon, Gary (2001) Ordinary wisdom: Biographical aging and the journey of life. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Kenyon,G.M., Clark, P.G. and de Vries, B. (Eds.) (2001) Narrative gerontology: Theory, research, practice. New York: Springer


– Constructing the Personal Past

Life giving stories are not simple products of past events. They are not produced by life events, but are ways of organizing and giving drama to past events. They are not maps of the past, but constructions of the past. This is one of the important arguments to be found in Monisha Pasupathi’s masterful integration of research on biographical memory. What are the major conditions, then, that give rise to vivid and significant stories of one’s life? In this review, two major principles are proposed. The first is the principle of co-construction. Life stories are products of relationship. To bring memories into narrative structure requires not only a story teller, but an able listener. What is related, along with the value placed on it, depends greatly on the listener’s identity. Couples may also supplement each other’s stories, and the result is typically a richer narrative of more lasting significance than a story told by a single individual. The second principle is that of consistency, which calls attention to the way in which stories told at one time carry over to influence later memories. Frequent tellings will render stories stable and resistant to change. One result of this principle is that the stories told by the elderly are more consistent over time than those told by young adults. Interestingly, research also indicates that the elderly are better able to structure past experiences in ways that are interesting to others. They are more entertaining than young adults in telling personal stories, and generate more positive reactions from others.

From Pasupathi, Monisha (2001) The social construction of the personal past and its implications for adult development. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 651-672.

– Some Positive Functions of Reminiscing

Does reminiscing about the past serve positive personal functions?
Researchers Philippe Cappeliez and Norm O’Rourke believe so, and as well that these functions may be different depending on one’s personality. To explore these possibilities, they gave a group of 89 older adults a series of personality measures, and assessed the extent to which they reminisced. They also carried out personal interviews in which they explored issues of self-understanding, unresolved personal losses and struggles from the past, the meaning of life and preparing for death. In large degree the results showed that reminiscing could be very valuable.

First people who were extraverted enjoyed reminiscing as a form of social activity. For them it was a stimulating way to provide food for conversations, and it was also a way in which they maintained intimate connections to departed loved ones. By telling a story of a husband who had died, for example, a widow could momentarily bring him back to “life”, while simultaneously bringing friends closer and even amusing them. People who scored high on openness to experience also were more prone to reminisce. For them reminiscing was important for thinking about profound existential questions, such as the meaning of life and death. The research also suggests that troubled people also tend to reminisce. It is a way in which they try to bring greater order and tranquility to their lives. There were cautions: evidence suggested that sometimes reminiscing substituted for active engagement in present day events.

From: Personality traits and existential concerns as predictors of the functions of reminiscence in older adults by Philippe Cappeliez and Norm O’Rourke. Journal of Gerontology, Psychological Sciences, 2002, 57B, p116-123.

– Family Values: Does Age Breed Conservatism?

It is commonly presumed that the older one becomes the more conservative, rigid, and conventional. On this view, we might suppose that the elderly would demonstrate a greater commitment to traditional family values than the young. This research, using participants ranging from undergraduates (with a mean age of 21) to mature adults, (mean age of 58), studied whether or not this supposition is valid. All participants filled out The Traditional Family Ideology Scale, which assessed family values along an autocratic-democratic continuum. Items such as “It helps children in the long run if they are made to conform to parents’ ideas”, “It goes against nature to place women in positions of authority over men”, “The family is a sacred institution, divinely ordained”, and “Women should have an equal say in the financial decisions of a marriage” were included in the measure.

Results indicated that age was only trivially related to traditional views. Nor did gender play an important part (although men were somewhat more likely to be traditionalists than women). Other factors did correlate significantly with traditionalism. For example, respondents high in religiosity and low in verbal ability did show greater agreement with traditional values. The major finding was that other variables were far more important in predicting traditionalism concerning family relationships than age.
Apparently old dogs can very well learn new ways of living and loving.

From: Beyond a stereotyped view of older adults’ traditional family values by Fredda Blanchard-Fields, Christopher Hertzog, Renee Stein, and Richard Pak, Psychology and Aging, 2001, 16, 483-496.

Related article: What is Ageism, and How Should We Combat it?


– Scientific Productivity At the Age of 102

Ray Crist may be the oldest practicing scientist. So reports the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 23, 2002), in a fascinating account of the continuing contributions of this Professor Emeritus in chemistry at Messiah College. In his earlier years Crist taught at Columbia and was the director of the chemistry sector of the Manhattan Project. Later he carried out important research on biosorbents, especially as related to the challenge of clearing polluted water of toxic materials. Crist continues this work to the present – accepting a salary of $1 a year. His new research is about to appear in the journal, Environmental Science and Technology. Crist is especially invested in inventing and perfecting a practical application of his research. Most recently he patented a new process for water filtering. Interestingly, Crist is almost blind: only a tiny spot on the retina of his left eye remains functional. Yet, he continues tirelessly. “Doing nothing”, he says, “is my most difficult thing to do”.


