2004 – January / February

Jan-Feb, 2004 Issue 24

The Positive Aging Newsletter

January – February, 2004

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 24

In this issue:


COMMENTARY: Positive Aging: Renewing the Vision




As the new year gets under way, 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 three years ago,
the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate
– now reaching approximately 20,000 subscribers – primarily
gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic
practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and
interested laypersons. Many new readers of 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 is 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 50. 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 relevant 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.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If
you have writings 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 at gv4@psu.edu

All past issues of the Newsletter are archived at

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: Thriving After Adversity

Much psychological literature and common commentary focuses
on the negative after-effects of trauma and adversity. Such
conclusions are typically based on people who have sought
therapy in the aftermath of adversity. However, the message
of the present research is that while almost everyone
suffers from exposure to traumatic or extremely adverse
events, most people do not experience major disruptions in
their ability to function. Indeed, for many there are also
positive outcomes from negative events. In effect,
resilience in the face of loss or trauma is common, and as
the research indicates, there are multiple and sometimes
unexpected pathways to resilience.

Psychologist George A. Bonanno argues that, for most people,
life is disrupted by a significant loss, such as the death
of someone close, or a life-threatening event, such as a
rape or robbery. Despite these setbacks, most people are
also resilient ; they are able to maintain stable and
healthy functioning, and evidence capacities for generative
growth. While such people may have several weeks of sporadic
preoccupation and restless sleep, they are able to get over
it rather quickly. Other research has shown that although
people may lose a spouse within an untroubled marriage, the
surviving partner can continue to have a happy life, despite
periods of grief, loss and disruptive thoughts.

There are multiple pathways to resilience. For example,
people who are married to sickly, neurotic or depressed
individuals often flourish when their partner dies. They
often feel better than when their partners were alive. The
research suggests that certain personality traits also lead
to resilience. They are hardiness, self-enhancement,
repressive coping, and positive emotions.

Hardiness is the tendency to find meaning in life, to
believe that one can influence one’s surroundings, and that
one can learn and grow from events in life, both positive
and negative. Self-enhancement is defined as the tendency
to bias one’s self-evaluations in a positive direction. A
recent study of people near or in the World Trade Center at
the time of the September 11 attacks indicated that self-
enhancers adjusted more successfully than non-enhancers.
Repressive coping is a strategy based on avoiding thinking
about the traumatic event. Recent research indicates that
among young women with documented histories of childhood
sexual abuse, repressors were less likely to voluntarily
disclose their abuse, but also showed better adjustment than
more self-disclosing survivors. Lastly experiencing
emotional “highs” and finding humor, even in difficult
situations, are indicators of a resilient approach to
traumatic events. Laughter can be the best medicine for
saving one’s sanity and perhaps one’s physical health.

From: Loss, trauma, and Human Resilience: Have we
underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely
adversive events? By George A. Bonanno. American
Psychologist, January 2004, 59, 20-28.

RESEARCH: Religion, Spirituality and Well-Being

In recent years, developmental psychologists have studies
the ways a spiritually involved life can enrich one’s well-
being, especially in later life. In terms of this research,
being religious and being spiritual should be distinguished
from each other. Being religious centers on being active in
an established faith. Being spiritual has been defined as a
more private and individualistic searching for meaning,
which may involve borrowing from many religious traditions,
and a greater emphasis on self-growth, emotional self-
fulfillment and the sacredness of ordinary objects.

This research focused on the ways in which these two forms
of spiritual connection are related to positive functioning
in later adulthood. To explore the relationship interviews
were done with the participants in the intergenerational
studies at the University of California, Berkeley, begun in
the 1920’s. Of those remaining from the first cohort, 90%
(181 people) were interviewed. In addition to their
spiritual history, the participants were given measures of
well-being, involvement in daily tasks, generativity and

As the researchers found, religiousness and spirituality
were both related to subsequent well-being, but in different
ways. Religiousness, but not spirituality, was significantly
related to well-being produced by positive relations with
others, involvement in social and community service,
engagement in life tasks, and generativity (caring for
others). In contrast, spirituality, alone, was
significantly related to well-being produced from personal
growth, involvement in creative and knowledge-building life
tasks, and wisdom. The distinction seemed to be that people
who are deeply involved with religious activities gain their
well-being through socially-mediated activities and
relations, while those who are highly spiritual, gain their
sense of well-being from more self-centered activities.
Overall, an awareness of the spiritual dimensions of life
enhance life satisfactions among older people.

