2005 – March/ April

March-April, 2005 Issue 31

The Positive Aging Newsletter

March – April, 2005

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 31

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: The Call to Creativity

 The greater part of adult life is occupied with functional duties. We confront the problems of work, of raising children, keeping up a household, balancing budgets, and so on. Our sense of worth is often linked to how well we can meet these challenges and move forward. As many people facing retirement agonize, “If I am not achieving anything, what value do I have?” Yet, as we enter a period of life in which functional duties are no longer so demanding, there is also reason to challenge the idea that one must earn one’s worth. Certainly as children we did not feel this way, and the times of greatest joy were often those in which we were engaged in creative play. Is there wisdom to be found in returning to such activity?

This possibility was recently brought home to us by a dinner companion, Christina Robertson. Christina had just completed her PhD dissertation with Saybrook Graduate School on the topic of creativity and aging. As she enthusiastically described, she had enrolled in her study 20 people over the age of 65 who were intensively engaged in creative activity – either by profession or avocation. (Such activities included painting, writing, composing poetry, choral singing, and making crafts). Through intensive interviews and various standardized measures Christina found compelling evidence that the engagement in creative activity had a strong positive impact on the lives of the participants. Among other things, such activity seemed to lend meaning to their lives; it gave them joy and a sense of fulfillment. Many also felt that such activity helped them through the challenges of aging. They didn’t dwell so much on the negatives, and they felt more as if they could “go with the flow” of change. And many felt that their creative work inspired their sense of spirituality and a greater acceptance of death.

As we have found, the call to creativity is reaching increasing numbers of elders. We have seen retired friends who have begun piano lessons, writing poetry, and working on a novel. Two friends, who were no more than shutter-bugs during their professional careers, are now exhibiting their photographic work. Another has just given a magnificent organ concert to a large community gathering. Still others, in less noticeable but no less creative ways, are exploring the art of Indian cooking, raising honeybees, and growing spectacular flowers. And for those who have not heeded the call to creativity on their own, there are numerous organizations now offering extensive programs for elders. (See for example, www.creativeaging.org ). One award winning initiative, carried out by the New Courtland Elder Services in Philadelphia, offers opportunities to more than 1,300 frail elders to work in animated video, mixed media, photography, quilt making, mosaic murals, doll-making and intergenerational choirs. Not only have they found that such engagement reduces loneliness, helplessness and boredom, but the work of these elders has lead to exhibits and celebrations. (See www.newcourtland.org ).

In our quieter moments we reflect: why should we think of creativity as confined to particular activities, such as art, dance, gardening, and the like? Could we not think of moving through each day as an art form, much like jazz improvisation, juxtaposing events and activities in such a way that a harmonious and satisfying whole results?

Kenneth and Mary Gergen

Reference: Robertson, Christina (2005) Creativity and aging: A grounded theory study of creative older individuals. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.

RESEARCH: Happy Marriages: Good for Health

The notion that marriage is good for your health received a recent boost from a 20 year longitudinal study of 90 married couples by researchers at Ohio State University. Professor Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine found that married couples who reported low levels of stress were less prone to illness than those who had conflict ridden marriages. The key to these results may lie in the effects of conflict on the immune system. The researchers reasoned that positive marital relations help people avoid stress. This means that marriage partners produce lower levels of the stress-related hormones, such as cortisol. Earlier research by the Ohio State group demonstrated that for long-term married people, lower cortisol levels correlated with lower risks of infectious diseases and possibly cancer.

Interestingly, when the couples in the present study were re-interviewed after 10 years, the researchers found that those who previously had higher levels of stress related hormones were more likely to get divorced (19%). In fact, having high stress levels was the best predictor of divorce. (Whether the partners gained in health as a result of divorcing remains an open question.)

Do husbands and wives benefit equally from a good marriage? The answer seems to be “no.” Men with good marriages had fewer illnesses than their wives. At the same time, among couples with bad marriages, the wives had more illnesses than the husbands.

Being married also has social benefits for both men and women. As Robert Johnson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Miami put it, “Marriage or being in a romantic relationship is a highly valued social status, so it will make people feel good about themselves because of the value society places on it.” At the same time, extra-marital sex may be life threatening. Kiecolt-Glaser cited a British study from 2002 that indicated that risk of heart attack during sex was lower for married couples than others. In fact, 75% of those who died during sex were engaged in an extramarital affair. Professor Kiecolt-Glaser suggested that sex itself is usually a mild form of exercise, but illicit sex may be stressful.

From: Why a Good Marriage is Good – for Heart and Health by Howard Cohen, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 27, 2005, pg. M2.

For more on Kiecolt-Glaser’s publications, see:


RESEARCH: Who Said Crotchety?

One common stereotype of the elderly is that they are crotchety, quick to take offense, and to criticize others. Recent research suggests that this stereotype is little more than ageism at work. In this research a battery of personality tests was administered to over 1,000 Medicare recipients. The participants were assigned to four groups, based on gender and age (65 to 79 and 80 to 100). What could be said about changes in personality over time, and between men and women?

As the research suggests, women were generally more open and agreeable than men in both age groups; however, they were also slightly higher in behaviors judged by the researchers to be neurotic. There was one interesting exception: For both men and women, there was a significant increase in scores on a test for Agreeableness. The older people (80 to 100) had significantly higher scores on Agreeableness than younger ones, and the men gained more than women in agreeableness as they aged.

