2003 – May / June

May-June, 2003 Issue 20

The Positive Aging Newsletter

May – June, 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 20

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: Sharing The Wisdom of Positive Aging

In this newsletter we have often stressed the importance of
grass-roots sharing in the development of positive
orientations to aging. Ideally the relationship between the
relevant professions and those they serve should be a
generative dialogue. We recently had the privilege of
conducting a Positive Aging workshop at a Taos/Houston-
Galveston Institute Conference in Texas with our friends and
colleagues, Sharon and Bob Cottor of Phoenix, AZ. We asked
the participants to develop together ways they had found
useful in nurturing a positive form of life. When we looked
over the participants’ offerings, these were among the
major commonalities in their recommendations:

– Embrace change. Enjoy whatever is. Even grief can be embraced for it affirms the significance of human bonds.

– Enjoy the freedom of being old. There are fewer social pressures, and far more opportunities for growth and engagement.

– Seek social connection, and in particular, look for ways of meeting new people with ideas that are different from yours.

– Recognize that money is not a primary source of joy. In fact, good human relationships offer far more.

– Stay open to reinterpreting life events. Nothing is good or bad in itself; interpretation is everything.

– Ignore ageism; do not incorporate agieist stereotypes into your ways of thinking. Realize that ageist stereotypes are limits in others and not yourself.

– Expand notions of beauty, health, age and sexuality. Do not use standards of another age group. Create new ways of appreciating these physical changes.

– Keep actively engaged in the community. Share yourself. Volunteering is only one useful way to do this.

– Be the change you want to see. Actively cultivate growth and development. Don’t “while” away the hours waiting for something to come along.

– Be a conduit for continuing the admirable characteristics of loved ones who have died. Let their generosity, warmth, and good will live through you. Death need not be a disconnect.

– Luxuriate in mystery, spiritual possibilities and aesthetic expression. Look beyond surfaces to more enriching possibilities.

Not only is there much potential wisdom represented in these
recommendations, but challenging fare here for future
research and effective therapy. We want to thank the members
of our workshop for their contributions to this list. We
welcome additional advice from our readers.

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Making The Best of Moving

Moving is often considered a traumatic event, especially for
older people, and yet, it is also very common. How do
people manage to relocate in a positive fashion? In this
study researchers interviewed 266 women from Wisconsin who
moved from their own homes to retirement communities. The
average age of the women was 69 years; most had some higher
education, almost all were white, half were widowed, and a
quarter were married or living with a partner. Most of the
participants had owned a home and lived independently prior
to the move. Participants rated their health as good. The
reasons for relocating were the high costs of keeping up
their homes, the large size of their homes, and/or wanting
more security and safety. Overall, the participants
indicated that the move was their choice and no one else’s.

Researchers followed these women over an eight month period
of relocation, studying their mental health and their self-
evaluations in comparison with others (e.g. “I feel my
relationships with my friends are closer than most people’s
are”). The important question was: What are the
psychological resources that best equip a woman for this
potentially highly stressful time.

The answer suggested by the research is that the capacity to
make positive comparisons (or to paraphrase, “I handle my
situation better than most people.”) is an excellent
resource. These women suffered less than others in terms of
mental stresses. Interestingly those women who were most
likely to make positive comparisons felt that they were more
positively appraised by others. Possibly because these women
demonstrated few signs of stress, they found others to be
positive toward them.

How one acquires the capacity to make positive comparisons
is another question. For many, it may be a skill developed
over a long period of time. Also, during periods of high
stress it may be useful to share stories with others. Often,
for the sake of good drama, people will relate stories that
are far more direr than the situation one faces oneself. One
may leave such exchanges with a buoyant sense that “I don’t
have it so bad…I can manage.” The next research report
would support this possibility.

From: The role of self-enhancing evaluations in a successful
life transition by Christine Man Lai Kwan, Gayle Dienberg
Love, Carol D. Ryff, and Marilyn J. Essex in Psychology and
Aging, 2003, 18, 3-12.

