2002 – September

Sept, 2002 Issue 16

The Positive Aging Newsletter

September, 2002

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Issue No 16

In this Issue:



This newsletter has been devoted in large part to replacing the traditional stereotype of aging as decline with a vision of unparalleled growth, development and enrichment. The significance of such an effort was strongly affirmed this month with a research report from Yale University’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. Specifically, the research located a robust relationship between certain patterns of aging and longevity. As the research demonstrated, people thinking positively about getting older live seven-and-one half years longer than those who think negatively. This is a greater gain in longevity than that associated with low blood pressure, low cholesterol, or a healthy weight, and with abstaining from smoking, or exercising regularly!

Briefly to describe the research: 660 people over the age of 50 from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement were evaluated in terms of their perceptions of aging, their longevity, and their will to live. The Perception of Aging Scale consisted of these 5 items: “Things keep getting worse as I get older;” “I have as much pep as I did last year;” “As you get older, you are less useful;” “I am as happy now as I was when I was younger;” and “As I get older, things are (better, worse, about the same) as when I was younger.” As the findings disclosed, the group that had the most positive perception of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with the least positive view. The advantage in years stood up even after age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health were taken into account. In a second study, the researchers found that part of the longer life expectancy was due to people scoring high on the “Will to Live” scale.

The explanation for these findings remains unclear, and many different factors may be involved. The possibility that positive perceptions reflect an overall lifestyle is quite likely. However, the implications are profound, especially considering the pervasive use of negative aging stereotypes within the society more generally. Broadscale public programs are much needed to replace prevailing views of aging as inevitable with more promising visions.

Ken and Mary Gergen

From: Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging by Becca R. Levy, Martin D. Slade, Suzanne R. Kunkel, and Stanislov V. Kasl. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, 83, 261-270.



We have reported several studies over the past year in which certain cognitive abilities have shown no decline, and in fact, in which age has played a developmental role. The capacity for wisdom is a case in point. In this regard we were interested by a recent re-investigation of some of the traditional measures of cognitive ability, such as word retention, working memory, perceptual speed, and story retention. This study focused on the change in cognitive abilities from 65 and over in a group of Catholic clergy, all of whom were without symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease at the start of the 6-year study.

Two major conclusions emerged from the research. First, the degree of decline depends on what age period one is testing. Although there were overall declines in the seven abilities tested, the rate of decline varied substantially. In the test of “story retention,” the score for the average 65 year old improved .05 units per year, compared with an annual and trivial loss of .03 units in the average 75 year old, and .11 units for the average 85 year old.

The second important conclusion is that there are wide variations at all age levels. Regardless of the cognitive measure, certain individuals gained in ability during the five year intervals in which they were measured, while others declined. Gain and decline did not depend on their ability level at the beginning of the period. As the authors conclude, the results indicate “that change in cognitive function in old age primarily reflects person-specific factors rather than an inevitable developmental process.”

From: Individual differences in rates of change in cognitive abilities of older persons by Robert S. Wilson, Laurel A. Beckett, Lisa L. Barnes, Julie A. Schneider, Julie Bach, Denis A. Evans, and David A. Bennitt. Psychology and Aging, 2002, 17, 179-193.

Related article: Mental Health and Seniors: what the Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health means for you


A Roper survey sponsored by AARP’s “Modern Maturity” asked some 2,000 adults over 55 questions about enjoying life. One of the outstanding findings, although not surprising to some of us, is that 30% of the sample said that the older they get, the more fun they have. In this survey, conducted in July 2001 and January, 2002, only a glum 14% were having less fun.

People who have more fun also feel better about themselves, enjoy more close relationships, are intellectually more curious, and are physically more active. The “most-fun” group is more likely than the “least-fun” group to feel happy (81% vs. 53%); peaceful (66% vs. 44%); truly alive (67% vs. 44%), and capable and competent (72% vs. 59%). Notice, however, that even among those who are not having much fun there are many who have a positive sense of themselves. The “more-fun” group also was more likely to socialize with friends (67% vs. 49%); spend a romantic evening with a spouse or partner (35% vs. 25%); and make love (40% vs. 29%). These group members also were very likely to rate their physical health as “excellent,” and their emotional responses as balanced.

Authorities in this area recommend expanding the domain of pleasure in the later years. Having fun should be made a priority; active steps should be taken to learn new skills, develop new interests, and search out pockets of pleasure. Books that support this view include William A. Sadler’s The Third Age: Six Principles for Growth and Renewal after Forty (Perseus, 2000); Barbara Sher’s It’s Only Too Late if You Don’t Start Now (Delacorte Press, 1998); and Lenore Terr’s Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play (Touchstone Books, 1999). As Terr says “We used to think that if we could just work hard and be good people, then that would be enough. But if we play throughout our lives, it’s a better way to live.”

