2005 – November / December

Nov-Dec, 2005 Issue 35

The Positive Aging Newsletter

November – December, 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 35

In this issue

COMMENTARY: Retirement or Renaissance?

We recently received a review copy of Robert Weiss’ new book, The Experience of Retirement. Finding the work such a stimulating read, we decided to write about it in essay form as opposed to our usual book review. In recent decades the term “retirement” has often held such negative connotations as “useless,” “tired,” and “incapacitated.” The value of the individual seemed largely equated with “productivity on the job.” As people’s capacities for active and bountiful lives now expands well into their 80s and 90s, the traditional conception becomes caricature. As attested to by the 89 people interviewed by Weiss, before and after retirement from successful careers, the meaning of retirement does remain ambiguous. But as we concluded from our encounter with this book we could well replace the concept of retirement with renaissance.

There is first of all the author himself to consider. After “retiring” from an illustrious career as Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Weiss took on the challenge of studying the very process in which he was engaged. The research essentially became one of his new projects. Similarly, with so many of his interviewees, we find pervasive images of retirement not as an ending but a beginning; it is the start of what is frequently a more fulfilling life pattern than the previous professional years.

In terms of reasons to retire, in this sample, “wanting the freedom to do something new” topped the list. Retirement is a time to realize ambitions and take risks that were postponed during “practical employment.”

It is not that leisure is not appreciated (So many retirees found having that extra cup of coffee with the newspaper in the morning a delicious aspect of retirement.) However, they also relish new possibilities for achievement, and particularly those in which they are personally invested. Retirement opens the doors that allow the caged bird to fly.

One might be moved to say that the retirement period becomes one of self-exploration and self-actualization. But as these interviews made clear, being a self-alone represents one of the biggest threat to well-being. Many retirees regretted leaving their work relationships; their colleagues were often an important source of affirmation and support. This sample generally found it extremely important to fill this social gap in order to live a satisfying life. For one man who regretted the loss of his work companions, the solution came with his wife becoming more engaged in a community church. Slowly he was drawn into its activities, and his professional skills became very important to the church’s well-being. Soon he acquired new colleagues who greatly valued his contributions.

For most people a successful retirement involves maintaining a social life that is on par with pre-retirement days. Single retirees generally have more of a challenge. In one prime example, a single women arranged to meet work friends a few times a month for lunch, went to Europe twice a year, worked as a volunteer for her own college, edited a neighborhood newsletter, and maintained relationships with a large family. This combination more than made up for lost daily contacts at work. Most important for many was the nature of the tie with one’s “life partner.” Marital relationships do change as a result of retirement, mostly for the better. Children and grandchildren also fulfill needs for intimacy, and many grandparents find special joy in playing with (but not care- taking) the next generation of the family.

Among Weiss’ own considered tips for retiring:
1. Consult a financial adviser. His respondents, if they owned their own homes, could live comfortably on 1/2 of their usual salary. (Most were comfortably middle-class to begin with.)

2. Be productive at something you enjoy. The ideal work situation is engaging, yet stress free and allows for flexibility in terms of schedules. Weiss concluded that the ideal for this sample was two days a week of “employment.”

3. Leave work on the best terms possible. You may want to return as a part-time employee or a consultant. Many do.

4. Do not plan to move out of your community unless you try out the new “dream” location first. Spend a couple of weeks in the new environment in two different seasons.

5. Tender negotiations must be made between husbands and wives about retirement. Often husbands retire earlier than wives, and they want their wives home with them. Many wives are at the peak of their careers, and do not want to leave it. Some wives say, “for better or for worse, but not for lunch.” Time to be independently active and apart may be very important for both partners.

6. Taking care of elderly parents may be a significant responsibility in retirement. Siblings must agree together on how to support their parents. Do things that make you feel good about yourself. Enjoy your leisure. Travel with an eye to comfort and convenience.