– Breaking the Watch : The Meanings of Retirement in America by Joel S. Savishinsky Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

This book focuses on the many ways of “creating a life,” during retirement. It explores in depth how 26 men and women in a small upstate New York town experienced their retirements. The participants, varying significantly in class background, spoke at length about their search for meaningful purpose, their difficulties and achievements, their relationships and health. One reader reports, “The retirees studied here are thoughtful, often eloquent observers of their new position in life; their “voices” are vivid and enlightening”. Another comments, “I found this book lucid, easily applicable to my own retirement issues and a window into the experiences of many of my retired friends”.

– Aging Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: Studies in Mixed Emotions By Karen Fingerman. New York: Springer, 2001

This book describes an interview study of 48 healthy, active, and well-educated American mothers over the age of 70 and their adult daughters, who live nearby. Filled with fascinating details from the lives of these women, the book presents the mother-daughter tie in all its glories, as well as in its tensions and disappointments. Mothers can still frighten their daughters with their frowns and daughters can still be too busy to spend time with their mothers. Yet, overall, these relationships are cherished and provide a good cushion for whatever the future may bring. Theoretical ideas about human development over the life-span are integrated into each chapter. This is an engaging look into a previously under-investigated area of human development.

– A Conversation with Joan Erikson at 90 (at 92)

Davidson Films has created a wonderful series on successful aging with five half-hour films featuring some of the most renown names in the gerontological literature. In the last issue we highlighted the Baltes’ contribution to the series. Two additional films feature interviews with Joan Erikson. Along with her husband Erik Erikson, Joan formulated an eighth stage of life. This video was shot in 1993 when Mrs. Erikson was about to celebrate her 90th birthday. With considerable grace, humor and some feistiness, Mrs. Erikson takes on a wide range of topics, including facing death. The film is a thought-provoking experience for everyone interested in developmental psychology and for all who live or work with an older person, or are planning to be old themselves.

In a second film, Mrs. Erikson describes her search for a better living situation for her frail husband and then presents her poignant recounting of his subsequent death. She uses these experiences to suggest strategies to meet the physical and emotional needs of the fragile old and to support those who work with them. With a personal understanding of the challenges of old age, Mrs. Erikson revisits the eighth stage of the life cycle and proposes a new ninth stage for the changes that face the very old, a transformative stage. She describes the difficulties of being in one’s nineties without losing what she calls one’s indomitable core.
The videos are distributed by Davidson Films: (805)594-0422; fax (805) 594-0532, www.davidsonfilms.com.

Please Note: In the last issue of the Newsletter we featured two films, Celebrating What’s Right with the World, and Everyday Creativity.
Correcting the information supplied at that time, the videos are distributed by VisionMedia Int’l
7290 Topview Rd
Eden Prairie, MN 55346


– Donald Koepke, Director, Center for Spirituality and Ethics in Aging, invites interested readers to receive a monthly electronic newsletter on Aging as a Spiritual Journey. To subscribe, contact dkoepke@internextgroup.org or call 714-239-6267. The Center for Spirituality and Ethics in Aging provides education and advocacy and promotes research on spirituality and ethics as they are experienced in the aging process, within both the faith and the long-term communities of Southern California.


FROM AGE-ING TO SAGE-ING WORKSHOPS (Mar. 27 – May 8, 2002, Minneapolis, MN. Wednesdays, 10:00 AM – 11:30 AM). Sponsored by the ElderLearning Institute, University of Minnesota. Workshop will include: Aging and cultural changes, mortality, ethical wills and legacies, inner sources of wisdom, forgiveness and gratitude, elder ceremonies, and more. For more information or to register contact: Steve Benson (612) 624-7847 or Rich Kessler (952) 884-1128

NATIONAL COUNCIL ON AGING-AMERICAN SOCIETY ON AGING: Annual Joint Conference (Apr. 4-7, 2002, Denver, CO). Of special interest to readers of this newsletter are sessions on:

feminist ethics and gerontological practice, autonomy in the nursing home, creative forces in later life, poetry therapy with Alzheimer’s patients, and spirituality and the life review. For a full schedule: http://www.agingconference.org/jc02/jc02search.cfm

– 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

– The Institute for Creative Change presents: Living Legacies:
New Ways to Understand Death, Dying and Bereavement
May 18, 2002, 9:00 – 1:00. Franciscan Renewal Center.

This workshop will be presented by Lorraine Hedtke MSW, ACSW, CISW and the Institute for Creative Change faculty. The program will focus on death, dying and grief utilizing socially constructionism and narrative framework. A socially constructed perspective can inspire invigorating and appreciative conversations that promote re-membering rather than disremembering those who have died. It stories death as a period of relational transition rather than on the ultimate finality. If death doesn’t mean saying goodbye, how are we freed to grieve differently? What are the clinical implications?

This workshop is for counselors, social workers, psychologists, students, medical professional and those who are interested in death and dying. CEU’s Available. Tel. 602.280.9505 for more information or to register


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

March 1, 2002 12:00 am