2003- July / August

July-August, 2003 Issue 21

The Positive Aging Newsletter

July – August, 2003

by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to Productive Dialogue Between Research and Practice
Sponsored by: The Novartis Foundation for Gerontology and The Taos Institute
Issue No 21

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: Nourishing The Taste Of Life

With summer vacations in full swing, conversations often
turn to summer days of the past. One common thread in such
conversations is relevant to the positive process of aging.
This theme is captured for us by the metaphor of “tasting
life.” By tasting life we mean a full appreciation of the
sensual and subtle details of one’s immediate experience.
Imagine you are at a wonderful banquet. You pile your plate
high from the bountiful buffet, and while you eat you
converse with a swirling group of friends over the sounds of
an orchestra. Chances are you taste little and leave that
evening scarcely knowing what you ate, what the orchestra
played or what art decorated the walls. Contrast this
experience with sitting quietly under a tree, cooled by a
summer breeze as you quite tenderly eat a peach. With each
morsel you contemplate your surrounds, the aroma, the
texture, your history with peaches. Never was there such a

And so it is that when we are engaged in the whirling deluge
of demands that accompany most days (weeks or years) of
work, we fail to taste. It is when we exit that we open
vistas of taste. In our view, the practice of tasting is an
acquired one. Years of buffet banquets are no preparation
for appreciating a luscious peach on a summer evening. We
have found the following to be particularly useful ways for
encouraging tasting:

– Focus on the immediate experience. The world of work
typically prepares us to think ahead rather than to be in
the present. The two of us almost ruined the taste of an
afternoon in the mountains this summer by engaging in a
lively discussion of an upcoming presentation as we hiked.
The profusions of wildflowers passed in lavender blur. It
was only when we declared a moratorium on this conversation
that we truly “tasted” the Maroon Bells trail.

– Share details. If you are with another, focus the
conversation on the here and now. Tell each other of the
details that are noticed, especially those that are

– Expand dimensions of meaning. Present experiences are
enriched manifold by placing them in a broader context of
meaning. Reminiscing, for example, about other mountain
experiences, the significance of mountains for human beings,
or the special charm of mountains as opposed to the ocean
side, all expand the dimension of the taste.

– Do not presume satiation. We live in a culture of “Been
there, done that,” in which we presume exposure leads
rapidly to satiation and boredom. However, as life
experiences accumulate, so do we renew the potential
stimulation of all that we have known before. Each old thing
becomes new as the focus on it shifts. As author Will
Manley wrote, “For me, great books are more important now
than they have ever been before. … When you are old, the
struggles of great authors attain a meaning they never had
before. It’s ironic that we read the classics when we are
high-school and college students. At that age, we are no
more able to understand the classics than we are able to
appreciate a vintage French wine. It’s the wear and tear of
life that makes great books come alive.”

The cultivation of taste may also have important health
consequences. As reported in the July edition of The Lancet,
long-term stress may cause health problems. Over periods of
time, stress may cause deterioration of the immune system.
In tasting life, stress evaporates. In effect, practices of
tasting may well extend our opportunities for tasting.

Glaser, R. et al. Chronic stress speeds ageing. (2003) The
Lancet, 362, p. 51.

Manley, W. The one charm of aging. Booklist, May, 2003, p.

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Old Age, Happy Memories

Recent research on emotions and memory suggests that as
people age they recall more positive emotions and fewer
negative ones. In a recent studies published in the Journal
of Experimental Psychology, General, Susan Turk Charles,
Laura Carstensen and Mara Mather, gave photographs
containing positive and negative images to younger and older
participants. Recalling these photographs, older
participants had a stronger tendency to recall positive
images and a weaker one to recall negative images than the
younger participants. Charles and her colleagues found that
the research subjects looked at the images for the same
amount of time, thus discounting the possibility that older
people did not pay attention to the images equally. These
researchers believe that older people seem to more readily
let negative emotions go and concentrate on the more
positive ones.

Applying this laboratory study to everyday life, Quinn
Kennedy, a researcher at Veterans Affairs of the Palo Alto
Health Care System, gave a questionnaire to a group of nuns
who had first been studied by Carstensen in 1987. Kennedy
found that the oldest nuns, 79-102 were more likely to give
their pasts a positive gloss that were the younger nuns, 47-
65. Even the younger nuns were more positive when they were
asked to focus on their emotional experiences. Kennedy’s
study will soon be published in Psychological Science.

In another study using physiological measures, Gisela
Labouvie-Vief, from Wayne State University, found that when
people recalled autobiographical memories, among older
people cardiac reactivity declined with age, especially for
negative emotions such as anger. This finding was most
especially true for women.

In sum, research suggests that memory may become more positive
with age and that, even with negative memories, the elderly may
respond in more adaptive ways.

