2004 – November/ December

Nov-Dec, 2004 Issue 29

The Positive Aging Newsletter

November – December, 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 29

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: From Replacement to Renewal

This is the season of passings, and with it a heightened sensitivity to closings and openings. In our last newsletter we called attention to research emphasizing the importance of replacing the losses in our lives. With the New Year upon us, we wish to focus here on the possibility of continuous renewal. We stress the unique opportunities available with aging, not to replace losses, but to find new riches in each day.

Consider first a child of two, actively and enthusiastically exploring the environment. From discovering the  pots and pans in the cupboard to the challenge of walking in snow or playing with mother’s nose, the world is one of endless fascination. Very often these enthusiasms are nurtured through the years to the point of blossoming into stunning skills- the creative performances that dazzle parents and grandparents alike. “This kid is really something!”

But with entry into young adulthood “reality” sets in. First the demands of work occupy the days, and often the evenings as well. And there may be a partner, and perhaps young children,who require one’s attention as well. Additional responsibilities for friends, family and community, and tending to one’s possessions, to say nothing of “keeping up with the latest,” fill the days. The space of spontaneous exploration grinds to a halt.

Yet, as William Thomas (author of What Are Old People For?) describes it, there is a point in later years when one begins to question the burden of “too much you have to do.” After all, how much of what we do must be accomplished to lead a worthy life? As Thomas further describes, slowly one develops a new feeling, this time centered on exploring the “mysteries that cloak the world of ‘want to do’.” In effect, with the increased time available in elderhood it becomes possible to recover the spontaneous pleasures of the early years. The
worries of meeting the demands of others, of watching the clock, of being as efficient as possible can be cast aside. The “self-designed day can become every day. This is not to absent oneself from relationships, but to place more emphasis on mutual exploration and pleasure than on obligation. It is a time to open the doors again to the curious, the fascinating, the daring, and the joyous.

A therapist friend recently wrote to us about a client who was devastated by his confrontation with early retirement. He was tormented by the feeling that his skills and abilities were no longer needed. What was he without his obligations? We wonder whether he remembers his childhood years. We have another elder friend who would be an inspiring guide. With each New Year he resolves to take up three new activities. For 2005 he plans to learn how to juggle, scuba dive, and cook lambshanks with lentils. He had also considered painting with water colors, mastering computer photography, bird watching, reading Joyce’s Ulysses, and plastering a wall.This kid is really something!

Ken and Mary Gergen

Reference : The Search for Being by William H. Thomas, M. D.
AARP Bulletin, November, 2004, pp. 30-31.

RESEARCH: Resisting Decline

 One of the most prevalent fears of aging revolves around the sense of impending decline. One cannot perform various activities with the same efficacy – playing sports, recalling names, driving a car and so on. Yet, the very idea of decline depends on the assumption that good performance on certain activities is important. We don’t fear decline in the speed with which we can tie a shoe-lace, because no one places a value on doing so. In this sense, the prevalent sense of decline is essentially the result of accepting the definitions of other people. To resist the definition is to remove the weight of decline. Recent research indicates that resistance is indeed a common means of coping with age.

A four year longitudinal study was done with a core sample of 762 participants, ages 58-81, to assess how people cope with functional impairments that may interfere with life activities. The results indicated that people tended to make compensatory efforts to counteract the impairments up until about the age of
70. They work harder, find means of adjusting, and so on. After that there was a decrease in efforts to compensate for these difficulties. But this shift did not make people less satisfied with life. Contentment with actual performance remained stable across the entire age span.

How did satisfaction remain so high? Primarily by resisting the common definitions. Two major strategies of resistance were documented. On the one hand, many people ceased to define their performance in terms of the common culture. Rather, they developed new standards for good performance. Rather than asking, “Am I still good at this?” they ask, “Am I good at this for my age?” A second mode of resistance was to discredit the importance of the skill or ability. They came to see that it was not so important to engage in the activities that required the lost capacities any more. “Why is it so important to excel at these things?” they ask.

