2004 – July/ August

July-August, 2004 Issue 27

The Positive Aging Newsletter

July – August, 2004

The Positive Aging Newsletter by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Dedicated to productive dialogue between research and practice
Sponsored by the Web-based Health Education Foundation and the Taos Institute
Issue No 27

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: Beware of “Acting Your Age”

One of the most important research findings we have described in this Newsletter (Oct. 2003) focused on the effects of age stereotypes on health and longevity. Researchers at Yale University’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. They carried out a longitudinal study of 660 people over the age of 50. First they were asked about their agreement with the popular stereotypes that as you get older you lose your pep, things get worse, you are less useful, and you are less happy. Researchers then tracked the sample for decades. As it was found, those who disagreed with the stereotypes lived seven-and-one half years longer than those who agreed with them. This is a greater gain in longevity than that associated with low blood pressure, low cholesterol, a healthy weight, abstaining from smoking, or exercising regularly.

We were recently reminded of these findings and their importance when a reader introduced us to the Red Hat Society (www.redhatsociety.com). The society, an informal group of some 25,000 chapters began, as Sue Ellen Cooper, the “Queen Mother” of the group describes, “a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan.” The red hat and purple clothing that is worn in fun by the group, is inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, “Warning,” which contains the lines:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter. I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells And run my stick along the public railings And make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens. The poem finally becomes broadly inspiring, with the line: “But maybe I ought to practice a little now?”

There are important implications here for the aging population and all those professionals who work with them. Specifically, there are important benefits to be derived from “breaking the rules,” from acting in ways that challenge the common stereotypes of age as a diminished stage of life. Nothing should be given up because it “isn’t fitting for people our age.” Challenging the stereotypes may not only add zest to life, but add years to the lifespan. So if one has always wanted to learn the tango, take up scuba diving, see the dawn from the night-side, visit an Ashram, camp in the wilderness, write poetry, or go deep sea fishing, maybe it is time to do it. As increasing numbers join in breaking the common expectations, the future may be altered for the next generation. With positive models a new vision of aging may be created.

Mary and Ken Gergen

From: Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of ging by Becca R. Levy, Martin D. Slade, Suzanne R. Kunkel, and Stanislov V. Kasl.   Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, 83, 261-270

RESEARCH: Body Image and Happiness

Many researchers believe that body image is very important to women in terms of how they live their lives and how they feel about themselves.  In this study, 144 women, ranging in age from 18 to 87, were evaluated in terms of how they felt about their bodies and how happy they were. The group was divided into young women, middle-aged women and older women. The major hypothesis of the study was that the higher the bodily esteem, the happier the person.  There was also a question about how the age groups might differ over the life span. Would young women’s concerns be different from older ones?

The Body Esteem Scale, used to measure one’s satisfaction with one’s body, was divided into 3 different dimensions: sexual attractiveness, weight concern, and physical condition.  A Life Satisfaction Index was given to assess general levels of happiness.

The results were both expected and  surprising. The happiness of young women was most strongly related to sexual attractiveness and physical condition, but not to their concerns with weight.  For middle aged women, all three variables seemed important in terms of their happiness.However, most surprising, the happiness of older women was not correlated with either their physical condition or concerns with weight. Rather, for these women their feelings of sexual attractiveness was the only significant predictor of happiness. The more sexually appealing older women rated themselves, the happier they were. It is the case that all the older women in this sample were in relatively good health, but these results do suggest that within a given range, neither weight nor physical condition are overwhelmingly important to one’s happiness in the later years. Yet feeling sexually attractive to others may be a valuable resource for happiness.

Interestingly the research also showed that the older women rated themselves as happier than the other two groups.  And too, they also rated their physical condition as positively as the other groups.  While they exercised the fewest hours per week, they also exercised more days a week than the other two groups.

From: Women’s Perceived Body Image: Relations with Personal Happiness by Rachel Stokes & Christina Frederick-Recascino, Journal of Women & Aging, 2003, 15, 17-29

RESEARCH: Personal Growth Following Trauma

A middle-aged woman dies.  Her older spouse is left devastated. He goes to a psychiatrist because he is not
adjusting in a timely manner. After six months, he still feels as if his world is in ashes, and he is grieving everyday.He functions at work and takes care of his kids; he arranges for the sale of his house and feeds the dog, but his heart is not in it. Life has lost its color. A few years later, at age 65, he remarries and  starts a new life for himself. While he still misses his former life, his new one is full of warmth and new adventures.He finds that he is closer to his friends, many of whom are going through similar kinds of losses. He notices that he is less judgmental of the failings of others; he is more sympathetic to those who have been less successful in life than he. He gets along better with both of his sisters-in-law, who are, to life in a way that he never has before. His personal tragedy has offered him new options for living. He has been changed, and he now  feels himself to be a better human being for going through his past suffering. He has experienced what researchers call posttraumatic growth.

