2004 – May / June

May-June, 2004 Issue 26

The Positive Aging Newsletter

May – June, 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

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: The Significance of Touch

In the last issue of this newsletter, we stressed the many advantages of internet participation as a means of stimulating interest, enhancing knowledge, and expanding opportunities for the elderly population. Yet, like many readers, we are also wary of the effects of replacing “live interaction” with hours in front of a computer screen. (We watch with dismay the hours our grandson devotes to computer games). To restore balance, in this issue we emphasize the importance of human touch. Sparking our attention is an incident recently reported to us: a friend has taken her 88 year old mother out for a birthday dinner. At one point the waiter shook her hand in congratulations. Her mother reached out with her other hand to grasp the arm of the waiter as he congratulated her. After he departed, the mother said wistfully to her daughter, “No one touches me any more. After that waiter, the next person to touch me may be the undertaker”.

This lament brings to mind much early research in psychology and psychiatry. This work emphasized the importance of touch in early development. Researchers found that orphaned babies, supplied with adequate nutrition, often failed to thrive because they lacked affectionate human touching. This kind of touch seems to provide a baby with an increased sense of security and well-being, reduces stress and creates bonds of affection with the care-giver.  However, this literature also ignored the possibility that meaningful touch may be important to well-being throughout our lives. To illustrate this possibility, Tiffany Field, at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, paired two populations often deprived of regular touching of a chance to connect with each other: elderly people and prematurely born babies.

The premature babies were largely restricted to germ-free incubators to keep them warm and reduce the chance of infection. Fields recruited older people to come in and gently massage the babies. The results proved beneficial for both groups! The massaged babies gained 49 percent more weight than babies who were not given tender touches, and they left the hospital six days earlier. The elderly adults who worked with the babies reported significantly lower levels of depression.

The social significance of touch must also be emphasized.Touch is often used a sign of friendship, endearment, or desirability. Should one ceased to be touched by, it might signify that one is no longer cared for, or that one’s body may even be odious to others. A massage therapist or nurse may compensate in some degree for the loss of the personally caring touch; but the touch of a relative or friend would carry more symbolic weight. Similarly, the touch of pets can signify affection, one reason they play such an
important role in the lives of adults.  The most important implication of these ideas is that we ought to welcome opportunities for meaningful touch throughout the lifespan. Younger family members and friends should go out of their way to be in physical contact with older people. And, if we are care-takers for the elderly, we should add bodily contact to our vocabulary of care. Older people should also welcome opportunities for increased touching with family and friends. In all cases we are recommending touch that issues from sensitive care.

Ken and Mary Gergen

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books. Mayell, H. (2002). Skin as art and anthropology. National Geographic News.

RESEARCH: More on Memory

We have said much about the alleged loss of memory among the elderly in past issues of the newsletter. For one, we have pointed to methodological flaws in much of the research. And we have noted alternative explanations for such findings. We wonder, for example, whether, as one advances in years, they must also draw from a more extended reservoir of memories. Recent research adds new dimensions to our understanding of memory and age.

In one study, researchers were interested in the relationship between stress and memory failure. As they
reasoned, memory loss may not be built into our cortical system so much as it is dependent on the stresses we face from day to day. If we are in a stressful context (e.g. confronting multiple tasks, speaking in public, taking a test) we are more likely to experience memory problems. To explore this possibility, over 100 participants ranging in age from 44-89, kept daily diaries in which they wrote about the various stresses of the day and noted any problems in memory they had experienced. As the results demonstrated, far fewer memory problems were noted on stress-free days than stress-filled ones. In effect, memory loss may
primarily be situational and not a problem of a deteriorating brain.

Adding further to this more differentiating view of memory loss are findings from research on memory training. These researchers drew from much research indicating that elderly people maintain the ability to acquire new information and strategies. If learning capacities are sustained, so may one learn how to improve memory skills. Thus, the researchers generated two forms of memory training, the first centered
on using mnemonics (e.g. “it rhymes with….”) and the second on strategic thinking (e.g. “where was it last seen?”). Groups of participants – adult, young elderly, and older elderly – participated. All were tested for possible effects of the training. The results showed that all groups benefited from both types of training, the older as much as the younger. The results of the studies together suggest that if one is bothered by memory loss, it would be useful to reduce the stresses and to develop some successful habits of recall.

Neupert, S.D. (2003). Daily stressors and memory failures in a naturalist setting: findings from the normative aging study. PhD dissertation, University of Arizona. Cavallini, E., Pagnin, A. and Vecchi, T. (2003). Aging and
everyday memory: the beneficial effect of memory training. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, v. 37. 241-257.

