2002 – May

May-June, 2002 Issue 14

The Positive Aging Newsletter

May-June, 2002

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Issue No 14

In this Issue


Well-Being Undiminished by Physical Decline

We recently talked with a close friend who retired several years ago to take up the good life in the country. One of our first questions was, of course, how is life for you now. He was exhuberant! He loved his new freedoms, the opportunity to grow flowers and vegetables, the leisure to read, the chance to spend more time with his family, the fascinating world of the internet, and more. The conversation bore on, and he told us of an arthritic condition that made it difficult to use his left arm; he was also confronting a new hip replacement; and his latest PSA readings were threatening. Was there not an irony here: on the one hand he reported that life couldn’t be better, on the other, “My body is falling apart.” There is an important lesson here, one also corroborated by much research of the past decade: There is no necessary relationship between feelings of well-being and physical health. Or, to put it another way, life can remain full, nourishing, and joyous even when bodily functions decline. This conclusion is implied by much research we have summarized in earlier issues of the Newsletter. Such research indicates that general feelings of well-being do not deteriorate significantly over the latter span of life. Some research demonstrates slight decline; other studies an increment, but in general the changes are not dramatic. In effect, such feelings do not seem vitally affected by what many experience as a deterioration in bodily functioning. Recent research puts the issue into sharper focus. Martin Pinquart (2001) analyzed virtually all existing studies related to feelings of physical well-being or health among people who are over 60. Subjective health, in technical terms, is usually defined as the way in which people describe their own health on a scale from poor to excellent. Overall the analysis demonstrated only a slight deline in ratings of subjective health over time. In fact, the oldest people in the sample, often frail and sometimes disabled, did not evaluate their health negatively. Clearly there is far more to feeling good about life than one’s bodily condition, and even a poor condition by medical standards does not mean a decline in the sense of physical well-being.

Ken and Mary Gergen
Pinquart, Martin (2001) Correlates of subjective health in older adults: A meta-analysis, Psychology and Aging, 16, 414-426


– Narrowing the Social Circle – Increasing the Depth

The aging process is commonly characterized in terms of a narrowing circle of significant relationships. Such social disengagement is also viewed as unfortunate. Loneliness, depression, and the loss of mental and physical capacities are often viewed as the result. Indeed, some research has found that older adults have about half as many friends and associates as younger people. Death and disability are certainly among the causes for this decline in the numbers of associates one has. However, the present research sheds new and important light on the closing of the circle. Specifically, it is proposed, about half of the severed relationships occur because older adults deliberately discontinue them. They choose to cease relating to people who are less close or less important to them. Most older people maintain meaningful and emotionally close ties, until death. However, they do so by focusing on the relationships most central to them.  In part this selective narrowing of the circle seems to result from the perception that “time is giving out.” When time is perceived as unlimited, people will chose to relate to many people, and most specifically to those who can help them achieve future goals. Research indicates, for example, that younger people sacrifice family time to achieve more distant goals. When time is perceived as limited, however, emotionally meaningful goals are pursued. As this research suggests, as a result of this selectivity, the quality of their social relationships are better, and people find their lives more satisfying. Other interesting findings relating social life to personal satisfactions included the following:

Neither the loss of a spouse nor the lack of a living child necessarily means the loss of significant relationships. Older adults frequently find equally satisfying relationships with close friends.

Older people whose children gave them emotional support had improved satisfaction with their lives. However, if their children gave them advice, their satisfaction declined. Apparently, when children begin to tell their parents what to do, the reaction is no less negative than when parents direct the lives of their children.

From: Regulation of Social Relationships in Later Adulthood by Frieder R. Lang. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2001, 56B, P321-P326.

– Multiple Routes to Life Satisfaction

Two major research traditions have been exploring what it means to feel good about one’s life. One tradition has emphasized emotional experiences, and most particularly feelings of happiness. The other tradition has focused on feeling of personal growth and reaching one’s full human potential. In this case, satisfaction comes from engaging deeply in life’s challenges. These researchers considered both these sources of satisfaction together. The data come from the MacArthur Foundation sample, which reflects the national population demographics. As the research indicated, the lowest scorers on both measures tended to be young, uneducated people; those who say they are leading a meaningful life, but are not very happy also tend to be younger people but with higher levels of education. People who are fairly happy, but not very challenged tend to be older adults who have not had much education. Most interesting, the happiest people and those leading the most meaningful lives are the midlife and older adults who also are more well-educated. These researchers also acknowledge the western cultural bias in these measures of life satisfaction. Not included, for example, are satisfactions derived from contributing to others, commitment to duty, or spiritual engagement.

