2005 – May / June

May-June, 2005 Issue 32

The Positive Aging Newsletter

May – June, 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. 32

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: The Rise of Senior Capital

Robert Putnam’s widely read book, Bowling Alone, represents a painful lament at the loss of what is commonly called social capital. Social capital consists of the network of local relations in which people are linked by a sense of trust and reciprocity. Such capital is critical to the well-being of local communities, for without the dedication of neighbors to each other – in terms of time, resources, solidarity, and care – the civic fiber is destroyed. People may reside close by, but there is no community. With the increase in two career families, distributed obligations, and travel demands – together with the lure of television, mobile communication, and the internet – social capital is in short supply.

At the same time, we are not alone in seeing the expanding generation of elders as the preeminent source for renewing social capital. We have already glimpsed the possibilities in the activities of many friends and acquaintances. As one recent retiree put it, “I feel my entire career has been devoted to the corporate rat race, and making gains for myself and my family; at this point I would like to give something back to society.” He now devotes his efforts to the board of a struggling school for African Americans and to various church initiatives. Another friend has served voluntarily well into his 80s as the mayor of a local community. A widow friend has taken an interest in schools and communities with inadequate libraries, and devotes her intelligence and pocketbook to their improvement. Another serves as a voluntary ombudsman representing prisoners at a local prison. And this is to say nothing of those who take nurture grandchildren while parents are away, care for their neighbors’ houses and pets when they are absent, serve on neighborhood watches, and run errands for the infirm.

Earlier issues of this Newsletter have included research studies demonstrating the benefits of volunteering to the volunteers themselves. These outcomes not only include enhanced feelings of life fulfillment, an expanded range of friends, and an increase in needed physical activity. (See Chappell’s 1999 summary). All of these contribute, in turn, to good health. As the research reported below suggests, the more we reach out to support others, the better our health.

At the present time there are substantial opportunities for elder volunteers – from the local to the global sphere. We have reported on some of these in past issues of the Newsletter; a future issue will provide a fuller picture. At the same time, it is important to note that only 23 percent of those 65 and older participate in any volunteer efforts. There are many reasons for this reticence. As The 2004 Harvard University School of Public Health report, Reinventing Aging, indicates, most seniors want to work with others, they want to make use of their skills, and to expand their knowledge. A study conducted last year by Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning also indicated that elders want to participate in meaningful activities (not stuffing envelopes), and they want organizations to provide respect and admiration for what they do, along with some concrete rewards (such as transportation or reimbursement for expenses.) In effect, if we wish to tap the enormous potential of Senior Capital, efforts must also be made by those who would welcome such contributions.

Ken and Mary Gergen

Chappell, N. (1999) Volunteering and Healthy Aging: What We Know.


Harvard School of Public Health (2004) Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement.


RESEARCH: The Gift of Giving: A Healthier Life

We have previously reported on research findings indicating that participating in a large and supportive network of relationships is life-sustaining. It is believed that such networks give social, emotional and material support to a person. Such resources enhance one’s well-being. The question this research asks, however, is the reverse: do those who give such support also benefit from their gifts? Does their health improve as well?

To explore this question researchers interviewed a sample of over one thousand people living in Brooklyn, New York. The sample was ethnically diverse, including African American, Caribbean, Eastern European and American born Europeans. Their average age was 74. Each person was interviewed over one hour by someone of their own background. Participants named the people in their networks of association. They were also asked to indicate from whom they had received or given material or emotional support within the past 3 months, and to whom they had given such support. They also were evaluated in terms of their health.

The findings indicated that the more people gave support to others, the healthier their physical condition. This finding held even when the effects of socio-economic status, education, marital status, age, gender, ethnicity and the size and nature of the network were discounted. The findings did not reveal any relationship between the amount one received and their health.

This study is correlational, and so the reason for the findings remains unclear. For example, people who are very fit may feel more like going out of their way to help others. It is also possible that people have positive emotions when they give support, and their positive feelings increase immune system vigor. And too, people who perceive themselves as healthy may also perceive themselves as giving more than they receive. As usual, more research is needed.