7. Perhaps the most interesting of Weiss’ suggestions for us, is to reduce the tendency to plan and control what happens to us. For most of our adult lives we must plan our days carefully, and try to reduce unplanned insertions into the schedule. Weiss recommends scheduling about 50% of your time, and leaving the rest to chance. In this way one is encouraged to try new things, think in new ways, and to allow the creative juices to flow. In living more spontaneously the world opens in joyous ways. Perhaps this is especially good advice with the holiday season now upon us. But, should we plan in these periods of spontaneity, or just let them happen???

Ken and Mary Gergen

From: Weiss, Robert S. (2005) The Experience of Retirement,
Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

RESEARCH: Relationships, Emotions and Health

We have reported several studies in this newsletter that demonstrate a strong correlation between strong social ties and good health. And too, we have reported other research showing the benefits to health of positive states of mind. The present research helps to press understanding forward by considering both social life and the emotions together. The major concern of this research is cardiac functioning. What is the relationship, if any, between our social lives and healthy functioning of the heart? Is this relationship modified in any way by taking positive emotions into account?

To explore these issues, ten men and twenty three women from community senior centers volunteered to complete extensive daily assessments of their lives. The group ranged in age from 60 to 87, most had a college education, and their yearly income average was $29,000. Each participant also responded to two measures. First, they rated their relations with others. People high on this measure agreed that most people saw them as loving and affectionate, and that they had trustworthy friends. Second, on a daily basis for 60 days, the participants had to assess the extent to which they had experienced a range of emotions, both positive and negative. How much had they felt upset or irritable, enthusiastic or proud? During this 60 day period, the participants also measured their blood pressures. Each morning and each evening, subjects filled out a workbook containing their assessments, and each week they mailed their notebooks back to the researchers.

The results were significant. First, researchers did find a relationship between positive social relationships and blood pressure readings; the more positive the relations the lower the blood pressure. The same was true of positive emotions. More interesting, however, are the effects of relationships and emotions in helping people to recover from periods of stress, irritation, disappointment and the like. Here it was found that both having good relationships and positive emotions are particularly useful in helping people to get over the inevitable times of trouble in our lives.

It is important to note that increases in blood pressure, per se, are not pathogenic. It is possible, however, that slow recovery from stress responses is risky for older adults. Positive social relations seem to improve cardiovascular recovery following experiences of negative emotions. Positive emotions also can carry over to the following day as well. When times are tough, stress is high, and bad feelings abound, the importance of good social relations and positive emotions are at their peak. The old adage seems to have gotten it right: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

From: Cardiovascular Intraindividual Variability in Later Life: The Influence of Social Connectedness and Positive Emotions by Anthony D. Ong and Jason C. Allaire. Psychology and Aging, 2005, 20, 476-485.

RESEARCH: The Ripening Personality

How do people change in their personalities as they age? Long ago a relative of ours suggested that people don’t really change. “They just become ‘more so.” The efforts of these researchers is to discover what changes if any occur as people age. Five personality traits were closely examined using the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which includes almost 2,000 people. Overall, there seem to be very gradual changes in personality as people age. The good news is that neuroticism, which is the tendency to be high-strung, nervous, and irritable, declines over time, until about 80.

Extraversion and Openness remain stable, and then begin to decline around age 70, Agreeableness on the other hand, continues to increase, as does Conscientiousness, up until 70. Overall, the researchers suggest that “personality changes seen in adulthood are rather modest.” In our own view, we see danger in presuming that history is destiny, that with slight modification we will simply continue to be what we always were. As indicated in this month’s essay, the renaissance years generate many new opportunities, and as one enters new settings, develops new forms of relationship, and life patterns change, so may our personal tendencies be altered. It is never too late for the discovery of new potentials.

From: Hierarchical Linear Modeling Analyses of the NEO-PI-R Scales in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging by Antonio Terracciiano, Robert R. McCrae, Larry J. Brant, and Paul T. Costa, Jr., Psychology and Aging, 2005, 20, 493-506.


