2003 – January / February

Jan-Feb, 2003 Issue 18

The Positive Aging Newsletter

January – February, 2003

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Issue No 18


In this Issue:

COMMENTARY: Positive Aging: Sustaining the Vision

 As we now engage with the new year it is appropriate to review again 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 two years ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate – now reaching approximately 16,000 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. We do by simply producing it.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If you have information 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.

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

RESEARCH : Revisioning Retirement

 In this section of the Newsletter we typically report on research findings from many different sources, all concerned with aspects of positive aging. For this issue we depart from our usual practice. This is because an issue of Generations (Summer, 2002, vol. 26), produced by the American Society of Aging offered a range of rich, provocative and optimistic contributions on the subject of retirement. These offerings are of sufficient importance that we felt they were worthy of reflective recounting.

RESEARCH : Ability Is Ageless

Andrea Wooten reports research showing that older workers can readily acquire new skills. Further, the older workers are more loyal and dedicated to their companies, have a stronger work ethic, and a greater sense of commitment than younger workers. They are happier than younger workers, and are no more likely to be absent from work than anyone else. Another benefit for the organization is that the older workers act as role models for the younger set.

Wooten notes that the US government supports a program to train and employ lower income older people so that they can acquire jobs to supplement their incomes. The SCSEP, Senior Community Service Employment Program, includes “Experience Works,” which provides job-related training to the poor. Also their website — Geezer.com — provides older artisans and craftspeople a nation- wide market for their handcrafted goods.

RESEARCH : Retirees As The New Social Capital

 In his promising analysis, Marc Freedman proposes that the coming generations of the aging may provide a windfall for civic initiatives. National surveys report that Americans age 50-75 are planning to make public service a centerpiece of their retirement life. As Freedman proposes, it is important to support and develop this option for public service because it has enormous potential for the good of the country. A recent survey revealed that Americans now work harder than any other population in the world. They claim 137 hours more of labor a year than Japanese, and 12 1/2 weeks more work than Germans. Retirement is often seen now as a transitional period between the necessity of paid employment and the voluntary efforts to improve human conditions. If we can create compelling opportunities for older people to volunteer, the aging population may lead to a civic renaissance.

RESEARCH : Vistas In Family Relation

On the basis of her research, Lorraine Dorfman proposes that retirement offers couples the opportunity for more joint activities, and especially the time to become renewed in their family relationships in a more relaxed and unhurried environment, free of obligations. In terms of immediate relations with one’s spouse, retirement does not seem to negatively affect the quality of marriages, which are usually described by couples as very happy. Husbands tend to help with the housework more after retirement than before, but the division of labor remains rather constant, with wives continuing to do most of the “feminine” chores within the house. Multigenerational ties also become more important, particularly as families grow in all directions. Numerous studies have found a high level of contact between older parents and at least one adult child. Email and phone calls increase connections with more distance children as well.

As children advance into mid-adulthood, relations with aging parents typically grow closer. In part this is because parents in their early retirement, until their mid 70’s, are often supplying adult children with child care and financial help, as well as emotional support. The most important emotional relationship that retirees want to nurture is with their grandchildren, who often represent a source of joy and fulfillment, as well as the continuity of the generations. Sibling relationships among the aging gain in significance, especially for those who have no children. Siblings can be a critical source of support, especially with the death of a spouse. Among siblings, sisters seem to have the closest relationships in later life.

RESEARCH : Emerging Optimism Toward Aging

 George P. Moschis reports a number of interesting findings regarding expectations for the future of aging. The average person retiring today can anticipate living several decades beyond retirement. Society’s attitudes toward old age and aging appear to be changing as life expectancy increases and large numbers of people are defying aging stereotypes. “Old age will not begin until 80” is the view of the newly emerging generation. To support this optimistic view, research shows that retirees are increasingly returning to educational pursuits. Increasingly they are seeking college degrees, mostly for personal rewards, it appears, not for economic reasons. The trend to adult education continues at most institutes of higher learning. In addition, for the newly emerging population of the aging, retirement is associated with good times, including travel. The vast majority are looking forward to having fun, “more so than in any preceding generation.”

RESEARCH : Improvement In Women’s Conditions Of Aging

 In her research, Jane Glenn Haaswomen, asked a sample of women over 50 to talk about how their lives were different from their mothers. The findings indicated that they were 1) more comfortable with money matters; 2) more involved in how they might spend retirement years, including going back to school; and 3) most worried about becoming a burden on others. All of them said their lives were better than their mothers. They credited this with their having more education, which gave them more opportunities. They also credited the feminist movement for giving them more elbow room. Many women spoke of having more confidence and control over their lives than their mothers did.

Related content: Retirement Means More Time for Exercise


INTERGENERATIONAL COMMUNICATION ACROSS THE LIFE SPAN by Angie Williams & Jon F. Nussbaum, 2001, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

It is rare for gerontologists and life span developmentalists to study communication across generations. In this unique book, Angie Williams and Jon Nussbaum bring together work that has been scattered through diverse literatures in the social sciences. Various chapters illustrate the ways communication takes place among various groups, such as adult children and elder parents, grandparents and grandchildren, and older people and their physicians. The book concludes with an epilogue that summarizes various themes within the chapters.

The authors believe that communication among generations will be transformed as older people gain more respect within the culture. The authors have this to say about aging Baby Boomers, “This is not a quiet and acquiescent generation; they are accustomed to raising their voices in social protest and they might be expected to bring about immense social and political change…This generation of people wield a lot of power and may cohere around political and social concerns of the elderly. They are not a minority group and they may help put ageism more centrally on our social agenda.” (pg. 294).

In addition, as with racism and sexism, negative perceptions of older people may become dispelled by charismatic spokespersons, many of whom are emerging in the media as glorious old people. A slogan gaining popularity in the U.K. is the admonition: “Growing Old Disgracefully.”