RESEARCH: Social Relations Reduce Disability

It is obvious enough that a close set of relationships can be enormously helpful if one is disabled. One’s well-being may importantly depend on others’ help. However, it is less obvious that relationships with others may actually reduce the onset of disability. The present research was directed at just this question. Moreover, the research was not simply correlational. A group of almost 1,400 older adults were asked extensive questions about their social relationships their diversity, the extent of participation, and the degree of satisfaction. The group was then tracked for 18 months, with specific attention paid to the onset of disability.

The results showed that high social participation (e.g. seeing others often, frequent engagement in joint
activities) and having a diverse set of relationships (e.g. age and gender) were both important factors in maintaining functional ability for both men and women over the age of 75. Satisfaction with relationships was not essential. The authors conclude that “Being embedded in a strong network of social relations provides protection against disability.” There may be multiple reasons for this pattern of findings. With greater engagement in social activity, bodily functions retain more resilience. Other people are also valuable sources of information about health matters. And good relationships also motivate people to take better care of themselves.

From Avlund, K., Lund, R. Holstein, B. (2004). Social relations as determinants of onset of disability in aging.
Archives of Gerontology and Geriatric. 38, 85-99.

RESEARCH: Assets of the Home

Many people face the question of moving to a retirement community. The children of the very old often face the decision of where to provide residence for an aged parent. The question of whether an aging parent should give up his or her home to live with a grown child remains alive in many quarters. The present research adds to other studies that agree that living within one’s own home often makes a major contribution to one’s well-being.

To explore the significance of the home for older people, in- depth interviews were conducted with women between the ages of 65-77. Living within one’s home proved to be significant in four special ways. First, it enabled the individual to host celebrations (e.g. birthdays, Christmas) where family and friends gathered. Second, there were numerous occupational tasks (housework, gardening) that structured the day. Third, by selecting various pastimes (playing the piano, reading, cooking) one could control emotions and thoughts. Fourth, living within one’s own home provided a sense of security, confidence and pride. Leaving the home
was an unpleasant prospect for all the interviewees. One significant idea to emerge was that moving from the home would be depressing because it would signify the nearness of death.

Conjoining these findings with an intensive review of relevant research, the investigators conclude that “Relocation should be considered only as a last resort”.

From Stevens-Ratchford and Diaz, T. (2003). A look at aging in place, occupation and successful aging. Activities, Adaptation and Aging, v. 27, 19-37.



Retirees are drifting out of work, back to work, or both, often in new jobs, or old jobs with new emphases.  The notion of “phased retirement” is becoming increasingly popular with many white-collar workers. Jeri Sedlar, a consultant on senior work issues, described this and other options in her book R Don’t Retire, Rewire!.  A recent study indicated that 2/3 of 1,000 workers over 50 prefer scaling back their work commitments to full retirement. This desire coincides with the needs of companies to hire part-time workers who are skilled and experienced. Intel and Volkswagen, U. S. are among the companies creating positions
with the right perks to entice such people to come to work with them.

Beyond sheer interest in the challenges and opportunities of “keeping a hand in”, the financial rewards of continuing to generate income cannot be overlooked. With rises in health care costs, see-saw stock market prices, and declining interest rates on investments, extra income is a welcome windfall, and in some cases, a vital component of a comfortable life. Some executives have joined groups like YourEncore, an organization backed by Eli Lilly and Procter & Gamble to bring together executives from the biosciences, engineering and technology fields to work on special projects for companies that belong to the network, such as Merck, Dow Chemical and Abbott Laboratories.  The best part about these projects, according to one participant, is the intellectual challenge that is provided.

From: Getting Away From the Job, But Keeping a Hand in it by Betsy Cummings.  New York Times, May 9, 2004, 10-1.


In a landmark development, Home Depot has joined with AARP to announce a national partnership aimed at attracting and retaining older workers as full-time or part-time employees. Home Depot, the world’s largest home improvement retailer,currently operates more than 1,700 stores and plans to open an additional 175 locations. In the first two months after the announcement, more than 7,500 job applications were submitted through the AARP web site, and more than 5,000 names were placed into a qualified applicants pool.

For more on the AARP-Home Depot partnership, visit:


The American Psychological Association (APA) is promoting a set of guidelines to help psychologists, especially in clinical practice, recognize the necessary qualifications for adequately working with older adults.  Among the 20 Guidelines are recommendations that psychologists recognize and strive to eliminate the effects of age-related biases in their work. The guidelines contain interesting insights relevant to anyone working with or care-taking the elderly.

APA guidelines recognize that age biases can foster a higher recall of negative over positive traits regarding older persons, and thus lead therapists to engage in discriminatory practices. Also psychologists are warmed that paternalistic attitudes can compromise the therapeutic relationship. Positive stereotypes are also a source of bias, for example, enjoying a patient’s childlike or “cute” behavior might lead a psychologist to overlooking difficulties and not take the patient’s situation  seriously enough. Psychologists are encouraged to recognize the diversities of older people – in chronological age, gender, sexual orientations, ethnicity, and economic security. One size does not fit all.

