2003- March / April

March-April, 2003, Issue 19

The Positive Aging Newsletter

March-April, 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 19

In this issue:


For several months now a significant share of the world’s population has born the burden of acute uncertainty. The onset of a war did promise clarity of a kind,  but quickly gave way to an unsettling range of disastrous repercussions. In the arts of confronting acute uncertainty, the aging population, and most particularly the very old, are experts. The pervasive threats of loss, illness and death are features of everyday life. What are the core features of such arts? What do the elderly have to teach all those who follow about ways and means of successfully wrestling with uncertainty? As yet there is very little research bearing on this interesting question. To put some fire under the pot, we began to ask friends and neighbors about their home remedies. Their reports are very interesting and even at this early stage worth sharing. We summarize the major offerings from the wise:Positive Imagining: If one lets the imagination race into the future, demons can easily be set loose. We carry with us countless tales of horror – from friends, books, movies and so on. The high probability is that none of these will come to pass. We also carry with us a smaller but robust array of good scenarios. To dwell on these brings confidence and relaxation. If these futures are no less certain than the horrors, then let the imagination enjoy the fruits of this grove. Present Focus: While using positive imagination is useful during moments of reverie, it is often difficult to quiet the murmers of doubt. Most important, then, is to focus on the present or short term demands. One may confront surgery next month, but in the meantime, “how can I prepare an excellent dinner for tonight?” Remaining busy – engaged and challenged by the present – is a strong antidote for anxieties over the future. Selective Control: Our culture teaches us that we should take control of our futures. This is a limited lesson, for regardless of our best laid plans, most of our outcomes are out of our hands. The lesson here reminds us of Asian wisdom. Striving for full control is needlessly stressful.  Relax a little and allow the future to unfold; be at one with the world’s rhythms. Companionship: Almost everyone spoke of the importance of companions. There are many advantages. Active conversations often “take one’s mind off” the future. Many companions can even be entertaining. Other people also tend to give reassuring advice and support. Further, having someone with whom to share often reduces fear. Perhaps we have known this lesson since childhood, but in a culture that stresses personal autonomy it is often forgotten.

We invite our readers to expand the arts of approaching uncertainty.
Ken and Mary Gergen


If you live long enough and you are a man, chances are good that you will get prostate cancer.  Prostate cancer is now the most prevalent cancer among men (excluding skin cancer), and radical surgery is the predominant treatment for men 50-70 years old.  The good news is that surgery is highly effective, with survival rates after surgery over 90% over a long period of time. The bad news is that after surgery most men experience one or more side effects that reduce the quality of life; urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction are the most common.  Up to 60% of men experience some symptoms even 18 months after surgery.  
Researchers have been interested in factors that might improve life quality and health among these people. Helgeson and Lepore (1997), for example,  found that men who maintain a sense of self-reliance through expressions of arrogance, cynicism,  hostility or a “stiff-upper lip”  had poor cancer-related adjustment.  In another study investigators found that men who perceived family and friends as reluctant or uncomfortable discussing cancer-related issues  reported more anxiety and depression. In contrast, other studies have shown that being an optimistic person helps deal with diseases such as breast cancer and coronary bypass surgery.  OPTIMISM SHOULD BE VERY HELPFUL FOR PROSTRATE CANCER AS WELL. But what are the origins of optimism and positive mood state? At least one possibility is the people become optimistic when they have the skills to manage their stress. When they can be confident that they can “make it through,” their mood is boosted. To explore this possibility, 46 men who had had surgery for localized prostate cancer in the preceding year were questioned ABOUT HOW THEY WERE DEALING WITH THEIR RECOVERY. All the men were over 50, with the average age of 60, and theRE was ample variation in both ethnicity and income. Of specific concern, the men were asked about their stress management skills.  On a five point scale they were asked how well they could perform each of 17 tasks, including, for example: “I can easily recognize situations that make me feel stressed or upset” and “I can ask people in my life for support or assistance whenever I need it.”
Results indicated a robust correlation between stress management skills and measures of optimism and positive mood. The more confidence in their skills, the more positive the outcome  during  the recovery period. The researcher concludes, “The results suggest that health care providers may want to look beyond their patients’ positive attitude to assess  and provide stress management skills training, and that by doing so, they may provide an avenue for patients to access more positive mood states.

From:  Perceived stress management skill mediates the relationship between optimism and positive mood following radical prostatectomy by  Frank J. Penedo, et al. Health Psychology, (2002), 22, 220-222.


