Sept-Oct, 2003 Issue 22
The Positive Aging Newsletter
September - October, 2003
The Positive Aging Newsletter 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 22
In this issue:
YOUR HELP NEEDED
The continued life of this newsletter is now threatened, and we are calling upon our readers to sustain the effort until further support is located. From January 2004, the Novartis Foundation for Gerontology will change its mission and sponsor only geriatric medical educational programs. We now begin the search for foundation support to secure the future, but in the meantime we shall be without operating costs. We would be grateful for any financial contribution you could make - large or small - to our second sponsor, Taos Institute http://www.taosinstitute.net. The Taos Institute is a non- profit organization and all contributions are tax deductible. Contributions may be sent for "positive aging" to:
The Taos Institute
63 Maple Hill Drive
Chagrin Falls, OH 44064-4210
If you scan the contents of most gerontology research journals, you will be exposed to numerous articles on age deficits. These articles reveal declines in virtually all areas of life. Of course, these reports also feed the negative stereotypes of aging so pervasive in the culture, along with the fear of aging so common to so many. As we also reported in a previous issue of the newsletter (#15) people who think 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. In effect, negative stereotypes may be dangerous to one’s health.
How, then, can we reduce the impact of deficit research on the negative stereotypes associated fears? At least one important way is to realize the substantial limitations of research on aging, which can also be generalized to other topics in the human sciences. Such research is consequential primarily because its shortcomings are seldom mentioned. When we come to realize the weaknesses, we may feel that some of the weights caused by the fear of aging are lifted. We focus here on seven of these weaknesses. While we emphasize research on cognitive deterioration, the problems are inherent in most research on age decline:
Trivial differences. Research may reveal statistically significant decline in various laboratory tasks, but these differences may well be trivial in terms of their significance in everyday life. For example, a statistically significant difference between younger and older research subjects of 1.7 seconds in reaction time might be demonstrated in the ability to read and comprehend a page of newsprint. We might ask, however, would it make any difference in one’s life if it required 2 seconds more to read the front page of a newspaper at the age of 80 than it did at 40? Without a substantial case for the social significance of the kinds of decline demonstrated in the laboratory, such research is more smoke than fire.
Trivial capacities. Many measures of cognitive deficit are developed in the laboratory. Special apparatus are often constructed to measure these deficits. Elder subjects often respond less adequately than their younger counterparts on such apparatuses. However, it is often quite unclear how performance on these measures can be translated into actions in everyday life. For example, does reacting more slowly to a split second flash in a laboratory apparatus have any important implications for living effectively? How often do we confront a situation in which we must respond within milliseconds to a flashing light? Sometimes it is the unusual nature of the laboratory situation itself that may throw off older adults, who have not been required to participate in psychology experiments as undergraduates.
Misattributed Cause. Virtually all studies of decline are attributed to age differences. Yet, as gerontology researchers are quite aware, age itself does not cause anything. In effect, the age variable serves as a cover for the fact that we generally do not know the causes of such declines. This means that all studies of decline stand open to alternative explanations. And among these alternatives are much more optimistic ways viewing lifespan changes. For example, there are hundreds of studies demonstrating memory declines with age. However, the older person has also accumulated far more information over a life-time than the young. Memory decline may not result from age, but from the fact that one has a far greater corpus of information at his or her disposal.
Over-generalization. Most studies of decline lump together samples within each age group. Large samples of people from 20- 40, for example, may be compared with samples of people from 60-90. Negative findings are interpreted as if they apply to the entire samples, regardless of specific age. Further, such findings neglect what are typically wide individual variations in each group. The overlap between the younger and the older group may be very large. Many people in the older groups are more capable than many in the younger. This fact is typically hidden.
Biased Search. Researchers do not measure everything. They begin their research looking for specific outcomes. Because of the problem centered focus of most research foundations, researchers are motivated to search for deficits. If deficits can be located, alarms may be sounded! The result is a litany of grief; all systems seem to be deteriorating. However, researchers have yet to make significant efforts to explore the positive potentials of aging. With increased effort to locate such potentials, they would certainly be discovered.
Contextual Insensitivity. Researchers often assume that declines are inevitable. If they demonstrate a loss in reaction time, they often presume that such losses are intrinsic to the human species - a natural trajectory. However, such assumptions are typically without merit. Our skills at any time in life are importantly wedded to the demands of the time. If the demands for rapid information processing ceases at retirement, chances are that the skill will taper. If the demand continues, the skill is likely to remain strong. Infrequently do researchers target ways in which skills may be increased or enriched during the later years.