One of the speculations derived from these data are that the men who lived long enough to be over 80 were less likely to be hostile or to exhibit other Type A (aggressive, hurried, irritable) behavior. Thus, they did not succumb to heart attacks at the same rate as their less agreeable brethren.

From: Cross-Sectional Age Differences in Personality Among Medicare Patients Aged 65 to 100 by Alexander Weiss, Paul T. Costa, Jr., Jurgis Karuza, Paul R. Duberstein, Bruce Friedman, & Robert R. McCrae. Psychology and Aging, 2005, 20, 182-185.


As research increasingly suggests, people can delay and perhaps even prevent Alzheimer’s disease if they just live right. The life style that is gaining approval for cortical health is the same one that is good for one’s heart – eating low-fat foods (high in antioxidants), exercising, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol. More fun, and also important are activities that require brainy skills: keeping socially connected, reading, exercising one’s thinking, and learning new skills. Just as the heart needs some exercise each day, so does the brain.

From: What’s Good for the Heart is Good for the Head by Jane E. Brody, New York Times, March 22, 2005, D8.

Yet, careful eating does not mean no alcohol! A recent study of over 1,400 men found that drinking four or more glasses of red wine weekly cut prostate cancer risk by about one half and reduced the risk of aggressive or advanced cases of cancer by about 60 percent. Author of the study, Janet L. Stanford, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle described red wine as rich in resveratrol, which apparently is a cancer-fighting substance. The French seem to have gotten this right:Vive Le Vin.
From: “A Gland Vintage” by Melissa Gotthardt, AARP Magazine, March & April, 2005, pg. 18.

American life expectancy rose this year to a record 77.6 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Women’s life expectancy is just slightly over 80, with men trailing by 5.3 years. Fifteen years ago, the gap between women and men was almost 8 years. More good news is that there is an increase in “active life expectancy,” which means that according to various measures, people are not only living longer, but living more active and productive lives. It is also important to note that each year one lives increases one’s life expectancy. Average life expectancy includes all those who die at an earlier age. So if you are already 80, your average life expectancy is somewhat higher than the average. (You’re simply too old to die at 77 any more.) Reasons for the increase in life expectancy include a reduction in deaths from heart disease and cancer.

Optimistic as this may seem, other countries have even longer lives. Japan has the longest life expectancy at almost 82 years. Australia, New Zealand, the countries of Western Europe, Israel and Singapore also have higher rates than the U.S.

From: U.S. Life Expectancy at 77.6, A Record by Randolph E. Schmid Philadelphia Inquirer, March 1, 2005, A1

Supplementing our opening commentary, in which we emphasized the positive effects of creative activity, recent news reports on the use of poetry as a healing practice. John Fox, president of the National Association for Poetry Therapy (www.poetrytherapy.org ) suggests that writing poetry has therapeutic value. In his book “Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, Fox describes psychological healing as thriving on spontaneity and openness. Support for the notion that writing can be a healing process also comes from the research of psychologist James Pennebaker, the University of Texas, who has written about this phenomenon in his book, “Writing to Heal.” Interestingly, the idea is not new. Over 200 years ago, the Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first, treated people with mental illnesses with poetry. Patients wrote and published their poetry in their own newspaper, The Illuminator. Another creative use of poetry has arisen from post-traumatic stress and loss. www.artsandspirituality.org

From: “Poetry is beautiful, sure – but it can also heal” by Constance Garcia-Barrio, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 2006, A21.


 * Sean Rinehart writes, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a book by Jeremy Goldstein called Grandma Goes to Law School. Jeremy wrote about his mother, who graduated from Syracuse in May 2004 at the age of 83. She just took the NY Bar exam for the second time in February. It’s an inspiring book that profiles many people who have done extraordinary things in their later years. If you’d be interested, I’d happy to send you a copy for review.

You can find more information at http://www.dreamhousebooks.com

BOOK REVIEW: Expressive Arts with Elders

 * EXPRESSIVE ARTS WITH ELDERS 2nd. Ed., edited by Naida Weisberg and Rosilyn Wilder. Piladelphia, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002

Given the editorial theme of this edition of the Newsletter, we thought it appropriate to call attention to one of the major resources on creative arts in the elderly population. Weisberg and Wilder have collected in this work 17 contributions to the topic, each written by specialists in a clear and often lively style. The topics include dance and movement, dramatic arts, music, writing, and poetry. A special section is also devoted to the important topic of inter-generational work in the arts. The volume includes both a range of theoretical ideas on the importance of expressive arts in our lives, as well as descriptions of practices and programs. Some of the chapters are especially inspiring, as they demonstrate how older people who are disoriented, depressed or isolated can experience a sense of renewed connectedness and life-affirmation through participation in the arts. The volume contains numerous citations to other work of relevance, and to organizations contributing to various programs. Alas, the work remains within the print medium, so there are no references to relevant web-sites. We can all hope the editors are working toward a 3rd. edition.


 * 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

* Life @50+: AARP’s National Event and Expo. Speakers, entertainment, exhibitions, music. September 29-October 1, 2005. New Orleans Morial Convention Center. www.aarp.org/events Also AARP’s first Lifestyle Conference on Health and Wellness in Charlotte, NC. June 3-4, 2005. www.aarp.org/events

* 18th World Congress of Gerontology, “Healthy Aging in the XXlst Century: Building Bridges Between Research and Practice.

June 26-30, 2005, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sponsored by the

International Association of Gerontology.



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March 1, 2005 12:00 am