From the From: Altruism relates to health in an ethnically diverse sample of older adults by William Michael Brown, Nathan S. Consdeine, and Carol Magai. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2005, 60B, 143-152

RESEARCH: Age and Wisdom in Conflict Reduction

Even the best of friends, warmest of lovers, and dearest spouses sometimes find themselves in conflict. In a world of increasing complexity and stress it is inevitable. While we may learn ways of avoiding conflict, it is most important to have resources that will defuse it once at hand. While research supports the view that age brings wisdom of thought, the question addressed in this research is whether age also increases our resources for confronting conflict in our relationships. According to researchers, Kira Birditt and Karen Fingerman, the answer is “yes.” Participants, ages 13 to 99, were included in this study, in which they described interpersonal tensions with others in their social worlds, and how they responded to them. These descriptions were coded according to a widely accepted typology of conflict strategies. This system categorizes strategies as:

– Active/Destructive (e.g. arguing, ending the relationship, physical aggression or yelling).

– Active Constructive (e.g. listening, discussing, writing a letter or fixing the problem).

– Passive/Destructive (e.g. avoiding the person and sulking). Or

– Passive/Constructive (e.g. remaining calm or responding with gracious acts).

Results of the study indicated that for the worst category, Active/Destructive, the older sample was far wiser than the young. Younger people were more likely to yell at each other, walk out, or break up. In addition, the older sample was far more likely to engage in Passive/Constructive responses to conflict. They did nothing to extend the conflict, and attempted more often to heal the wounds.

Despite some notions that older people are less emotionally involved in day to day events, this research did not find age differences in terms of the intensity of distress, the quality of the relationships, the frequency of contact or the type of social partner. Interestingly, there did not seem to be any stable gender differences. This contradicts the stereotype that women talk and men walk. More research on gender differences is needed. Researchers concluded that older people learn how to respond more successfully to interpersonal conflicts as they age. This research is in accord with other studies that indicate that as people age they experience improvements in their social and emotional lives.

From: Do we get better at picking our battles? Age group differences in descriptions of behavioral reactions to Interpersonal Tensions by Kira S. Birditt & Karen L. Fingerman. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2005, 60B, 121-128.


The American Psychological Association recently partnered with the Older Women’s League (OWL), in supporting Older Americans’ Mental Health Week ( May 22-28, 2005).. This year’s theme was “Mental Illness is Not a Normal Part of Aging”. As part of the public awareness campaign there followed a Congressional briefing, sponsored, in part, by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Older Americans’ Mental Health Week resources including a link to the APA’s Office
on Aging webpages and educational materials can be found at http://www.owl-national.org/mentalhealthweek/index.html

The Fielding Graduate University has developed a forecast for adult education in the next several decades. Among the findings produced by Michael B. Goldstein, a trustee of the University, are several predictions highly relevant to older adults:

1. The increased aging of the population will influence workforce participation. This extension of life will create a “second middle age” as people continue to work well into their 70’s. “Wisdom, spirituality, and embodied knowing – the mind/body connection – will grow in importance.”

2. Women will continue to increase their presence in higher education and advancing workforce roles after age 55. “Look for women to create new careers and seek educational opportunities well into their 70’s.”

3. Increased diversity in the workforce and in higher education will characterize this century. People of all ethnicities and ages will be participating more fully in all employment and educational worlds.

From: The Futuring Project produced by the School for Human & Organizational Development, Fielding Graduate University. 2004 Annual Report, fielding focus, winter 2005, 3, 5-6.

A recent research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (April 22, 2005), suggests that thinness poses a greater health risk and being overweight. The risks of thinness–and attempts to get thin–have been largely ignored, whereas the risks of being overweight or obese have been greatly overstated. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, research suggests that in terms of longevity, “overweight” is actually the “ideal” weight.

Supporting this view is University of Virginia exercise physiologist Glenn Gaesser’s book, Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health. Gaesser challenges conventional wisdom on body weight and health, uncovering substantial scientific evidence to show that when it comes to fat, both the American public and the national scientific community may have been working under false assumptions and self-perpetuating myths. Our culture may worship thinness, but there is insufficient medical justification to do so.