In our view it is imperative that the research community become more responsible in reporting age deficits. The stereotypical conclusion that aging means decline is an easy one; it is also the most dangerous in social repercussions. Decline in aging should not be embraced as the first conclusion, but rather the last.
Kenneth and Mary Gergen
The aging population represents a major source of voluntary aid to society. Not only do volunteers make life better for others, but research also suggests that their blessings are doubled: they benefit as well. Researchers compared data from 148 volunteers with 1,195 non-volunteers in a national sample of Israelis aged 75-94. Volunteers were formally engaged in an organization, with over 80% of them contributing their time weekly or more. The volunteers differed from their non- volunteer peers in having more education and higher income; they did not differ in gender, marital status or residential types.
As the data first revealed acting as a volunteer was associated with more positive functioning on a variety of psychosocial markers. The volunteers proved to be more mentally alert, they had fewer depressive symptoms, they had more close relationships, and they evaluated their lives more positively than non-volunteers.
Volunteers also lived longer, with a 33% reduction in mortality rate. This enhanced longevity did not depend on the sheer activity required for participation in the organization. Elderly non-volunteers who participated equally in outside activities continued to have earlier deaths. In effect, there seem to be benefits of volunteering in late life not reducible to activity per se.
Of course, all these data are correlational, and it is impossible to determine whether better functioning people are more likely to be volunteers or whether volunteering helps people to function better. However, it seems quite reasonable that being involved in helping relationships with others sustains us in terms of outlook, interests, and care for the self.
From: Beyond keeping active: Concomitants of being a volunteer in old-old age by Dov Shmotkin, Tzvia Blumstein, & Baruch Modan. Psychology and Aging, 2003, 18, 602-607.
Related article: Lifetime Engagement
In previous issues of the Newsletter we have reported research documenting various personal dispositions related to longevity. The present research adds further dimension. Researchers tested 174 people with chronic renal insufficiency over a four year period. At the end of the period, 125 people were still living. The question was whether there were any personality dispositions that separated those who lived from those who perished.
Two measures significantly differentiated between the living and the dead. The first was a neuroticism measure, one that is generally used as an indicator of generalized emotional distress and an anguished mood. The more neurotic, judged by this scale, were more likely to die. The second discriminating measure was of concientiousness. This measure is generally linked to self-discipline, dependability and the will to achieve. The more conscientious, the more likely to live. These traits made a difference even after age, diabetic status and hemoglobin levels had been controlled for. Researchers speculated that people with these personality traits are more likely to comply with medical treatments and engage in good health practices. Additionally, there is clear evidence that high levels of neuroticism are associated with diminished immune functioning.
This is scarcely to say that people who do not have the proper traits must necessarily pay a price. It is likely that various interventions- including therapy, health training, and yoga - that enhance a patent’s sense of self-control and mastery in health-related tasks will increase longevity. Similarly, regulating life in such a way that positive moods prevail should be helpful.
From: Patient Personality and Mortality: A 4-Year Prospective Examination of Chronic Renal Insufficiency by Alan J. Christensen and Shawna L. Ehlers, John S. Wiebe, Patricia J. Moran, Katherine Raichle, Karin Ferneyhough, and William J. Lawton, (2002), Health Psychology , 21, 315-320.
For many people, grandparenting provides one of the great joys of growing older. Others find the role less welcoming. The present research indicates that the former group may be doubly benefited. The researchers asked over 600 elderly Americans in the Midwest questions such as how old they felt, how old they wanted to be, how long they hoped to live, and "how old is old?"
Of special interest were comparisons between elders who enjoyed grandparenting as opposed to those who did not. The results suggested that those who enjoy being grandparents come to feel younger as a result. For example, women who dislike being a grandparent perceive old age to begin at around age 68 (the average age of these women is 70). In contrast, whom who enjoy being a grandparent see old age as beginning at 76. Those who enjoy their grandchildren hope to live to 84, while those who do not are content to live to 78. Interestingly, those who made the transition to grandparenthood relatively early, feel older than those who made the transition at a more "appropriate" time. For those who do not enjoy grandparenting, it is never too late for change.
From: Grandparenting and age identity by Gayle Kaufman & Glen H. Elder, Jr. Journal of Aging Studies, 2003, 17, 269-282.