From: Religiousness, Spirituality, and Psychosocial
Functioning in Late Adulthood: Findings from a Longitudinal
Study by Paul Wink and Michele Dillon. Psychology & Aging,
2003, 18, 916-924.

RESEARCH: Elders Know More about Health

As we have mentioned before in this Newsletter, research on
aging is typically skewed toward demonstrating deficit. In
this refreshing study, however, researchers set out to
explore the relationship between age and knowledge of
health. 176 adults, ages 19-70, participated. Participants
took an extensive test for their knowledge of health
matters, along with measures of intelligence, personality
and demographic characteristics. The health matters on which
they were examined included, for example, knowledge of
orthopedic and dermatological concerns, common illnesses,
childhood/early life problems, serious illnesses, mental
health, nutrition, reproduction, safety, and treatment of
illnesses and diseases.

As the results demonstrated, the more advanced in age the
greater the knowledge. This knowledge was not only relevant
to matters of aging in particular, but of a general
character. Further, women knew more than men about most
areas of health. This finding is quite relevant to research
we have previously reported showing that men live longer if
they are married. In part, this may be because they have a
“home physician.” Other variables correlated with health
knowledge were intellectual ability, income and education.
Only the personality variable of agreeableness seemed to
correspond to increased health knowledge. Researchers
suggested that this is a trait of a good caretaker, and
someone who might learn about another’s difficulties as part
of their concern for that person.

Interestingly, age was not correlated with knowledge of
mental health. In our view, however, this is not necessarily
a finding to lament. So often mental health labels, such as
depression, are used to describe commonly pervasive and
quite normal activities. In effect, one must be careful
with “mental health knowledge,” as it may be detrimental to
one’s health.

From: Determinants of health knowledge: An investigation of
age, gender, abilities, personality, and interests by
Margaret E. Beier & Phillip L. Ackerman, Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, 4,439-448.


JUICY TOMATOES: Plain truths, dumb lies, and sisterly advice
about life after 50. by Susan Swartz, Oakland, CA: New
Harbinger Publications, 2000.

This is an amusing, insightful, frank, and irreverent book
composed of the insights of many women who have been in
relationship with the author, Susan Swartz. There are short
comments and lengthier stories describing the ups and downs
of facing and then re-facing what it means to be 50 and
more. Swartz divides the commentary into various topics of
central concern to aging women: issues of defining one’s age
and how to do it; changes in one’s body and the meaning of
beauty; menopause and what it may or may not signal,
sexuality and its temptations; unexpected twists of fate;
threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and
making the most of life and one’s own destiny, despite the
challenges. While the messages here are not all smiley and
sturdily purposeful, there is a general tone of upbeat
acceptance of the process of aging in all its manifold
destinies. As a sample, here are a few of the resolutions
made by one woman at New Year’s: Be nice to yourself. Buy
expensive Egyptian cotton sheets and new hiking boots; Stay
curious; Give in to your cravings; and Find a cause and
speak up. After all, “Today is the youngest day of the rest
of your life.”

MAGGIE GROWLS is a highly acclaimed video that captures the
vibrancy of Maggie Kuhn, the woman who founded the Gray
Panthers, a progressive senior advocacy organization, in
1970. She drew her inspiration from her own frustrations
and anger at being forced to retire from a job she loved at
65. Maggie’s slogan was “Do something outrageous every
day.” Her growl was the panther’s warning of changes afoot
in the republic. The movie looks at the cultural revolution
that changed the meaning of age in America, mainly through
her life. Filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater,
2002, 56 minutes, Rental $90; VHS Sale $275.
Women Make Movies, Inc.
462 Broadway, Suite 500WS, New York, NY 10013
Telephone 1-212-925-0606, Fax 1-212-925-2052
E-mail orders@wmm.com

IN THE NEWS: Positive Emotions Beat the “Cold”

Getting a cold, especially in wintertime, is a health threat
that most older people try to avoid. Yet, the average
adults catches from 2 to 5 colds a year. Dr. Sheldon Cohen
and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University studied the
effects of emotions on resistance to catching a cold. These
researchers interviewed 334 healthy volunteers by phone for
seven evenings over three weeks to assess their emotional
states. Participants rated how they felt throughout the day
on three positive feelings: vigor, well-being and calmness,
as well as three negative emotions of depression, anxiety
and hostility. After this stage of the investigation was
completed, researchers put a dose of a cold germ,
rhinovirus, into each participant’s nose. Then the
subjects in the experiment were observed for 5 days in
isolation to see if they “came down” with a cold, as
determined by how they felt and if the “cold” could be
detected clinically.