Research has long suggested that the companionship of a pet may be a valuable asset to aging. The present research adds further to the picture by showing that pets may be active stress reducers. To explore this possibility, hundreds of participants were placed in stressful conditions. They were given a set of math problems to solve very rapidly, and their hand was immersed in ice cold water. During  these stressful events, the  participants were accompanied by either 1) pets, 2) spouses, or 3) friends. To test the possible effects of their presence on stress level, both heart rate and blood pressure were measures. The participants were also asked to report on their experiences.
The results showed that the pet owning participants were least stressed when their pet was beside them. The presence of pets also increased the likelihood that they would report the stressors were “challenging” rather than “threatening.”Researchers suggested that pets were the best companions for these tasks because they are nonjudgmental companions.  As they report, “No matter how much we believe that a person is  on our side, there’s always an evaluative side to it.” To support this possibility, the research showed that non-pet owners were least stressed when they were alone. However, the pets may also have had a positive effect, distracting the participants, creating humor, or sending signals of affection.  
Interestingly, the baseline levels of arousal differed between pet owners and non-owners before the study began. While this is a limit to the study, it suggests that either having a pet lowers stress responses in general, or that less stressed out people acquire pets.   

From: The companionship of pets by Karen Allen, Jim Blascovich, & Wendy Berry Mendes. Psychosomatic Medicine (Sept/Oct issue, Vol. 64, No. 5,


This paper counters prevailing negative stereotypes of the life experiences of older Black Americans. Interviews with 129 African Americans 65 and older in San Francisco and 122 people over 85 in the rural south  found much to celebrate in these lives.  Many of these respondents lived in public housing and/or crime-ridden neighborhoods.  Most were economically poor. However, the results not only reveal the narrowness of perspective often prevailing in the literature, but have much to teach about the possibilities for positive aging.
Compared to many sub-cultures, aging African Americans are benefited in two special ways: an extensive network of social support, and supporting religious institutions. Unlike most white families, black families extend outward, beyond parents and children, to include siblings and cousins, nieces and nephews, and even  fictive relatives. Because of the size and diversity of the family, there is a strong network of support available to each member.  Older people generally feel that they can count on someone if they are in need. Similarly, the church provides a center for spiritual uplift and sociability. It is also a source of material support. Survivorship is a common theme, and one from which people take great personal pride. Respondents see progress in their life conditions, such that old age is a rewarding period after  troubled times in youth and middle age.
To be sure, for some, an unstable, disrupted childhood seemed to lower the level of contentment and hopefulness. However, these people were more integrated into kinship and community networks than white counterparts. They were also three times more likely to have a caregiver available if the need arose. Perhaps most importantly, the African Americans scored higher than whites on scales of subjective well-being. Similar to conclusions of an earlier large scale survey (Taylor, Jackson & Chatters, 1997), poor elderly Black Americans were a happier group than more economically advantaged older whites.

From: Family lives of aging Black Americans by Colleen L. Johnson and Barbara M. Barer in J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.) Ways of aging.  (pp. 111-131)Blackwell, 2003. Taylor, Robert J., Jackson, James S.,  & Chatters, Linda M. (1997). Family life in Black America.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


WOMEN CONFRONTING RETIREMENT; A NONTRADITIONAL GUIDE. Edited by Alice Radosh and Nan Bauer-Maglin. Ö.  New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press.

This book presents the stories of 38 women from a wide range of professions, ages and life situations as they confront the need to redefine who they are when they leave the work place.  Many of these women were involved in the key activist movement of the sixties and seventies, and their work has often been an extension of their social commitment.  The stories in this book offer a compelling chronicle of the fears and hopes of women who have only begun to think about retirement, those who are in the process of retiring, some who have been retired for many years and a few who have decided that retirement is not for them. To find out more about the book, please visit: www.WomenConfrontingRetirement.com

THE FUTURE ME: AUTHORING THE SECOND HALF OF YOUR LIFE by John Beilenson.  White Plains, NY: Peter Pauper Press, Inc.

This attractive loose leaf book is  a workbook designed for the owner to become author, within a framework provided by the author.  The major sections of the book are “Improve your Attitude,”  “Just Connect,” “Get Involved,” “Stay Sharp,” “Be Creative,” and “Engage the Spirit.” For example, in the section on connection, one lists the five most important people, for you, in the world. Then you write down reasons why you haven’t connected with them more often.  Next you call, write or email the person on the list that you have been out of touch with the longest.  Last you sketch out a plan for seeing each of these people with the year. The text has clever sayings, such as Phyllis Diller’s comment, “I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do,”  which introduces this section.  This book would be an excellent present for someone who enjoys writing, personal reflection, and who is optimistic about the possibilities for change at any age.



Health columnist Art Carey seeks to answer the age-old question: Is sex good exercise?  Depending on the style and duration of your intimate relations, sex can burn between 100 to 300 calories. Make love three times a week for six weeks, and YOU LOSE one pound of fat.  If you keep up the pace for a year, it is the equivalent of running 75 miles. A vigorous BEDROOM romp can boost the pulse by 40-50 beats, an aerobic workout!
A study of 1,000 Welsh men found that those who had sex at least twice a week were half as likely to die of a heart attack or a stroke.  Besides the cardiac and weight reduction advantages, sexual activity supplies the body’s organs with fresh oxygen, flushes away toxins and wastes, gives major muscles a workout, and releases a cascade of hormones that reduce blood pressure, relieve pain and stress, fortify bone and muscles, rev up the metabolism, lower cholesterol, boost the immune system, and promote relaxation, contentment, bonding, and well-being, as well as sleep. Cuddling and touching, being held and stroked  are reported to have many of the benefits of sex in terms of resistance to disease and good health. All of these help to retard unhealthy symptoms as we age.
Given the correlational nature of the evidence, it is not clear which comes first, good health or good sex. A study of avid swimmers in their 60’s reported sex lives similar to 40 year olds, and 40 year old swimmers had sex lives similar to 20 year olds. Thus, both could be true, any kind of physical activity may enhance other kinds. Any beginning is a good one.