RESEARCH: Social Support in Times of Stress

The significance of positive relationships in aging – and
particularly under conditions of high stress – is
underscored in the present research. In this case the
participant group was comprised of 82 people who were
seriously ill and on dialysis in a hospital setting. These
patients, most of whom were in their 50’s and 60’s, were
studied for a period of three months. Researchers were
particularly interested in the effects of social support on
the patients’ feelings over time. The participants were
evaluated on their social support systems and given tests
for self-esteem, optimism, and depression. Not only did the
participants evaluate the positive support they received,
but also the amount of “negative or unhelpful interactions
with others” they experienced.

The major finding was that positive social support is highly
related to the self-esteem of the patients. Not only did
those who experienced more support evaluate themselves more
highly, but they were also more optimistic and less
depressed than those who received little support. Especially
important in its contribution to good feelings about self
and the world are experiences of belonging to various groups
(family, church, organization) and being wanted by others
for mutual activities. Also having tangible support from
others (e.g. Rides to the hospital) was related to feelings
of optimism.

Interestingly, negative or unhelpful relations did not have
an important effect on all the patients. Those with higher
levels of self-esteem seemed immune to “downer experiences.”
Their self-confidence functioned as a buffer against
depression and dealing with unsupportive people.

From: The influence of social support and problematic
support on optimism and depression in chronic illness: A
prospective study evaluating self-esteem as a mediator by
Petra Symister and Ronald Friend. Health Psychology, 2003,
22, 123-129.

Related article: Understanding and Helping the Suicidal Person

RESEARCH: It’s Never Too Late to Change

One frequently asked question about positive living is
whether lifestyle patterns can be changed. For example, if
one has been depressed for most of life, will the depression necessarily continue? Currently popular personality theorysuggests that people are born with their personalities, andtheir dominant tendencies are stable throughout life. Yet, not all researchers agree. An alternative viewpoint is that personality traits are malleable, and reshaped over time according to life events. The present research supports this latter idea.

This study is based on responses made on the world wide web,
and involved a huge sample of over 130,000 people, who
filled in personality and demographic data on the internet.
The participants ranged in age from 21 to 60, with the mean
age of 31. Everyone in the study lived in North America.
The sample was divided at age 30, and results were reported
on the differences between these two age groups. Change was
found in all major areas studied.

Of particular interest, agreeableness increased
significantly after age 30 for both men and women. In
effect, the good news is that people become nicer with age.
Equally optimistic, the results showed that women became
less and less neurotic over the lifespan. Alas, this change
was not matched by the males. Yet, the men did become more
extraverted, a change not matched by the women. By and
large the idea of fixed personality was undermined; life
experience does seem important. According to this research,
people become, on average, better adapted as they get older.

From: Development of Personality in Early and Middle
Adulthood: Set Like Plaster or Persistent Change? By Sanjay
Srivastava, Oliver P. John, Samuel D. Gosling, and Jeff
Potter, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003,
84, 1041-1053.

Related article: Radical Freedom in The Senior Years


– AGE IN ACTION, by Pirjo Nikander. Helsinki: Academia
Scientiarum Fennica, 2002.

Although written for academic specialists, this book has
broad ramifications for our understanding of age
categorization and ageism. We often think of people as
harboring certain ideas about their age and basing their
behavior on these categories. Thus, we often hold, people
who incorporate ageist ideas of what it is to be old will
begin to build their lives around these deficit images.
However, by focusing on the way in which older people
converse, Nikander finds that the idea of age is
continuously negotiated. Older people have many different
discourses for talking about age and will use different
discourses to accomplish different things (such as avoiding
age categories, or identifying oneself within a group). The
picture painted here suggests that whether we view ourselves
as old or not depends importantly on the flow of

CANCER, by Ross Gray and Christina Sinding, Walnut Creek,
CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.

This book describes the development of a theatrical
performance about people with metasticized breast cancer,
which was developed for hospital personnel, family members
and patients themselves. While we expected to be depressed
by the book and its performance, we have to agree with
others who found the project more hopeful than they
expected. As one viewer expressed it, the performance taught
her that a cancer patient might be described as “Not
hoping for miracle cures, but for the possibility of living
fully, the possibility of humor, of connection, and of
grace, in the face of enormous difficulties and limited
time” (pg. 180). The book also contains guidelines for
others who might want to embark on their own research-
based drama. One important recommendation is that during
the script building there be the voices of all the
stakeholders represented. The book is accompanied by a video
of the performance. Thus, one is able to see the outcome of
the ethnographic studies and artistic endeavors that are at
its base.