Perhaps at any age these are two excellent strategies for living a contented life: to be the best that one can be under the circumstances, and to keep in mind that performing well is not necessarily all that important.

From: Coping with Deficits and Losses in Later Life: From Compensatory Action to Accommodation by Klaus Rothermund and Jochen Brandtstadter. Psychology and Aging, 2003, 18, 896-905.

RESEARCH: The Myth of Menopause

 One of the fears younger women have about old age is that they will have to “endure” menopause (e.g. hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, a “bit of craziness”) and afterwards suffer the consequences – loss of attractiveness, reduced interest in sex, and weight gain. The truth be told, very little of the above is true according to a recent study of women’s views on menopause. Among women who have experienced menopause, or who are currently aware that they are going through the process, over 60% said they are coping or have coped “very well” while 27% said “somewhat well.” Only 10% said “not well.” Asked whether women’s quality of life improves or diminishes after menopause, 55% said it improves, 12% said it makes no difference, 15% did not know, and only 18% said that it diminishes it. Dr. Sherry Sherman, program officer of the National Institute on Aging’s Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, which has surveyed 3300 midlife women since 1996 commented, “When you look at healthy women, menopause is almost a non-event…when their periods stop. That’s it.”

Who are the women who experience a diminished quality of life? First, they are women who are already experiencing other stresses in their lives and/or are depressed. Smokers and heavier women also report more severe symptoms. There are also ethnic and racial differences. African American women report more hot flashes and night sweats, but have more positive attitudes toward menopause. Asian women complain of muscle stiffness rather than hot flashes and view menopause more negatively.

In terms of attractiveness and sex appeal, Dr. Gloria Bachmann, director of the Women’s Health Institute at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, said, “Today, a woman at menopause is still very sexy, very vital and definitely not old. She has a lot of life – an average of 35 years – ahead of her.” Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, director of the University of Virginia’s Midlife Health Center suggests that an important key
to a good life (PM) is exercise. Vigorous movement strengthens your heart and your bones, improves cognition, decreases a risk of breast cancer, enhances your mood and energy level, and boosts sexual interest and satisfaction.

A study of 57 post-menopausal women followed for five years found that exercise was the only factor that had a consistently positive effect on their sex lives, according to Judith Gerber of the University of Vermont. Exercise increases blood flow to the genital region, which enhances the capacity to reach orgasm. Generally, women who have had good sex lives before menopause usually have good sex lives afterwards. Another
study found that women reported feeling most fulfilled between 50 and 65. Another study found that women reported feeling most fulfilled between 50 and 65. “There is no fear of pregnancy, their children are grown, and women are more established in their careers and relationships. They know who  they are,” according to Dr. Wolf Utian, founder of the North American Menopause Society. (website is menopause.org) The best way to manage menopause, according to Carolyn Scott Brown, co-author of The Black Women’s Guide to Menopause, is to embrace it with “attitude,” which we think is good advice for any life transition.

From: Embrace “The Change” by Dianne Hales. Parade Magazine, Oct. 10, 2004, pp. 4-6.

RESEARCH: Good News for Folks with Stroke

 Having a stroke is one of the pitfalls of a happy old age. While usually not deadly, especially with fast action on the part of rescuers, a stroke may leave a person with a handicapped limb. Often doctors tell patients that there is nothing to be done about this as the brain has been permanently injured. There is hope, today, however, that recovery can occur. This new optimism comes from research by Dr. Edward Taub, who has developed a therapy for coaxing the brain to reorganize and allow recovery. The approach is called CI,
which stands for “constraint-induced” movement therapy. The simple idea behind the therapy is that forcing a stroke victim to perform daily tasks with the hampered limb, while avoiding the use of the stronger one, will reprogram the brain such that a new “command center” is formed that will take up the task that the stroke had disturbed.