Psychological research of various kinds now suggests that a wide array of major life challenges can act as catalysts for posttraumatic growth. The traumas may be diverse, everything from HIV infection to heart attacks, house fires, refugeeexperiences, and even being taken hostage. The changes that have resulted have been variously named:positive psychological changes, stress-related growth, positive by-products, and discovery of meaning. The means for arriving at these positive outcomes have been described as “positive reinterpretations”, “drawing strength from adversity, and “transformational coping.”

If growth does occur, why does it occur? According to authors of this survey of posttraumatic growth research, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, it is not the direct result of trauma. Rather the critical process is the individual’s struggle with entering a new reality in the aftermath of trauma. Trauma acts as a profound disturbance, not only to the individual’s understanding of self and world, but often to the very social processes by which the sense of reality, reason and value are created and sustained. This is especially true of older people, who frequently encounter losses of friends and family members. The essential process
is that of building a new web of meaning, of constructing a new reality and sense of value. This will also require others with whom the new reality can be brought to life. Others are needed, both to listen to the stories of the past and to negotiate new meanings and create new narratives. If successful, the individual may also emerge with an enhanced sense of perspective – sustaining the value of the old while embracing the value of the new.

Tedeschi and Calhoun focus on five domains of potential growth. They are: A greater appreciation of life and changed sense of priorities; warmer, more intimate relationships with others; a greater sense of personal strength; recognition of new possibilities for one’s life; and, spiritual development. In terms of individual differences, the authors suggests that people whose personalities tend to be socially extraverted and open to new experiences are especially likely to gain from the aftermath of a traumatic situation. It also appears that a rapid assimilation of the event and a minimum of grief-work does not necessarily lead to growth. If people seem to “get over” tragedy too quickly, it may be that they have not reorganized their world views on life. Interestingly, posttraumatic growth does not always go hand-in-hand with happiness, lack of distress, or
intrusive thoughts. Often, over time, distress is lessened, but not necessarily all the time or quickly. It is not
advisable for therapists or supportive people to try to suppress rumination or urge rapid recovery with traumatized people. This is not always the road to long-term recovery and posttraumatic growth.

From: Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence by Richard G. Tedeschi & Lawrence G. Calhoun, Psychological Inquiry, 2004, 15, 1-18

RESEARCH: The Comfort of Home vs. the Allure of Elsewhere

In the last issue of the Newsletter we reported on research that made a strong case for remaining in one’s home surrounds as one grows older. By implication, the research implied that moving to sunnier pastures after retirement or into a retirement community might not be desirable. And yet, thousands of people do make such moves and are very pleased in their new surrounds. Research by a group of Australian
psychologists casts light on some factors that may be useful in considering whether to move or stay put.

Research measures were administered to 246 adults, ranging from 19 to 90 years of age. Of particular concern were factors that contributed to the appreciation of their home place, their sense that “this is the place for me” and not elsewhere. The five most important factors favoring “home living” were (in order of importance):

Quality of life – One finds community life lively and engaging.
Neighboring – One can trust and count on one’s neighbors for help.
Sense of community – One senses that one is living in a connected and unfractionated community.
Friends – One likes being with others in the neighborhood.
Activity – One finds opportunities for activity with others.

When these resources are ample, the research suggests, then moving “elsewhere” may pose difficult problems. Although these results seem quite reasonable, we must also ask about culture and history. The research was conducted in rural Australian towns. And, while millions do live a small town life, large numbers of professionals have lived a cosmopolitan life in which rapid turn-over of friends and activities is the norm. In such cases the difference between home and elsewhere may be diminished, as the conversion of elsewhere to home can be rapid and effective.