From: What turns us on. AARP, July/Aug. 2002, pp. 46-51.

Related article: Review — “Defy Aging”


Research across 26 languages on proverbs and sayings about aging revealed the following:
– The majority of the proverbs were positive toward aging.
– There was no difference between Western and Asian languages.
– There were also many negative sayings about aging.

We relate here a few gems:
– “Old people are as valuable as precious stones.” Chinese
– “Retirement is like a second childhood.” Italian
– “He who has not an old man [in his household] let him buy one” Lebanese
– “Aging is like a tree in the fall, the leaves fall off, but the trunk is still strong”. Swedish
– “The old pan is the one that makes good food.” Portuguese
– “The heart doesn’t age; only the skin shrivels”. Spanish

As for the more negative proverbs, consider: “If the Stone Age children had obeyed their parents, we would still be living in the Stone Age.” Swedish.

From: Employing proverbs to explore intergenerational relations across cultures by Matthew S. Kaplan, in Linking Lifetimes: A Global View of Intergenerational exchange, edited by Kaplan, Nancy Henkin, & Atsuko Kusano. 2002, University Presses of American. (pp 39-64).


  – A focus group study of older people examined their preferences for words related to them. For organizations trying to involve older people, Ruth Wooden, the researcher, recommended that messages never suggest any limitations at all. Appealing sentences included, “Life is a continuing journey with never-ending possibilities to learn, give and grow” and “Experience, wisdom and talent are needed and will be valued. ” Among the statements these people found least appealing were those that indicated chronological or stage-related terms, such as Retired people. Other unappealing words were Older boomers, Elders, Older people, Third agers, and Senior citizens. The most appealing words were The experienced, Advisers, Coaches, Wise ones, Masters, and Seasoned citizens. (We shall soon inform our children that they may call us Masters.)

From: ‘Recasting Retirement’ Study Examines Retirees’ Attitudes by Paul Kleyman in Aging Today, May-June, 2002, pg. 7.

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

– A recent Human Values in Aging Newsletter, edited by Rich Moody, carries a very encouraging editorial concerning “Pioneer Network,” a group of people involved in promoting cultural change. In this editorial he relates the experience of discussing with other administrators, nursing assistants, policy makers, caregivers, and just ordinary citizens how their dignity would be supported if they were suddenly required to live in a nursing home. Their ideas were designed to make nursing homes places of hope and hospitality, which is not the image most of us have today.

For more on the Pioneer Network and its work, visit: www.pioneernetwork.net

To read this issue of Human Values in Aging or see the archive of previous issues of this newsletter, visit: www.ilcusa.org/pub/news.htm


  – AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS, by Martin Seligman, (2002) New York: Free Press. An excerpt from a review by Coert Visser:

Until recently psychology has mainly been working within a disease model: a strong emphasis has been placed on discovering deficits in human behavior and finding ways to repair this damage. Psychologists hardly focused on doing studies acquiring knowledge about healthy functioning and building strengths… The result: psychologists know little about healthy and happy functioning. This situation has been changing now since the rise of positive psychology a few years ago. What is Positive Psychology? It is a new movement in psychology, originated by Martin Seligman and other prominent psychologists including Mihali Csikszentmihalyi (author of FLOW). It aims to be a psychological science about the best things in life.

“Authentic Happiness” deals with how to become happier. According to Seligman your enduring level of happiness results from three factors:
1) your SET RANGE (the basic biologically determined range within which your happiness normally will be),
2) the CIRCUMSTANCES OF YOUR LIFE (some conditions – like being married and living in a democratic country- somehow seem to contribute to happiness, and
3) your VOLUNTARY CONTROL (the things you can do to get your happiness to the upper part of your set range.

How can people improve their happiness? Seligman suggests that to be happier about your past, you need to:
1) let go of the false belief that your past negative experiences determine your present and future,
2) increase your gratitude about the good things in your past and
3) learn how to forgive past wrongs.
To be happier in your present, you need to distinguish between PLEASURES and GRATIFICATIONS. Pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components that require little if any thinking. Gratifications are flow-experiences. They are activities we very much like doing but that are not necessarily accompanied by any raw feelings at all. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures and they are undergirded by our strengths and virtues. The key to happiness in past and future lies in enhancing gratifications. To be happier about your future, you need to change your explanatory style in order to become more optimistic and hopeful…
Seligman writes in a personal and honest style which makes the book lively to read. The book ends reflectively dealing with the relationship between positive emotions and win-win situations, and speculating that we may be on the threshold of an era of win-win games and “good-feeling.”
For the full review see: http://www.managementsite.net/content/html/276.asp?cid=499

– LINKING LIFETIMES: A Global View of Intergenerational Exchange, edited by Nancy Kaplan and Kusano Atsuko, (2002) University Presses of America.