LIFE, by Nancy K. Schlossberg, Washington, DC: APA Books,

This book is dedicated to helping people make psychological
and emotional adjustments to retirement. The major message
of the book is that retirement can be one of the most
fulfilling times of life. The volume offers a rich set of
suggestions and thoughtful illuminations, and there is much
to be appreciated in the positive tone of the message. We do
have reservations, however, about looking for one’s “true
path.” Perhaps it would be more fruitful to think in terms
of multiple paths to a good life, and a flexible orientation
to shifting from one path to another.



Does doing good for others increase one’s life-span? This is
the suggestion of researchers at the University of Michigan.
They investigated the benefits of giving social support to
others on the givers themselves among 423 older couples over
a five year period. They charted the extent to which people
provided help for others, including one’s spouse, either in
terms of practical assistance (such as running errands or
doing housework) or in terms of friendship and moral
support. As the results showed, those who provided more
support lived longer lives than those who did little for
others. The head of the research team, Stephanie Brown,
discounted the possibility that the helpers were healthier
than the non-helpers to begin with. The researchers
discovered that when they controlled for several health
factors (e.g. physical well-being, health satisfaction,
health behavior, mental health), as well as age, income and
educational levels, giving was still independently related
to longevity. Interestingly, differences in how much one
received help did not seem to affect mortality. It appears
that not only is giving more blessed, but more rewarding
that receiving.

From: Giving to others linked to longer life, study finds by
M. Greengrass, Monitor on Psychology, February 2003.


This article describes a meeting of Professor Peter Singer,
a philosopher who advocates the termination of infants who
are born severely handicapped, and Harriet McBryde Johnson,
from birth a highly disabled person, a member of Not Dead
Yet (an advocacy group for disabled people), an attorney and
a guest of Singer’s classes at Princeton University. Within
their encounter, a model of civil conduct between two strong
antagonists was displayed, one based on human charity and
concern as well as intellectual difference.

Most relevant to issues in positive aging, the dialogue
turned to the topic of life quality. To Singer, disability
makes a person “worse off.” Johnson disagrees, “Are we
‘worse off’? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful
sense. ..For those of us with congenital conditions,
disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life
adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and
build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy
pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our
own. We have something the world needs.”

She also points out how most people have a disability
prejudice that diminishes their ability to appreciate life
from someone else’s perspective. Johnson suggests that
society should nurture all of its members, not leaving care
only to mothers, who are most often the caregivers. This
aid would enhance the life experiences of parents with
handicapped children. She also suggested that assisted
suicide for the disabled may not be as beneficent as it may
initially appear. While it supports the desirable goal of
autonomy for disabled people, the wish for suicide may be
the outgrowth of social stigma and deprivation. Prejudices
against the disabled should be eliminated, not the people.

From: Unspeakable Conversations or How I Spent One Day as a
Token Cripple at Princeton University by Harriet McBryde
Johnson, New York Times Magazine, February 16, 2003, pp. 50-
55, 74-79.


At age 47 Dottie Drake was a “mess.” Her husband had left
her, her children were gone, her mother died, she had a
breast cancer scare, and she had lost her job. Once a
lifeguard, she was now so dumpy and fat she could barely
move. Her blood pressure was high, her joints ached, and
she was on the verge of diabetes. All of these things
greatly affected her emotionally, and she withdrew from life
in despair.

One day a friend of her daughter’s came to visit and noticed
that the house was filled with exercise equipment that was
gathering dust. This young woman asked to use it, and
Dottie agreed. She didn’t want to do it herself, as she
hated exercising, especially alone. But with nothing to
lose, she tried it. For 20 minutes, she walked the
treadmill and lifted some weights. Two days later she tried
it again, and then again. After one week, she felt like a
new woman. This exercise gave her a surge of energy that
began to transform her life. She read up on the miracles
of exercise, especially for older people. While she had
worked as a registered nurse and a hospice administrator
during her long career, she realized that mostly she was
giving out drugs and helping people to die. She decided,
“Instead of teaching people how to die, I’m going to teach
them how to live.”