Obesity is commonly cited as the cause of numerous life-threatening diseases and disorders, including diabetes, heart disease and clogged arteries. According to Gaesser, these assertions, along with the frequently cited “phantom statistic” of 300,000 premature deaths per year caused by excessive weight, are not substantiated. Not only is there insufficient evidence for the connection, says Gaesser, but also many studies have suggested just the opposite. For example, a large-scale 1998 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showed that among African Americans, the optimal body-mass-index (BMI) for longevity appears to be in the overweight range. Even among whites the data did not support the widely held belief that thin men and women live longest. Among older Americans, thinness is a more serious health problem than packing extra pounds.

While Gaesser may be bucking a trend in challenging the popular Geaesser does offer the caveat that being physically fit may be an essential element: “Fat men and women who are physically fit and exercise regularly outlive thin men and women who are unfit and sedentary, and studies repeatedly show that it is easier to get a fat person fit than it is to get a fat person thin,” he asserts.

Perhaps the most harmful aspect of the misinformation Gaesser sees perpetuated in popular press and advertising is the increase in unhealthy fad dieting. He is particularly concerned by the extreme strategies of regimes like those that profess to burn fat quickly, which has been shown by many opponents to have negative long-term health impact. “Chronic efforts at weight loss may be responsible for more deaths than ‘excess weight’ itself,” he says.


* Merrell Clark writes: Thank you for keeping me on your newsletter list, Ken and Mary. It is always a joy to read… I really like your idea of a creative day or week (or month or year or phase of life or life). You have a friend in me the more you underline the lifelong opportunity to be creative in expression, in listening, in observation, in physical activity, in spiritual activity, etc., etc. AND to be so whether anybody notices or not. Fame or sharing are nice but unnecessary to define “creative”.

Here are some ideas you can play with in the years ahead.
1. America has produced more educated elders (65+) than any other society on earth. 2. Elders who have earned college degrees have activity patterns similar to people who are 20 years younger in the general population. 3. If the U.S. wants a larger and healthier population of old people, the single most important strategic action would be to require all late adolescents to earn college degrees. 4. Growth in the 65+, 75+, 85+, 95+ populations is fast, but not nearly so fast as the rise of the college educated portion of those groups.


* STILL WORKING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS by Toni Rey, (Llumina Press, 2004).
An informal set of profiles of people who have continued to work well past the traditional age of retirement, either because of financial necessity or for personal satisfaction. Many of those included in the book are therapists, like the author, and several of those profiled in the book are the author’s friends or relatives (including her husband, mother and father). Also included in the book are profiles of Marilyn Hennessy, president of Retirement Research Foundation; Adeline Geo-Karis, who at age 86 has served in the Illinois state legislature for 31 years; Shirley Brussell, founder of Operation ABLE; and several members of the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield, Illinois.

* CARING FOR YOUR PARENTS: THE COMPLETE AARP GUIDE, by Hugh Delehanty and Elinor Ginzler. Order online at: www.aarp.org/books
The highlight of this book for Positive Aging readers is how the caregivers who share their stories in this book came to value their relationships with their parents as an opportunity for emotional development, reconciliation and resolution.


* American Society on Aging, East Coast, Philadelphia, PA September 12-15, 2005.
Autumn series on aging. Sheraton University City Hotel. Continuing education for professionals who work with older adults and their family members.
1-800-537-9728 www.asaging.org/autumn-series

*Life @50+: AARP’s National Event and Expo. Speakers, entertainment, exhibitions, music. September 29 – October 1, 2005. New Orleans Morial Convention Center.

* Viva 50 Plus, World Ageing and Generations Congress, Sept. 2005, St. Gallen, Switzerland
Website: www.viva50plus.org
Contact Information: Info@viva50plus.org/

*Invest in Aging, Strengthening Families, Communities and Ourselves, Joint Conference of the National Council on the Aging, and the American Society on Aging March 16-19, 2006 Anaheim, CA.


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May 1, 2005 12:00 am

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