Related article: How to Be a Good Grandparent
- RESILIENCE: STEPS TOWARD SURVIVAL
Into each life some rain must fall, as the old song goes. We can’t avoid getting caught in a downpour from time to time, so what counts in life is how we deal with it. Dan Gottlieb, a highly successful columnist and therapist, who is also a paraplegic, wrote about "resilience" in a recent article. He was curious about the hundreds of people he has met who seem to be productive and happy in their lives, despite having experienced terrible adversity. They were resilient. Research on resilient people suggest that they take good care of themselves - they sleep more, exercise more, eat healthier, and take more time to "goof off" every day - than less resilient people. They seem to maintain a sense of optimism and the ability to keep stressful life events in perspective. They also tend to have routines, and not live highly chaotic lives. After interviewing Russ Newman, a director at the American Psychological Association, Gottlieb published some suggestions for becoming more resilient.
1. Have friends and be a friend. When you need to, lean on friends, family and other helpers, and let them lean on you sometimes.
2. Believe in yourself and what you know and can do. Remind yourself what you’re good at.
3. Tackle tricky situations head-on; trying can help you feel stronger and happier.
4. Look at the bright side. There are ups to every down, if you look hard enough.
5. Set new goals and make plans to reach them. Be realistic and realize that it may take time. Be proud of your accomplishments along the way.
Brochures on resilience can be found, click here http://www.apahelpcenter.org/
From: Kids can get, give lessons in coping by Dan Gottlieb.
Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 15, 2003, C-3.
- OLDER EXECUTIVES IN DEMAND
For over 15 years, youth has been a highly desirable trait in a CEO. That preference has soured over the past year as scandals and questionable ethical activities have clouded the credibility of large corporations in the country. In 1980 half of the CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies were over 60. That number dropped until 1997, when less than 1/4 of the CEO’s were over 60, and there it remained. Demographers believe that as the baby boomers move through the life span, their cohort will continue to dominate the marketplace. The projection is that there will be an increase in older workers, especially at the higher levels.
The longest-running female chief executive of a major corporation in America, Marion O. Sandler of Golden West Financial, believes that negative stereotypes of older executives (e.g. that they resist technology, are suspicious of change and want to be rewarded for loyalty rather than performance) are absolutely wrong. In addition to being a tried and true commodity, older executives have wisdom that younger ones have yet to acquire, including the fact that there is more to life than just the job.
From: "Corporations turn to older executives" by Weld Royal, New York Times, August 11, 2002, 16.
- LATE LIFE, REMARKABLE WORKS
Hokusai (1760-1849), one of Japan’s greatest artists, lived to a ripe old age when he created some of his most remarkable works. Looking back on his career he made this observation:
"All I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. At 73 I have learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence when I am 80, I shall have made still more progress. At 90 I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."
From: Human Values in Aging Newsletter, Aug. 1, 2003
- Dr Leonid Gavrilov, at the Center on Aging, NORC/University of Chicago, calls attention to a site offering scientific and educational materials on human longevity, click here http://www.src.uchicago.edu/~gavr1/
- Maralyn Cale writes, "… I always read over your newsletter, and often appreciate a number of the articles/ideas, but it’s the commentary in this most recent issue that prompts me to respond … both deeply resonate with and so appreciate the wonderful rich language used to express the ‘recommendations’ you’ve shared on the Wisdom of Positive Aging (Issue #20) … we are all aging, and would do well to embrace and practice the embodying of these ideas wherever we are along that continuum! … Thanks for what you offer to us all, Living gently … with abandon!!"
Dean Ed Schneider’s recommendations for successful aging can be found, click here
The first national conference on "Conscious Aging"was held in 1992 under sponsorship of the Omega Institute. But even more than a decade later it’s not too late to attend that conference. You can listen to a six-hour audio tape version "Conscious Aging: A Creative and Spiritual Journey" available from Sounds True. This audio collection features Rabbi ZalmanSchachter-Shalomi, Marion Woodman, Maggie Kuhn, Ram Dass, and Bernie Siegel, among others. Presenters offer a vision of elders as bearers of wisdom, creativity, and healing. Available, click here http://www.ventana-catalog.com/AF00006.htm
There are insights about aging and narrative on the website or the Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California at Berkeley. This site includes the text of lectures by Kathleen Woodward on the meaning of reminiscence and life-review. Visit them, click here http://ls.berkeley.edu/dept/townsend/pubs/OP09_Telling_Stories.pdf
- 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, click here [email protected]
Alternatively, for online subscription, click here
- Behavior, Lifestyle and Social Determinants of Health. American Public Health Association annual meeting. Nov. 15-19, 2003, click here http://www.apha.org
- International Conference on Aging, Disability and Independence, advancing technology and services to promote quality of life. December 4-6. Hyatt Regency Crystal City, Arlington, VA. Click here http://wwww.asaging.org/icadi
- 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 Francisco.
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