From: Older and Untroubled by Etienne Benson, Monitor on
Psychology, June 2003, 24-25.

RESEARCH: Live Longer, Die Faster

It is well known that the average span of life has steadily
increased over the past century. Equally optimistic but less
well known is that the number of years of robust health has
also increased. Manton and Gu (2001) reviewed the findings
from the National Long-Term Care Survey of the American
population from 1982 to 1999. Over this period there was an
increase in life expectancy at all age levels, with the
highest increase of 30% among people over 65. Most
interestingly, the proportion of those without disability in
this age group rose from 74% to 80%. In effect, the period
in which we may have to live with a life impairing
disability before death is foreshortened.

As the survey further showed, the proportion of those
residing in nursing homes fell from 7% to 4%, which
represented an absolute decline in numbers of nursing home
beds occupied by older people. Note how few people end up in
nursing homes, despite the myth that this is where life
usually ends!

These trends also have occurred in European countries, but
not to the extent found in the U. S. For example, life
expectancy at age 80 is higher in the U.S. than in England,
France, Sweden or Japan. John Grimley of Oxford (1997)
suggests that an important factor in this trend is related
to the medical care options given to older people in the
U.S. Despite the bad press that U. S. medicine often gets,
Grimley had much to praise in the system, especially the
greater willingness of American doctors to treat older
patients more extensively with drugs and surgery than they
are in Europe. For example, coronary artery surgery and
angioplasty as well as joint replacements, all of which
reduce disability, are provided to older people at a higher
rate in the U. S. than in other countries. He claims that
ignorance and ageism among medical professionals allow more
older people in Europe to be ignored, and thus to live
longer, but less well than they might otherwise

Grimley, Evans J. (1997). A correct compassion. The medical
response to an aging society. Journal of the Royal College
of Physicians. 31, 674-684.
Manton, K.G., and Gu, X. (2001). Changes in the prevalence
of chronic disability in the United States black and
nonblack population above age 65 from 1982 to 1999.
Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences, 98, 6354-6359.

Related article: Live Longer, Die Faster: An Attainable Aim

RESEARCH: Disability As Environmental Deficit

When is a disability not a disability? As the aging
population expands this question becomes increasingly
significant. A new area of specialization, called
disability studies, has emerged in recent years to address
this question. This interdisciplinary approach to
disabilities differs remarkably from the traditional medical
model that considers disabilities a personal defect, which
varies in severity from one person to another. From the
traditional standpoint, the practitioner attempts to
rehabilitate the afflicted individual. From the emerging
perspective of disability studies, disabilities have to do
with the relationship of person to environment. When the
social and physical worlds do not enable people to live
independently, they live in a state of disability. Rather
than simply rehabilitating the individual, the focus is on
the relationship of the environment to the person. To
illustrate simply, there are enormous differences in the
culture in visual acuity. Yet, the development of eye
glasses erases most of these differences. Without this
environmental support, we might consider millions of people
“disabled.” And, if reading lights were brighter and print
larger, even glasses would not be needed. A disability is
not a disability until there is a failure in environmental
supports. As we develop hearing aids, improve wheelchair
access to buildings and provide special toilets so are
disabilities erased. This point of view emphasizes the
importance of creating effective environments, and treats
individuals as independent decision makers who can evaluate
their needs and wants.

The new agenda for researchers in disability studies
concerns working on the promotion of quality of life. Among
the specific areas inquiry are assistive technology,
growthful living environments, job access, and economic
support. Also promoted is research that looks at the
interplay of disability and gender, age, ethnicity and/or
sexual orientation. Other areas of concern include the
facilitating of romantic, sexual and parenting relationships
for people who are classified as disabled.

From: Can disability studies and psychology join hands? By
Rhoda Orkin and Constance Pledger, pp. 2898-295; from a
special section: Fundamental Changes in Disability and
Rehabilitation. American Psychologist, 2003, 58, 279-312.


– SELF-DISCOVERY TAPESTRY, A colorful, interactive, life-
review instrument, By Phyllis J. Meltzer. ( Health
Professions Press, 2003)

– GAY AND LESBIAN AGING, Edited by Gilbert Herdt and Brian
de Vries , (Springer, 2003)

– MENTAL WELLNESS IN AGING: Strengths-based Approaches,
edited by J.L. Ronch and J.A. Goldfield (Health Professions
Press, 2003) http://www.healthpropress.com

– MAKE IT COUNT: How to Generate a Legacy That Gives Meaning
to Your Life, by John Kotre (Free Press, 1999)



Terrible news about an elderly driver killing and maiming
many people at a public market in Santa Monica, California
last month again supported the stereotype that older
drivers are bad drivers and should be kept off the roads.
While this event in California is tragic indeed, are there
grounds for believing that older drivers drive beyond their
capabilities and should be restricted?