Dottie took courses and became certified as a personal
trainer. Then she borrowed money to open a gym designed for
“the old and the fat.” In the past three years, she has
enlarged and added gyms to her storefront original one near
Wildwood, New Jersey. At Fitness First for Women and
Seniors people want to improve the quality of their lives,
not run a marathon. Her motto: “No pain, no gain is
insane.” Many of her clients are people who had once been
infirm and dependent seniors. Now they are self-sufficient
and well. Drake’s gyms are “transformation locations” She
says of her customers, “They shuffle in, and we put zip back
in their step. The only way to get old is to lose muscle and
bone. Exercise is the fountain of youth.”

From: Exercise lifted her from the pit of despair by Art
Carey, Body Language column, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 13,
2003, E1


William England at the National Center for Creative Aging
wishes to share the news of their publication of Legacy
Works, a training manual for caregivers who work with
homebound elders. Legacy Works- a program of Elders Share
the Arts- reduces social isolation in homebound elders by
training their volunteer or professional caregivers to
conduct simple but stimulating reminiscence exercises and to
validate these reminiscences by documenting them in works of
visual art. The manual guides readers step-by-step through
the Legacy Works model. To purchase or for more
information, contact: this person ncca@creativeaging.org

William England also shares the following:
I thoroughly enjoy your newsletter. My father was an MD in a
small town for over 50 years and embodied the many qualities
of “agelessness” that your researchers often describe: a
lively, questioning intellect; an undying athletic
competitiveness; a rich sense of humor; and an unwillingness
to sit on the sideline and watch his life ebb away. He
wasn’t perfect – was often downright infuriating – but he
left me with warm, continuing memories of kindness,
laughter, and strength. Not a bad legacy at all.


– Web Resource: http://www.aarp.org/grandparents
Link to a list of support groups and other helpful sites for
grandparents. Or call (800) 424-310 for information and

– Web Resource: http://www.unmarriedAmerica.org
This organization is dedicated to protecting the rights of
unmarried people in America, a group that is increasingly
gaining numbers and political power. Interesting fact: “The
2001 Annual Supplemental Survey released by the Census
Bureau last fall estimates that almost 50% of the nation’s
households were headed by unmarried adults in 2001. About
40% of the workforce is unmarried. Many of the unmarried
people in America are over the age of 50.


– 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 mravazzo@fibertel.com.ar.
Alternatively, for online subscription, click here

(June 19, 2003, Jacksonville, FL). Sponsored by the Cummer
Museum of Art and Gardens and the Florida Center for
Creative Aging.
Keynote by Gene D. Cohen (Director, Center on Aging, Health
and Humanities at George Washington University). Preliminary
findings on effects of cultural programs on the well-being
of older adults from a three year study.
For information contact Stefanie Thompson at (813)974-1309
or email to this address Sthomps@admin.usf.edu

– HEALTH PROMOTION: (June 22-26, 2003, Portland, OR).
The Oregon Health Promotion Foundation is sponsoring its
Seaside Health Promotion Conference.
An immersion experience addressing professional development,
personal growth, personal health and community building.
For details, click here http://www.wellpage.com
Contact: (360) 258-1524 or email at this address

Transhumanism and Bioethics in the 21st Century.”
(June 27-29, 2003, New Haven, CT). Conference at Yale
Transhumanism offers an approach to aging, death and the
body inspired by overcoming limitations through advances in
For more information,
http://www.transhumanism.org/tv/2003usa/index.htm or
contact: Dr. James Hughes, Public Policy Studies, Trinity
College, 71 Vernon St., Hartford CT 06106

– SAGE AND WISDOMKEEPING: “The Inner Work of the Sage:
Becoming a Wisdomkeeper” (June 28-29, 2003, South Bend, IN).
Spiritual Eldering Program at the Leighton Center for Senior
For details, contact Rosemary Cox Rcox@memorialsb.org

– QUALITY OF LIFE: 5th European Congress of Gerontology, ERIAG
“Quality of Life for an Ageing Society” (July 1-6, 2003,
Barcelona, Spain).
For details, contact this address segg@segg.org

– 2003 SUMMER SERIES ON AGING in San Francisco: June 17-20
and Philadelphia, July 14-17, 2003.
Presented by the American Society on Aging.
Continuing Education for Professionals who work with older
adults and their family members.
For information, check out (800) 537-9728 or click here

Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and the
National Council on the Aging.
April 14-17, 2004. Hilton, San Francisco


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readers, please write to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

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May 1, 2003 12:00 am