In terms of knowledge base, psychologists are cautioned that “for most older adults, the changes in cognition that occur with aging are mild in degree and do not significantly interfere with daily functioning. … While some decline in capacity and /or efficiency may be demonstrated in some cognitive domains, the vast majority of older adults continue to engage in their longstanding pursuits, interact intellectually with others, actively solve real-life problems and achieve new learning”.

And last, contrary to the notion that “old dogs cannot learn new tricks”, there is strong evidence that older adults respond to various forms of psychotherapy and can benefit as much as younger people to therapies that lessen psychological distress.

From: American Psychologist, 2004, 59, 236-260.


Counteracting the prevailing cultural bias that creativity is the provenance of the young, many periodicals now mention the great accomplishments achieved by those 60 and over. Here is a sample of some of the achievements of older people we have recently discovered:

  • Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex at 70 and Electra at 90.
  • Michaelangelo began work on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome at 70.
  • “Grandma Moses” took up painting as a hobby at 76.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the
  • Prairie, published her first book at 65.
  • Benjamin Franklin helped write the Declaration of Independence at 70 and was named CEO of Pennsylvania at 79.
  • Mother Teresa continued her missionary work until her death at 87.
  • Arthur Rubinstein gave one of his greatest piano performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall at 89.
  • Golda Meir was named prime minister of Israel at 71 and held that office for 5 years.
  • Mahatma Gandhi led India’s opposition to British rule at 77.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright completed New York’s Guggenheim Museum at 89.


* Lauren Storck, at the Gerontology Center, Boston University, invites readers’ attention to: CARING-AND-CONNECTING online is a continuing professional education program on the Internet for all Eldercare Providers, Volunteers, and related professionals who serve aging and eldercare needs. Two levels of participation are invited: (1) Membership in a year-round discussion community about aging and eldercare issues, with distribution of resources on the Internet, and (2) Internet Workshops, Seminars, and Special Events during the year on specialized topics, e.g. Psychology of Caregiving and Middle Aging and
Eldercare. CEU’s available. Internet learning is informative, supportive and fun! Details on
(click on eldercare), and on http://www.caregiving-online.com(click on caregiving, workshops, Caring and Connecting). The program is affiliated with the Gerontology Center, Boston University, an established educational and research Center.

* Michael Gebhart wanted to share the following aphorism: Growing older is mandatory. Growing up is optional. Laughing at yourself is therapeutic.



This is a fascinating book that combines literary interests with gerontology. Author Sally Chivers is a young professor of Canadian studies and English at Trent University, who is concerned with issues of aging, and the negative stereotypes that plague older women, in particular. Not only does Chivers effectively discredit negative stereotypes of older people, she also attacks cultural and academic movements aimed at eliminating discrimination for their failure to take ageism into account. Most important, Chivers’ goal is to use narrative forms in fiction and film to dream new dreams of what aging might be. “In addition to trying to redeem aging bodies’ potential to defy limiting and limited cultural understandings, I now aim to interpret the broad array of signs and symbols of aging as diversely challenging and freeing” (pg. xvi). Among the works explored are those of Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Laurence, Shani Mootoo, May Sarton, and Aritha Van Herk. Relevant films include Antonia’s Line and Priory, The Only Home I’ve Got. The book would be an excellent addition to a course with a emphasis, especially those in the humanities, women’s studies, and social sciences.

* Carolyn Aldwin and Diane F. Gilmer  HEALTH, ILLNESS, AND OPTIMAL AGING, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.

Although optimal aging is receiving increasing attention as a concept and as a way of life, there are no books yet available that attempt to provide a comprehensive account. The present volume attempts to fill this gap by assembling a more holistic picture of aging, including both physical and psycho-social factors. On the one hand they provide comprehensive, multidisciplinary coverage of the physical aspects of aging (including age-related changes in the body), along with the demography of the aging population, and theories of optimal aging. At the same time, the book covers psycho-social aspects of aging, including mental health,stress and coping, spirituality, and care giving in later years. By and large the book is more descriptive than prescriptive,  though many useful conclusions may be drawn from the account.


* 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.

* American Society on Aging Summer Series provides continuing education for professionals who work with older adults and their families. Philadelphia, July 12-15. See

* Enhancement Technologies (July 31 – Aug. 5, 2004, Hiram College, Ohio). 12th Annual Summer Seminar sponsored by the Center for Literature, Medicine, and the Health Care Professions. Themes focus on Enhancement–Better Children, Superior Performance, Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls. Based on President’s Council on Bioethics’ report, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness”.  Further information, contact: Martin Kohn at: mfk@neoucom.edu or (330) 569-5380  Or visit: http://home.hiram.edu/www/litmed/

* 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 discussions between health care professionals, researchers, and government representatives, the corporate world and anyone interested in a new vision of gerontology. (We are going to be there to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, and to give  a talk on positive aging!).
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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May 1, 2004 12:00 am