Results indicated that emotions do make a difference.
“People who scored low on positive emotional style were
three times more likely to come down with a cold than those
with high positive emotional styles,” according to Dr.
Cohen. Cold sufferers were then asked about their symptoms,
including how severe their runny noses, coughs and headaches
were. People with higher negative emotional styles reported
more symptoms than were found from more objective health

After thought: There may be more to chicken soup than the
ingredients. Perhaps chicken soup is beneficial because it
is delivered with a loving hand, thus increasing feelings of
well-being and reducing the negative ones associated with
cold symptoms.

From: “Positive emotion styles linked to the common cold” by
A. Palmer, Monitor on Psychology, November, 2003, 16 (The
original research was published in Psychosomatic Medicine,
vol. 65, No. 1).

IN THE NEWS: Stimulating Life and Brain Cells

A growing body of medical evidence suggests that stimulating
the brain through games and other activities may stave off
various forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Animal studies
show that new cells can generate in the brain, and learning
helps them to grow. Research has also shown a lower risk of
Alzheimer’s among people who go to theatre, play games, go
to museums, and watch television. Playing a musical
instrument and dancing also have a positive effect on brain
activity and functioning. Being with people also is a
positive step toward mental acuity. For years scientists
have know that people with more education are less likely to
become demented, but have not had a compelling explanation.
One theory currently gaining favor is that playing difficult
games or doing other challenging things with your brain
helps to create new cells or new connections that help to
insulate the brain against the losses of Alzheimer’s and
other diseases. As we are advised, our futures may be
enhanced by having a good time and doing stimulating things.
Sounds fun.

From: Mental Workouts for the Long Run by Stacy Burling,
Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 2, 2004, D-1.

IN THE NEWS: Age Is What We Make It

According to Satchel Paige, who was pitching major league
baseball until he was almost 60, “Age is a question of mind
over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Finding ways of not making age matter is the theme of this
article, which is studded with examples of people who are
not letting their age make a difference to their choices,
whether it be sky diving, finding a marital partner, or
starting a new career. This “expanding middle” of the life
cycle may be related to the increase in life expectancy that
has occurred in the past seventy years. For both sexes and
all races, the change has been dramatic, from 60 in 1930 to
77 in 2000. (These ages are on the conservative side, if
one has already made it to 55.)

One rule of thumb in terms of self-assessment is that people
tend to think of themselves as 10 years younger than they
are. However, this perception can be threatened if others
treat you differently. As Frederick Kuhlmann of Oxford,
Connecticut reported, on his 80th birthday his friends threw
him a big party. Suddenly, he started to act his age (that
is, much less active and energetically than he ordinarily
was). I “let the world’s expectations do a trip on me. It
took me a couple of weeks to get back to normal.”

What is normal is also open to adjustment. There are days
when its wonderful to sit back and watch the world go by,
instead of marching in the daily parade.

From: Age is what we’re making it by Maria Puente, USA
TODAY, September 23, 2003, 1-2D.


– Two Wisconsin poets, Robin Chapman and Judith Strasser,
are looking for poems on retirement, and after, for an
anthology; email your nominations, or poems (with
publication credit) to Robin (chapman@waisman.wisc.edu).