Studies by Dr. Taub and his colleagues indicate that through CI therapy stroke patients can increase their spontaneous use of an injured limb by approximately 50%; physical therapy by itself is likely to be ineffective. Patients are not normally constrained physically from using their healthy arm; however,they engage in constraining agreements, for example, they sign a contract with the therapist that they will concentrate on using their injured arm for everyday tasks. They keep a diary to chart their activities, and to help keep them “honest”.

In brain mapping studies CI therapy patients have a much larger region of the motor cortex on the injured side of the brain activated when they use their injured limb than a non-stroke victim would. This indicates that the behavior induced by the instructions has had an effect on the brain, a reverse of the notion of the one-way influence of the brain on behavior. The research of Dr. Taub is also remarkable in that it undermines the old and powerful view that the adult brain is hardwired, and cannot repair or reorganize itself following injury.

CI therapy may not be only for the old. Dr. Taub is hopeful that this approach may be tailored for use with those of all ages with cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders.

From: Training the brain to fix itself by Bridget Murray Law.
Monitor on Psychology, October, 2004, 36-37
Dr. Taub’s website is www.psy.uab.edu/taub.htm



“Facing death opened me to what my life could really be” is the opening line of this article by Penny George, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. Her first reaction was that she didn’t have time to be sick. A busy wife and mother of two boys and an organizational psychologist, she was quite satisfied with her life, and unlikely to want to change directions. Going through her cancer treatments and finding alternative supports for becoming well, she realized that she wanted to change her life. She had never had a sense of a “calling” in her work, and she wanted to do something special with her gift of life.

Today she is the president of a foundation and of a national collaboration of individuals and family foundations committed to integrative medicine. Her dramatic shift in life from advising other people how to lead better to being a leader herself has been greatly rewarding to her. “I am transformed thanks to my illness… Like others before me who have been given a temporary reprieve from mortality, I have a story to tell…my calling is to change medicine so that more people can find their own positive transformation.” With the help of other groups, she spurred the founding of the Bravewell Collaborative for Integrative Medicine (www.bcintegrativemedicine.org), the goal of which is to help “transform medicine from a narrow disease focus to one that focuses on prevention and wellness.”

From: “But I don’t want to be a leader!” by Penny George, Compass, 2004, 2, 34-36 (Published by the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.)


Because of prevailing stereotypes, people often discount elders as effective citizens. However, when we stop and pay attention, we typically discover that behind every face there is a treasure. This was brought home to newspaper when we learned that one of our local citizens, Bob Detweiler, is a National Masters Weight category. He has set that record four different times. What makes these achievements especially noteworthy is that Mr. Detweiler now competes in the 90-94 category in Masters Track and Field. A lawyer, who has lived in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania for 75 years, he also claims that he can still sing pretty well at age 90. Portraits like this do much to sharpen our curiosity.

From: Portraits: Bob Detweiler by Bobbie Harvey. The
Swarthmorean, November 12, 2004, pg. 12.


 * Mary Catherine Bateson writes regarding a political activist group formed by herself and her “granny friends.” The organization is particularly concerned with not only changing the stereotypes of older voters, but ultimately affecting political policies in ways that can benefit future generations. She writes: We think we have found something important that politicians should take into account: that Americans do care about the long term future, especially when asked about the deficit and the environment. Our definition of a GrannyVoter is someone — male or female, old or young, Republican or Democat — whose voting decisions are influenced by the interests of their grandchildren/future generations. We have also been using the term Trustee Voter. Our mission is to make politicians aware of that kind of citizen. And 86% of grandparents VOTE. We have come to realize that we are looking at a phenomenon unique in human history, not the elderly as a burden but the elderly as including increasing numbers of committed, experienced, and energetic citizens who care about the future. For more information, go to: www.GrannyVoter.org

* Georgie Bright Kunkel (gnkunkel@juno.com) writes from Seattle:
Aging doesn’t have to leave us behind in life. I am writing for Northwest Prime Time, a newspaper for over 50 population. I am also a columnist for West Seattle Herald in Seattle. I try to include articles that give a sense of hope for those with health problems.