From: “Optimizing Well-Being: The Empirical Encounter of Two Traditions by Corey L. M. Keyes, Dov Shmotkin & Carol D. Ryff. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, 82, 1007-1022.

– Cognitive Ability Testing for Everyday Life

In recent years gerontologists have become increasingly skeptical of “context-free” tests of cognitive ability (such as IQ-type tests) to measure how well older adults cope with the problems of everyday life. As a result two alternative measures have been developed. The first is oriented toward well-defined problems (with only one correct answer), such as how to interpret instructions on a medicine bottle; the second type of measure includes ill-defined or ambiguous problems, such as how to determine in the grocery store if a food is “low fat.” In this research study, Jason Allaire & Michael Marsiske examined responses from 130 community-dwelling adults from the Detroit metropolitan area. The average age of the 24 men and 106 women was 73 years of age, with a range from 60-90. About 1/3 were African-Americans. Most rated their physical capabilities as good to moderately good; had 13 years of schooling and an average income of $20,000.
Participants took traditional psychometric measures of inductive reasoning, declarative memory, and verbal knowledge, as well as tests that measured finding solutions to either well-defined problems, and ill-defined problems. Overall the research indicated that the two practical measures of cognitive ability predicted very well to self-reports of everyday living success. In contrast, the abstract cognitive measures were less helpful in predicting success in practical living. One might say that the aging population has been the victim of mismeasurement. Where everyday living success is concerned, it is important to measure the relevant capacities.

From: Well- and Ill-Defined Measures of Everyday Cognition: Relationship to Older Adults’ Intellectual Ability and Functional Status by Jason C. Allaire & Michael Marsiske. Psychology and Aging, 2002, 17,101-115.


 – Productive Aging, Concepts and Challenges, Edited by Morrow-Howell, Nancy, Hinterlong, James, and Sherraden, Michael, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001

In a 1998 survey, AARP found that 80 percent of baby boomers in the U.S. plan to continue working at least part-time after retirement, a marked change from current patterns. The present volume addresses an array of significant issues generated by this major shift in lifestyle. In general, the volume does an excellent job in expanding the concept of productivity to include domains of life other than paid employment. Contributions to family, community, and voluntary organizations are all emphasized. The importance of continued activity to physical well-being is underscored. However, the authors also voice reservations in the trend to define the latter years in terms of individual, money-for-time, “stay-busy” activities. They stress instead the significance of meaning creation, earned leisure, and the nurturing of inner potentials.

– Social Integration in the Second Half of Life

Edited by Karl Pillemer, Phyllis Moen, Elaine Wethington, and Nina Glasgow. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Aging as a period of slow, but inevitable, disengagement from social life has been a prominent view in the gerontological literature for several decades. With recent changes in demographic trends and health improvements in the elderly population, important challenges to the traditional view now emerge. This edited volume contains an excellent selection of contributions that not only take a more careful look at social integration in aging, but consider practical means of enhancing the integration process. As various chapters reveal, a certain degree of disengagement may be anticipated, especially during late old age. However, the extent of disengagement depends importantly on one’s particular circumstances – including one’s gender, neighborhood, income, family, etc. The volume extols the many virtues of remaining socially connected. Important chapters on neighboring, peer support, transportation, volunteer services, and housing all add important information on practical means of fostering social integration.


 – Newsletter Archive Now Available

An Archive of past issues of the Human Values in Aging UPDATE for 2002 is now available on the website of the International Longevity Center-USA. To see previous issues of the Human Values newsletter, visit: http://www.ilcusa.org/pub/news.htm


Geri Marr Burdman, a health counseling and gerontology specialist, who is also president of GeroWise International in Washington State, sends information about her work and her videos, including:

Springtime of Autumn: Creating Meaning Throughout the Lifespan

Gerovision: A Path with Heart.

Gerowisdom: Paths to Wholeness

Burdman emphasizes through her interdisciplinary and transcultural perspective the importance of promoting quality and dignity  throughout the life span. Her personal connection to her teacher, Victor Frankl, famed existentialist psychologist and survivor of the European holocaust, influences her teachings. Her video, Gerowisdom, which we had the privilege of viewing, includes conversations with older people concerning the creation and sustenance of meaning throughout the latter years. To find out more about her work or the videotapes, check out her website at www.gerowise.com; email her at gerimar@mindspring.com, or call (425) 4500-3235.