A recent study done at the MIT Age-Lab, in cooperation with
the Hartford Financial Services Group asked 3,824 drivers
over age 50 how and why they limited their driving. About
two-thirds reported that they “self-regulated” – that is,
restricted their driving in one or more conditions. For
example, they chose not to drive in bad weather, on certain
busy highways, during rush hour, at night, dusk or dawn, or
for long distances.

Self-regulation increased with age. As the results showed,
healthy people in their 50’s and 60’s rarely limited their
driving. Maureen Mohyde, a gerontologist at The
Harford Group said, “Older drivers do not account for a
large number of accidents on the road. They are less likely
than teenagers to hurt other people in car accidents. ” It is
the case, however, that drivers over 75 begin to have more
accidents and to be more seriously injured in them as a
result of their greater fragility. It is presumed by these
researchers that it is health status, not age, that is the
most significant determiner of driving ability.

In the U.S. the car is a symbol as well as the reality of
independent living. In part the reliance on the car is due
to the lack of public transportation. More attention needs
to be paid to alternative forms of transport as the aging
population expands. In Norway, for example, the aging are
given support for public transportation and for taxi rides
if needed. A study by AARP indicated that when people lose
their driving privileges all of their outside activities dwindle.
Nondrivers leave the house fewer than three times a week,
even to take a walk. Because activity level is closely
related to the sense of well-being and to health, it is
essential that people who no longer drive have access to
alternative means of transportation.

From: MIT study: Older Drivers Know When to Slow Down by
Elizabeth Pope, AARP Bulletin, July-August, 2003, 11-12.


Helen Harkness of Career Design Associates in Garland,
Texas, has helped many people find a new career lease on
life. At 75, she dismisses the idea that people are ever
too old to try something new. “I tell people to think of
themselves as 20 years younger than their chronological
age.” This perspective allows people to be more optimistic
and willing to seek out new opportunities and to develop new
skills. Having some financial security allows people more
choice to define success differently from their younger,
money hungry and careerist counterparts. To seek a new
career it is important to consider one’s values and range of
personal skills, and then to carefully check out one’s
“fantasy careers.” Harkness recommends going to conferences,
professional meetings or trade shows to see if you might fit
in, as well as to discover the hidden “down sides” of the

Nicholas Lore, author of Pathfinder and founder of a career
guidance counseling service specializing in changing
careers, is very optimistic about the potential of finding
satisfying new careers after a previous one has run its
course. Lore’s advice is “go for the stars. Find something
that fits.” If nothing fits, create something new for
yourself. After all, you only live once.

From: In the mood for work: Life after retirement by Sharon
Reier, International Herald Tribune, June 21-22, 2003, 13-


– In response to our commentary on the wisdom of the aging,
our friends and colleagues, Bob and Sharon Cottor, of
Phoenix, wanted to share George Carlin’s challenge:

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by
the moments that take our breath away.

– A reader wishes to share the following quote from Henry
David Thoreau, upon beginning his experiment in living at
Walden Pond: “I wished to live deliberately, to confront only
the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn
what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover
that I had not lived”



– Kip Jones writes from the UK to share work on “Diversities
in Approach to End-of-Life.” The work investigates the
qualitative literature on end-of-life issues and
ethnicity/race/diversity, employing qualitative methods and
philosophical concepts. The work is available at this
address http://users.wbs.ac.uk/group/ceehd/home/end_of_life

The webpage includes links to the full paper, an End-of-life
Annotated Bibliography, and End-of-life Annotated Websites,
all in pdf format. Dr. Jones is a Research Fellow, Centre
for Evidence in Ethnicity, Health and Diversity (CEEHD),
Warwick and De Montfort Universities.

– Health and Age, a significant on-line resource for health
information ( http://www.healthandage.com ),
suggests that readers might like to review a report of a
pill that could reduce heart attacks and strokes by 80%.
click here


– Enhancing the Human Connection in the Age of New
Technologies: Implications and Opportunities for the Aging.
Chicago, 17-22 August, 2003. For information, see:

– An electronic newsletter is published by National Center
for Creative Aging. This newsletter, edited by Renya T.H.
Larson, is published three times a year. The next issue, to
appear in October 2003, will highlight the creativity of
older people with Alzheimer’s disease and related forms of
dementia. To subscribe to this e-newsletter, please send an
e-mail with “subscribe” as the subject to this address
ncca@creativeaging.org To post an announcement, or to
nominate a program, practitioner or elder artist for a
profile in a future issue, contact this address

– Care Management in an Aging Society, Integration,
Innovation, Inclusion and Incentive. October 26-29.
Philadelphia, PA. See:

– Save the Date: Taking the Journey Together 2004 Joint
Conference of the American Society on Aging and the National
Council on the Aging. April 14-17, 2004. Hilton, San


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July 1, 2003 12:00 am