– Jeanette Wiener and Leon Lessinger sent us a book of 100
pages that they have designed for workshops, particularly
with older people, called Destination Happiness. In the
first half they have arranged a series of 17 “Way Stations”
on the road to happiness. Each one is dedicated to a
particular skill or element of becoming happy, for example,
“Choices”; “Starting Relationships”, “Seize the Moment” and
“We Control How We Age.” Each two page Way Station contains
a summary of the concept, a Mantra for each of four weeks, a
“to do” list, and some relevant quotes. They believe, as
did Winston Churchill, that “quotations when engraved upon
the memory give you good thoughts.” Typical activities
exemplified in the “Emotional Intelligence” Way Station
are “Learn to laugh at yourself, if you make a mistake”
and “Display happy pictures of yourself.” The second half
of the book serves as a textbook, which describes in fairly
simple terms the psychological notions behind the approach.
To order the book, write to the publisher at American
Kaizen, 11570 Quail Court, Pine Grove, CA 95665. Make out
checks to Dr. Jeanette Wiener for $20. (This includes
shipping and handling).

– Sarah and Norman Smith, our dear friends from Edwards,
Colorado, sent the following quote for sharing:
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention
of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body,
but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up,
totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming —
WOW — What a Ride!
– Anonymous


Subscriptions to the Spanish translation of the newsletter
may already be obtained by leaving a message at our website,
click here http://www.positiveaging.net
However, we have now received an offer for translation of
forthcoming issues into French. If you would like to receive
copies of the French version, or would like to have it sent
to someone, please send a note to Mary Gergen at

– The National Center for Creative Aging announces the
publication of:
A Stage for Memory: A Guide to the Living History Theater
Program of Elders Share the Arts
Sharing life memories is powerful and enjoyable for many
people, and theater is an ideal and versatile medium for
presenting older people’s reminiscences with the wider
A Stage for Memory provides a comprehensive overview of
twenty-five years of the “Living History Theater” program of
Elders Share the Arts. This publication includes an
overview of the theories that underpin “Living History
Theater,” as well as detailed case studies. It also
includes chapters with sample reminiscence and theater
activities, as well as some nuts-and-bolts suggestions for
how to start and sustain a “Living History Theater” program.
64 pages, $18 (plus $5 shipping/handling per order).
Information/questions at: (718) 398-3870 or
emailto: ncca@creativeaging.org

– CREATIVE AGING is an e-newsletter created by the
National Center for Creative Aging. The mission at the NCCA
is to foster understanding of the vital relationship between
creativity and the quality of life of older people. The
first issue focuses on the importance of reminiscence in
later life, and on programs and resources that use the arts
to evoke, deepen and present the reminiscences of elders.
The editors are in the process of selecting topics for the
remaining five 2004 issues. Please let them know which of
these topics would be of most interest to the readers:
Intergenerational Programs, Mental Health, Community,
Lifelong Learning, Advocacy and Policy, Fundraising
Strategies, Diversity, Research, Autobiography, and “In Our
Own Words”: The First Person Accounts of Elder Artists.
They are also considering issues focused on individual arts
disciplines: dance, music, drama, visual art, and/or
writing. Send your vote to ncca@creativeaging.org.
For more information on the organization and how to join,
please call 718-398-3870 or send your name and mailing
address to: ncca@creativeaging.org
Renya Larson, Editor

– AGE-ING TO SAGE-ING: “The Inner Work of the Sage”. (Feb.
20-22,2004, Santa Barbara, CA). La Casa de Maria Retreat and
Conference Center. Enriching the elder years by facing
mortality, repairing relationships, developing a
regenerative spirit and taking an active leadership role in
society by sharing wisdom. For information contact Heidi
Ortiz at (805) 565-9062 For more on Sage-ing, visit

– During 2004, SECOND JOURNEY will conduct a series of
regional visioning councils to generate new ideas and
creative innovative solutions to the challenge of creating
meaningful community in later life. Proposed dates and
venues include: the Denver area (May 20-23), the Seattle
area (August 19-22), and the Berkshires (September 9-12).
Invited participants will include architects, developers and
smart-growth advocates; educators, activists and health care
professionals; conscious aging advocates, social
entrepreneurs and other cultural creatives, and writers and
visionaries. The goal of the project is to launch a national
conversation that will culminate in a VISIONING SUMMIT in
2005. Click here

– Toward a New Perspective: Ageing to Ageing Well – An
International Conference to be held October 3-5, 2004 in
Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The program will include
presentations by well-known experts in the field, as well as
facilitating discussions between health care professionals,
researchers, and government representatives, the corporate
world and anyone interested in a new vision of gerontology.
For more details, refer to http://www.geronto.org


– Questions & Feedbacks
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readers, please write to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

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January 1, 2004 12:00 am