 – Laugh Away Stress

There is nothing like a good laugh, or so Dr. Steven Wilson, a psychologist in Columbus, Ohio, who founded The World Laughter Tour, believes. Originally taught in India as a form of spiritual practice, the American version of the organization was created to help people improve their physical and mental health through systematic laughter. Today there are over 300 laughter clubs in North America. There are no stand-up comedians at the meetings, just people who first simulate laughter, and then end up with the real thing. Why do we need clubs to laugh? According to Dr. Lee Berk of the College of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, children laugh or smile about 400 times a day. Adults do so about 15 times a day. When we grow up, we seem to forget how to laugh. Laughter is associated with better physical outcomes. Laughter clubs have become popular in nursing homes and senior citizen facilities, as well as in schools and other organizations. One social worker involved in a laughter club described a patient who had been diagnosed with a crippling disease over thirty years ago. This woman had been very sad because of her restricted mobility and limited lifestyle. The laughter club returned to her a sense of humor, helped her cope with her situation, and reminded her of the things for which she had to be thankful. Her mood and her movement improved as a result of her participation.

Club organizers believe that the physical benefits of laughter include: stimulation of the cardio-vascular system; production of endorphins that counteract the production of stress hormones; optimization of the immune system; reduction in anxiety, and relaxation of the muscles. The psychological benefits include feelings of happiness, joy and contentment.

To find a laughter club in your area, or to just get a chuckle out of reading about them, go to http://www.wordlaughtertour.com


The ASA’s Summer Series on Aging, regional continuing education for professionals who work with older adults, their caregivers and their families, will take place in San Francisco June 17-20, and in Philadelphia July 22-25, 2002. Regional and national experts in the field of aging will conduct focused and practical intensive workshops in such areas as Creative Aging, Health Promotion & Wellness, and Religion & Spirituality.
Among the offerings are:

The National Center for Creative Aging Summer Institute LIFELONG LEARNING THROUGH THE ARTS will present a series of full-day intensives that focus on creativity, improved well-being and the promotion of lifelong learning. (Also available at West Coast Summer Series.)

SPECIAL CONFERENCE DAY: SECRETS OF AGING – Held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, this program featuring national speakers will highlight the four major theme areas of the Secrets of Aging exhibit: Body, Mind, Spirit, and Longevity.

For additional information or to register, please visit www.asaging.org/summer-series or contact Alessandra Chargorodsky, 415-974-9617.

WOMEN’S MIDLIFE JOURNEY: Exploring the Power of the Midlife Journey: A Women’s Retreat (June 2-7, 2002) Exploring health, wisdom and empowerment of a woman’s journey through the perimenopausal and menopausal stages of her life. Specifically focused on the transitions of midlife into the wisdom years. For more information, visit:

INTERFAITH DIALOGUE: “Love and the Care of the Patient: A Protestant/Jewish Dialogue” (June 3, 2002, New York, NY) With Harvey Cox, Ph.D., Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School, and Rabbi Rolando Matalon, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, New York, NY. Part of the “Spirituality, Religious Wisdom, and the Care of the Patient” colloquium, St. Vincent’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. 5:30-7:30 PM, 325 West 15th Street, NY, NY. Register by phone (212 604 8140), fax (212 604 2495), or e-mail at:

AGING BOOMERS: “The Boomers Come of Retirement Age–
What are the prospects?” (June 6-7, 2002, Vancouver.BC). Sponsored by the Gerontology Research Centre of Simon Fraser University at Harbour Centre. 2800-515 West Hastings St., Vancouver BC V6B 5K3 CANADA For registration, contact (604)291-5062; or email at: gero@sfu.ca
Visit the website at:

NARRATIVES OF POWER in Health Care. Tenth Annual Summer Seminar (June 8-13, 2002, Hiram College, Hiram, OH) Sponsored by the Center for Literature, Medicine, and the Health Care of Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine. Faculty include: Howard Brody,Annette Dula and Amy Haddad. Drama educators from the Great Lakes Theater Festival will be in residence as well and the Seminar will develop and present a production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” To register for the Seminar or for more information:
Carol Donley or Martin Kohn, Mahan House, Hiram College, Hiram, OH 44234, or call (330) 569-5380 or email: donleycc@hiram.edu

CHANGING THE CULTURE OF AGING: (9 AM – 4:30 PM, June 12, 2002, New York City). Annual Conference of Greater N.Y. Chapter, Professional Geriatric Care Managers. H.R. Moody, Keynote Speaker. Hunter School of Social Work, 129 E. 79 Street, NY, NY. For more information, call (212) 222-9163.

EDEN ALTERNATIVE: “Creating the ‘Un-nursing’ Home” (June 22-24, 2002, Sherburne, NY). 2002 Summer Hill Witan Series. Summer Hill Retreat Center. Contact: Phone: (607) 674-5232 Fax: (607) 674-6723 or visit http://www.edenalt.com.


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

May 1, 2002 12:00 am