From: Sense of place amongst adolescents and adults in two rural Australian towns by Grace H. Pretty, Heather M.Chipuer and Paul Bramston, Journal of Environmental Psychology,(2003), 3, 273-287



Business Week, August, 04,  devoted the section on Personal Business to  various facets of retirement.  The articles covered money matters, best places to live, and preparing for retirement (“Relaxing Can Make You a  the article, “Golden Years? Try Go-Go Years,” that begged for attention in the Newsletter. Here the emphasis was on the ways in which seniors can begin new lifestyles and new work. An interview by editor Todd Gutner with author Ken Dychtwald, co-founder of Age Wave, a San Francisco based research firm, stressed the ways that retirement has changed since our grandfather’s day where there was very little post- work life at all.  Today retirement has become an extended period of leisure that is highly desirable and full of interesting possibilities.  But because this is a fairly new social phenomenon, Dychtwald believes we don’t know quite how to adjust to it.  In his book, AGE POWER, he called this new developmental phase “middlescence  to indicate the transitional period of life between the 50’s and the 70’s.Paralleling adolescence, it is a time of personal rediscovery and re-invention.  Dychtwald counsels organizations to take advantage of the talents of this expanding group by offering the right incentive packages for their continued commitment. Whether it is pension policy shifts, flexible work schedules, part-time options or other “carrots,” it is important to keep the experienced hands on board.

Judging from recent research results, organizations will find many who are more than willing to continue productive work. The University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study has been surveying thousands of Americans in their 50’s since 1992.  Today their respondents say that they are much more likely to work past 65 than those surveyed ten years ago.  Almost half of the men indicated that they would work longer as did about 40% of the women.  This is a reverse in the trend to retire before 65 that had been in effect for decades. Researchers suggest that among the reasons for working longer are enjoyment of work over leisure, and financial fears.  Although people may be working longer, they may also work differently, starting their own businesses, consulting or shifting to other venues.

From: “The Golden Years? Try Go-Go Years, A Talk with Retirement Guru Ken Dychtwald.  BusinessWeek, July 26, 2004, 90. & “Workers age 51-56 see late retirement” by Rick Haglund. Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 2, 2004, C-5


Judy Wicks, social activist and owner of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia offers an inviting view of aging:
“Turning 50 was like being 10 again – playing in the woods, swimming in the lake, being close to nature and really regaining a sense of freedom from the childbearing years when having a mate and raising a family were priorities.”

From Judy Wicks, an interview by Benjamin  Wallace. Philadelphia Magazine, March, 2004, pg. 82


California has become the first state in the U. S. to require a paid family medical leave.  The law provides up to six weeks a year of partial paid leave for workers caring for new or adopted children. In addition, however, it allows the same privilege to adults who have caretaking responsibilities for their parents. Because nearly 10% of all workers are employed in California, it is assumed that this law will have ripple effects across the country. The law is especially beneficial to women, who are the major providers of hands-on care in family settings. The workers who are affected are part of the state’s disability insurance program. They can receive 55-60% of salary, up to $728 per week in 2004.  The program is funded by payroll deductions by employees.  In companies with more than 50 employees, jobs are protected.

From: Looking into Calif. Law to aid caregivers by Jane M. Von Bergen, Philadelphia Inquirer, July 6, 2004, C-1-3


* Terry Jones suggests that readers of the Newsletter might be interested in his book, The Elder Within: Source of Mature Masculinity. Elderhood Institute, West Linn, Or. 2001. Amazon describes the book as follows:

Jones encourages and celebrates the expression of eldership: an approach to the second-half-of-life that is apparent in expressions like active grand parenting, mentoring and stewardship. The man who embraces elder qualities makes himself available to the young, to his family and the community. He has confidence in the fruits of his long life experience, and wants to seed the future for the sake of the young. Jones imagines men as they enter the retirement years taking on roles such a mentor, mediator and a source of blessing.

* Judi Patterson writes in response to articles in the last issue of the Newsletter, first on the importance of touch and then the significance of remaining in one’s own home spaces:

In response to your first article–oh, yes, the importance of touch!  So true!  I am very blessed to be surrounded by friends–men and women, young and old– at church and in my personal life who continue with hugs and other touch.  Most interesting in your article to take the well-documented old studies about the  extrapolate to the older population. I think your analysis of it is right on–when you aren’t touched,  there is the sense that you are no longer desirable. I hadn’t exactly thought about that before, but you are correct, I think.

One more thing–I think what you said about staying in one’s own home as an older person–even an “OLD” person, is right on!  I live in a lovely three-bedroom home with a big backyard.  I’ve lived here since 1973, and I hope to stay here in “my place” until the day I die (or must go off to some hospital or hospice on the way to death).  My favorite aunt moved out of her little place when she was 92–not because she felt she actually needed to be in an assisted living situation, but because her friends were worried about her living alone.  They would stop by so frequently that she worried that she was negatively impacting their lives, so
she moved.  But even in that assisted living facility, she was reading to the “old folks,” etc.  She died at 94, after having been sick for only a few days. I remember the last letter I received from her–she had written it after going in to see the doctor for some sort of treatment, and her only real comment about that experience was how pretty the flowered “sheets” were on the examining table!