Authors describe ways in which intergenerational programs and policies are effected across the globe. Designed for policy-makers and practitioners, the chapters summarize the intergenerational programs and studies on each continent. Contrasts are made concerning the diverse meanings of terms and understandings, which are often assumed to be uniform in American gerontology literature. For example, volunteerism is a lauded policy idea in the U.S., but is rejected in Finland, where the state in expected to care for all of its citizens. Filial piety is defined as the first of all Confucian virtues, but has undergone a downward transformation in many of today’s fast-paced Chinese cultural enclaves, and rarely exists in the West at all. As the editors stress, in trying to summarize what is a good intergenerational program or policy, “It gets complicated when we realize that there is a great diversity in what people consider to be fulfilling, meaningful, and culturally significant.”


– OASIS is a national nonprofit educational organization designed to enhance the quality of life for mature adults. Offering challenging programs in the arts, humanities, wellness, technology and volunteer service, OASIS creates opportunities for older adults to continue their personal growth and provide meaningful service to the community. Oasis operates programs in 25 cities.

– Web Sources for Enhancing Volunteerism:

A non-profit organization based in St. Paul, MN that places volunteers in 150 programs in 19 countries, including the U.S.:
Linking service-oriented volunteers with programs
Volunteer trips in dozens of countries through its Global Village Program
Ecological expeditions for volunteers in many countries.


  – Geraldine Weis-Corbley wishes to inform readers of the Good News Network. For over 5 years the network has featured only positive news. The network attempts to provide an alternative to the daily litany of war and despair dominating the media. As Geraldine writes:
“The Good News Network features the remarkable things happening in life, business, politics and society — News to Enthuse — and we invite you to tell your viewers about us.” They will not be disappointed! (13 years of research by sociologist Paul H. Ray identified 50 million adults in the U.S. as “Cultural Creatives,” optimists who are “particularly unhappy with the quality of TV news.”)
Visit: http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/
Email: gw@goodnewsnetwork.org

– Pat Donly responds to our “biology of hope” article: “That’s why God made grandchildren… at least the cute little ones under 5 or 6 yrs. If you don’t have one, find one who needs a grandparent substitute (unfortunately there are lots of little ones who could use some more love and attention), and spend some time every week with joy and hope. You’ll look forward to that special time each week with delight and anticipation. The children are the hope of the future. Protect and cherish them. We need them more than they need us, but you’d never guess that from the love they give back.”


  – Life Course Inequality: Conference on “Aging as the Link between History and Biography” (Sept. 19, 2002, West Lafayette, IN). Glen Elder, Kenneth Ferarro and other speakers; sponsored by the Gerontology Program of Purdue University. $ 40 fee for all conference expenses. For registration information call (800) 359-2968, or e-mail: RLFLEISCHHAUER@PURDUE.EDU. For program content information, e-mail: gero@cfs.purdue.edu

– 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

– Successful Aging: Good News for the 21st Century (Sept. 26-27, 2002, Conway, SC). Conference sponsored by Center for the Study of Aging and Active Retirement at Coastal Carolina University. Presenter: Richard D. Tucker, Professor of Psychology at University of Central Florida. For more information, call (843) 349-2665; or visit: http://www.coastal.edu/learn/aging.html

– Social Structure and Aging. Penn State University Gerontology Center Conference. (Oct. 7, 2002, State College, PA). For more information, contact: K. Warner Schaie at (814) 865-01710 or email at: kws@psu.edu

– Successful Aging through the Life Span: Intergenerational Issues in Health. (Oct. 7, 2002, Cleveland, OH).Speakers include H.R. Moody, Peter Whitehouse, Nancy Morrow-Howell, and others. For more information, call (216) 368-2692

– Ethics and Aging: Conference on the theme “Forever Young.” (Oct. 11, 2002, Oklahoma State University, Tulsa, OK). Conference to examine ethical dilemmas of successful aging; ageism and wellness; the ethical issues of anti-aging techniques, cryogenics, and plastic surgery. For more information, call Shona Gambrell at (405)744-7511 or email at: shonmat@okstate.edu

– Healing Pain through Art & Spirituality. Sponsored by the Center for Gerontology, Spirituality & Faith on Oct.25 (8:45 Am-3:15 PM) in Los Altos, CA. Presenter Donna Fado Ivery, a disabled clergywoman, will share her journey of recovery from brain injury through art & spirituality. Cost $55/$65 for CEUs (includes lunch & art supplies). Contact Gerry@sunny4care.com or http://www.spirituality4aging.org/

– The Gerontological Society of America, 55th Annual Scientific Meetings, November 22-26, 2002, in Boston at the Marriott and Westin Copley Place. The meeting includes pre-conference workshops, scientific meetings, special student activities, exhibitions, and a Careers in Aging networking event. Registration on line at http://www.geron.org/


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

September 1, 2002 12:00 am