From: Sex is good for body, mind by Art Carey, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 10, 2002, D5


Much psychological wisdom in recent times has emphasized the importance of talking about traumatic events so as to relieve the pain and anguish resulting from them.  It is customary now for teams of psychotherapists to provide survivors with an opportunity to work through the trauma.  Recent research in Israel and the U. S. has questioned whether this is the only – or even  the optimal – way to adjust in grievous times. In Tel Aviv researchers studied heart-attack victims to discover whether those who tried not to think about the event, who suppressed it, fared better psychologically in the long run than those who did not.  What they discovered was that people who minimized their distress, distracted themselves when they started to ruminate about the heart attack, and denied its seriousness were better off in the long run than those who did not suppress.  Of the 116 patients they studied,  after 7 months,  7 % of the suppressors were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, while 19% of those who thought, ruminated and worried about their attack evidenced a disorder. The general coping style of the suppressors was to avoid imagining the negative consequences for their life, and to focus on their capacities to react competently to their problem. One might say the suppressors believe in the power of positive thinking, and the results are favorable. Other studies done at Columbia University found that  there were differences among bereaved widows and widowers in the way they reacted to their distress, despite having  similar high heart rates. Over time people who downplayed their unhappiness tended to grieve less and to make a better overall life adjustment. It is possible that there are good and bad ways to suppress, and good and bad times to do it. Also there may be people who benefit from “getting it all out,” repetitively going over the same hurts until they are empty of interest. It is the challenge of the therapist, counselor or friend to discern when to listen to the story of distress, when to help a person reframe that story into something more positive, and when to simply change the subject and focus attention on something else that is more positive.

From: Repress  Yourself by Lauren Slater, New York Times Magazine, February 23, 2003, pp. 48-53.


Phyllis Tremper writes in response to earlier discussions of pain management, “I have an arthritis gene which my mother gave to me, bless her heart.  However, I try to deal with it every day by volunteering to teach reading to fifth graders in our local elementary school who are falling behind.  It takes my mind off of the pain and I really enjoy the one on one with these kids.  I taught my own son to read before he went to kindergarten and he has thanked me many times since for it.  Many of these children just need some one to listen to them and hear what they have to say.  Parents are too busy and siblings don’t care. My husband teaches Math and between the two of us, our pain is on the back shelf.” “I tell older adults to volunteer anywhere there is a need: hospitals, schools, churches, building new homes, baby sitting for neighbors, environmental groups and on and on.  There is a need for volunteers all over this country. Join up and forget your pain.”

Carlos J. Gonzalez  writes, “I have enjoyed the web publications of Novartis and constantly discuss them  in our Tai Chi training. I practice along with seven other students, the art of Tai Chi for one hour on Mon-Wed  mornings. Our ages are from 60 and up, with a bright gentleman of 90 and two ladies in their 80’s that bring us their energy. We have two years of experience as a group and have accomplished each one of our  individual goals and I feel we are ready to work as a team with a common objective. Our practice includes a warm-up, Tai Chi Qong as a toner and Tai-Chi Short Form to develop balance and coordination. I highly recommend this practice to all.”


– SEVENTY UP: WOMEN’S AGING “70 Up” is a multimedia project intended to convey a positive image of women’s aging by means of a traveling exhibit, web site and book.  “70 Up” explores the lives of 25 remarkable and ethnically diverse women through photography and interviews.  To see the images and learn more, visit them at: www.70up.org/index.htm

– The National Center for Creative Aging announces the first issue of its e-newsletter, Creative Aging.  The newsletter serves professionals in health care, social work and the arts who are interested in creative work with older people.  Each issue of Creative Aging will examine the theories and methodologies of this emerging field, publish interviews with elder artists, highlight practitioners and organizations that have contributed significantly to the field, and announce trainings and performances.  To subscribe, please send your full name and e-mail address to ncca@creativeaging.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 http://www.adultdevelopment.org/  Send proposals to Michael L.
Commons, at Commons@tiac.net

-The First World Laughter Tour International Symposium May 29-31, 2003 – Orlando, Florida
LEARN The Latest Research
UNDERSTAND Therapeutic Laughter
CONTINUE Your Laughter Education
STRENGTHEN the Laughter Club movement
NETWORK & Share Ideas
Detailed Information –  www.worldlaughtertour.com/symposium

– 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 at gv4@psu.edu

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March 1, 2003 12:00 am