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



In research with police, firefighters, and emergency medical workers, Judith Acosta & Judith Simon Prager discovered that what is said to the victim of an accident or illness matters a great deal in how the person responds to treatment. Of the three choices: A. Don’t die, please don’t die!; B. Just relax, everything will be fine; and C. I can see you are in pain, the ambulance is on the way; the best choice is C. The rules of the Verbal First Aid, which they spell out in their book: “The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts”, are not difficult to follow (at least in principle.) First, you should express Authority through the tone of your voice and what you say. This way the person feels that someone is in charge, that help is coming; the victim will be more compliant to treatment as a result. Second, be Believeable. If you say everything is fine, it creates a barrier as the person no longer will trust you. Everything is not fine! Third, express Caring and Concern. It is good not to feel alone when a bad event occurs. From: How first aid starts with the first thing you say in Spirituality & Health, Fall, 2002.

LAUGHTER RESEARCH: Looking Forward to a Laugh? Good for You… By Maggie Fox Washington (Reuters)

Laughter may be the best medicine, but even looking forward to having a good laugh can boost the immune system and reduce stress, according to recent research. Just anticipating a happy, funny event can raise levels of endorphins and other pleasure and relaxation-inducing hormones and lower production of stress hormones, a team at the University of California-Irvine reported. Lee Berk, an assistant professor of family medicine, said, “This study shows that even knowing you will be involved in a positive humorous event days in advance reduces levels of stress hormones in the blood and increases levels of chemicals known to aid relaxation.”

The research team tested 16 men who all agreed they thought a certain videotape was funny. Half of them were told 3 days in advance they would watch it. Those who knew in advance they would see the video started experiencing biological changes right away. When the men watched the video, levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, fell 39%. Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, fell 70%, while levels of the “feel-good” endorphins rose 27% and growth hormone levels climbed 87%. “Growth hormone is very beneficial to the immune system,” Berk said.

In 2000, a team at the University of Maryland reported that people who stated that they used humor more often were less likely to have had heart attacks. “But this is the first time that someone has shown anticipation of having fun has similar effects,” Berk said. The researchers concluded that the finding suggest that everyone should lighten up a little to live longer. “Anticipation is half, or two-thirds, the fun,” he said.

World Laughter News December 2002-January 2003, click here http://www.worldlaughtertour.com


Kenlyn Blecker, R.N. writes in response to our recent editorial on positive approaches to adversity: It is our privilege to take a lovely 82 year old woman weekly (she goes three times a week) for Dialysis, and she has to pump a bicycle the entire three hours of Dialysis to keep her blood pressure up in order for Dialysis to even take place. It is an ongoing challenge, and she manages to meet it – better than I could in a healthy state. It is her attitude that keeps her alive and HAPPY with her life. She is grateful for every minute and for every small bit of assistance she gets from others, as she cannot see well or drive. For those of us who are fortunate enough to know her, it is truly a gift to spend time with her because she is a living example of how we all want to deal with adversity. The power of INTENTION is monumental, and so necessary for each of us to have before we can see ourselves, and then change to how we want to be in this life.

Rachael Freed writes: I would like to alert you to the existence of my work for cardiac families, and for the new and completely revised editions to HEARTMATES, A GUIDE FOR THE SPOUSE AND FAMILY OF THE HEART PATIENT, and the companion resource THE HEARTMATES JOURNAL, A COMPANION FOR PARTNERS OF PEOPLE WITH SERIOUS ILLNESS. You can find much information on the website, and if you want to know more, please email me or call 612-558-3331.

A list of life-giving New Year’s Resolutions was sent to us by Jan MacQuarrie, Certified Laughter Leader, Ontario, Canada:

Throw out nonessential numbers. This includes age, weight and height. Let the doctor worry about them. That is why you pay him/her.
Keep only cheerful friends. The grouches pull you down.
Keep learning. Learn more about living to your fullest be it computer, crafts, gardening, whatever. Never let the brain idle.
Enjoy simple things.
Laugh often, long and loud. Laugh until you gasp for breath.
The tears happen. Endure, grieve, and move on.
The only person who is with us our entire life, is ourselves. Be ALIVE while you are.
Surround yourself with what you love, whether it’s family, pets, keepsakes, music, plants, hobbies, whatever. Make your home your refuge.
Cherish your health: If it is good, preserve it. If it is unstable, improve it. If it is beyond what you can improve, get help.
Rather than taking guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, to the next county, to a foreign country, but stop short on the guilt, unless it gives you a message to change something – then pay attention and get into action! 11. Tell the people you love that you love them, at every opportunity. And, those who you find hard to love find ways to let them know that you care.
AND ALWAYS REMEMBER: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.


Web sources for research on retirement:

University of Michigan Retirement Research Center

The Pension Research Council from the school that brought you Donald Trump, and a covey of other successful entrepreneurs.

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, click here

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.


  – Positive Aging Newsletter is 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. Alternatively, click here and subscribe online.

– The National Center for Creative Aging/Elders Share the Arts encourages individuals who are interested in the relationship between creativity and well aging to register for the 2003 joint conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging. The conference will include a special day- Saturday, March 15- of workshops and symposium on creativity. For more information or to register, click here. For more information about the sessions led by the National Center for Creative Aging/Elders Share the Arts, please e-mail ncca@creativeaging.org

– “Making Our World a Good Place to Grow Old,” is the theme of 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 for complete information, or contact by e-mail ljones@asaging.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). 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 the website. Send proposals to Michael L. Commons.

– 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. Website http://www.asaging.org/summer-series. Phone: 800-537-9728


 If you have question or material you wish to offer to newsletter readers, please write to Mary Gergen.


January 1, 2003 12:00 am