* RESILIENT WIDOWERS: OLDER MEN SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES by Alinde J. Moore and Dorothy C. Stratton, New York: Springer,2002

The title says it all in terms of the central theme of this book. Based on interviews with 51 widowed men ages 58-104 two years after the death of their wives, the authors find men who are coping rather well.  The outcome of grief for these men was a type of adaptive responsivity that helped them to create new lives for themselves (including new partners and new families). Among the topics in this book, which are rarely discussed elsewhere,  are how the bereaved husbands began life again after the funeral services were over,  financial aspects were dealt with, and issues of memorials and memorabilia. An important perspective drawn from these interviews is the possibility of maintaining ties of various sorts with their wives, rather than the usual cultural bias that ties must be dissolved as life moves on. Many men, on the contrary, discussed how they continued to use their wives’ opinions as the basis for their decision-making. Their relationship continued in a new form, an idea similar to that described by Lorraine Hedke and John Winslade in their book, Re-membering Lives (Baywood, 2004).

There are numerous stories and quotations in each chapter that give the book a personal quality, and an emphasis is placed on the notion that coping with death is not a universal, stage-process that everyone goes through in a lockstep, linear fashion, but rather an individualistic outgrowth of decades of coping experiences. The book is friendly to humanistic approaches to aging and is less designed to suit research-oriented gerontologists who might wish to see more attention given to scientific matters such as sample-selection, age differences among the respondents’ responses, and other demographic considerations.


* Positive Aging Newsletter is now available in German, French and Spanish. You may subscribe free of charge by visiting www.positiveaging.net

 The National Women’s Studies Association Journal will publish a special issue on “Aging, Ageism, and Old Age” in the Spring of 2006 and the Journal invites articles for submission by next January. The Editors are seeking papers that address a range of questions, including:
– How might intergenerational dialogues reduce ageism?
– What are useful ways of bringing issues of aging into the classroom?
– How are we to understand the vocabulary of aging, e.g.:”Old, older, aging, aged, chronologically gifted, mature,ripened, advanced, senior, gray, golden, retiree, elder,wise one, fogy, crone, geezer.”
– How do constructions of old age affect politics and public policy?
– How do social constructions of age differ from scientific ones?
– How much does old age have in common with other identity categories, and how is it different?

Journal information and submission guidelines available at:
Send completed articles by January 15, 2005, to Leni Marshall at:
mars0264@umn.edu or Dept. of English, University of
Minnesota, 207 Lind Hall, 207 Church Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455

* THE ADMINISTRATION ON AGING (AoA) recently announced the availability of funding to support innovative approaches to the management of care in the Aging Services Network.  This program will fund existing practices and new ideas that can promote the integration of health and social supports for older people, and strengthen the position of the Network in health and long term care.  The due date for applications is September 10, 2004. A copy of the full program announcement, including application instructions, can be found at:
www.aoa.gov. For more information contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging at 202.401.4541 or email at aoainfo@aoa.gov

* CREATING COMMUNITY IN LATER LIFE” (Aug. 16-19, 2004, Seattle, WA). A regional “Vision Council” to generate innovative solutions to thechallenge of creating meaningful community in later life. The 50 Council attendees will include developers, educators, and activists interested in creating new models of aging, spirituality and care at the end of life. Another council will be held New England (Sept 9-12). For more information visit: http://www.SecondJourney.org/2004Councils.htm

* GLOBAL AGEING. (Sept. 5-8, 2004, Singapore). InternationalFederation on Ageing 7th Global Conference:
“Global Ageing:Sustaining Development.” Contact Conference Secretariat at (65) 63362328 or email atifa04@ctmapl.com.sg,or see: www.7ifaconference.com

* SOCIOLOGY OF AGING: “Ageing Societies and Ageing Sociology:Diversity and Change in a Global World”
(University of Surrey,United Kingdom, Sept. 7-9, 2004). Sponsored by the InternationalSociological Association. See http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/crag/ISA2004/index.htm

* TOWARD A NEW PERSPECTIVE: AGEING TO AGEING WELL – AnInternational 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 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

* THE CHANGING FACE OF AGING.  2005 Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging.  March 10-13, 2005, Philadelphia, PA


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July 1, 2004 12:00 am