 * LOOKING FORWARD: AN OPTIMIST’S GUIDE TO RETIREMENT by Ellen Freudenheim. New York: Stewart Tabori & Chang,2004, $15.95.

This is a very reader friendly book that invites you to play and ponder the future; it invites one to envision a beautiful, optimistic life in the “Retirement Zone.” Author Ellen Freudenheim resists the notion of “retirement” as a period of life symbolized by the rocker on the porch; in her view it is the antithesis of a boring existence.

The book is divided into four major sections: Exploration, Investing, Anchor Activities, and Managing Practical Matters. The outcome of all of this is a “complex patchwork quilt of different stages and activities, including family time; work; laughter; volunteering; smelling the roses; exploring; travel; love, sex (maybe); rock-n-roll; creative adventures; and spiritual moments.” It is a time of life to explore and satisfy in a manner that never before was available because of all the social pressures to achieve and be a “good person”. Now it is up to you. The book includes personal inventories, little-known facts about the Baby Boomers, who are set to change the nation’s views on what it means to reach the “zone,” references to other resources (including this newsletter), suggestions for fulfilling one’s desires, and rationales for enjoying life to the fullest. We highly recommend it.

* Appreciative Inquiry is an increasingly popular mode of creating positive change in groups, organizations, and communities. To know more, go to the home page of the Appreciative Inquiry Commons at http://ai.cwru.edu/ . The AI Commons is dedicated to offering free materials about Appreciative Inquiry, contains Interview Guides and Positive Questions.

* info@worldlaughtertour.com As a combination of western comedy and Eastern mysticism, this website offers various features relevant to the use of laughter for health and well- being.


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

* CREATIVE AGING is an electronic newsletter edited by Renya T.H. Larson from the National Center for Creative Aging. To subscribe, please send an email with “subscribe” as the subject to ncca@creativeaging.org Please include your name and mailing address in the body of the email.
Visit them at their website www.creativeaging.org

The Center is involved in the creation of a public awareness campaign designed to advance knowledge of the connection between creativity and positive aging. NCCA has launched its first public awareness campaign. “The Art of Aging: Creativity Matters” will bring together groups and organizations from around the country over the next three years. Activities will include a Blue Ribbon Conference of national leaders, town hall meetings across the country, and a national visual arts project.

* Earn social work CEUs by taking online courses and working at your own pace. ASA and the Institute for Geriatric Social Work at Boston University have teamed up to create online self- study programs on a variety of geriatric social work issues using articles from ASA’s quarterly journal, _Generations_. CEUs are free for some of the courses and $5 per credit hour for others. Registration for the courses is free of charge. For
more information, visit http://www.bu.edu/igsw

* The Center for Narrative Studies is offering six workshops on Becoming a Narrative Practitioner. In 2005. Each workshop is highly interactive and filled with examples and practice. Participants leave with a new appreciation for story along with techniques for harnessing story’s power in the workplace and society.

Calendar (with cities noted)
February 10-11 Washington, DC: Exploring the Story: Narrative Techniques to Enhance Appreciative Inquiry

March 22-23 London: Exploring the Story: Narrative Technique to Enhance Appreciative Inquiry

April 24 Washington, DC: The Washington Story: The case of how national story is constructed and deconstructed

May 17 Washington, DC: Introduction to Organizational Storytelling

May 18-19 Washington, DC: Exploring the Story: Narrative Technique to Enhance Appreciative Inquiry

June 23 Washington, DC: Introduction to Organizational Storytelling

For more information about any or all of these offerings, please send inquiries to Madelyn Blair, PhD at pelerei@mac.com or call 301-371-7100.


Conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on the Aging. March 10-13, 2005, Philadelphia, PA


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November 1, 2004 12:00 am