An 87 year old friend of ours was in the hospital, recovering from a quintuple bypass; to aid in her recovery her daughter took an English Springer named Max to visit her. Skeptics might wonder if Max should be allowed to visit her, but Max’s visit has recently gotten some support from a scientific study on the physiological effects of hospital visits from a dog, with an accompanying person, from the human visitor alone, or without any visit. Kathie Cole, a nurse at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center was the leader of the study, which was presented at the annual American Heart Association meetings. She and her colleagues studied heart-failure patients 76 and older. Physiological responses of the patients were measured before, during and after the visits.

They discovered a drop of 24 percent in Anxiety for patients who had a visit from a dog as compared to only 10 percent when a human came to visit alone. A control group had no change in Anxiety levels. In terms of stress related hormones the best outcome was achieved when the patients were visited by a dog accompanied by a person. This research supports the mission of therapeutic programs that include animal visits. In Dallas, for example, an animal-assisted therapy program for the Baylor Health Care System is so popular that it has grown from one dog in 1985 to 84 dogs today. Medical care seems to be going to the dogs, but in this case it seems to be a good idea.

From: A cold nose for ailing hearts by Jamie Stengle, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 16, 2005, A6


Hillary Rodham Clinton (D. NY) co-sponsored a bill in the Senate with Senator Susan Collins (R. Maine) that aims to make mental health services for older adults an integral part of primary-care services in community settings and to extend them to other settings where seniors reside and receive services. The bill is called the Positive Aging Act of 2005. Monitor on Psychology, September, 2005, 11.

The Caribbean Island, St. John, is a tropic paradise, now open to people with disabilities as never in the past. Stanley Selengut, owner of three ecologically oriented resorts, decided to make his newest resort, Estate Concordia on St. John, a true haven for people with special needs. The resort, which has eco-tents for lodging, is especially equipped with wheelchair friendly ramps and railings, extra-wide bathrooms, open shower stalls and user friendly fixtures and appliances. He has also coordinated with local businesses to provide cabs with ramps, paths for wheelchairs to reach the water on beaches, and boarding devices for those who want to go snorkeling from boats. The resort is a model for what clever business planners might want to emulate in capturing the interest of people who may need some special configurations in order to enjoy a completely compelling vacation.

From: For Disabled Travelers, it’s the First Resort by Claudia Dreifus, AARP Bulletin, October, 2005.


Prentice Hall Press, 2004. Paper, $15.95. www.penguin.com

This is a very interesting and creative book written by a financial consultant, who has a background in medicine and developmental psychology, and who has as a personal mission: helping older people live well regardless of their physical conditions. The book aims at helping us all understand the special developmental agendas of older people; to recognize how to best communicate with older people; to suggest skills that can be learned to facilitate inter-generational communications; and to help people become advocates for the aging population. Solie’s thesis is that there are two very important developmental tasks that are the focus of concern for older adults. First they wish to maintain control over their own lives, a desire that is sometimes deeply compromised by various agents, who may actually consider themselves deeply committed helpers of the older person. For example, the housing choices that are made by children for older people can sometimes be the opposite of what would best fulfill their needs for personal control. The second major developmental task is to create a lasting legacy, that is to leave behind evidence that they have lived and have left behind something of value. Our last Newsletter also treated this subject. The majority of the book is replete with ways to talk to older people such that they will be free to express these developmental agendas, and to explore good options for their lives, despite various limiting conditions.

Solie brings up the topic of the “elderly person’s NO.” This is the conversational strategy that older people may sometimes use to avoid having to give something up that they cherish. Solie suggests that sometimes the best way to deal with this situation is simply to “back off.” If parents do not want to leave their home of many decades to live more safely and securely in a retirement village, then their NO may signal to the children that other solutions to their living situation should be found. Solie tells the story of his grandmother who was very ill, and was taken to the hospital. That night, she decided she wanted to go home to die in her own bed. She got up, dressed and called her daughter to bring her home.

The night staff found her up and packed to leave, put her back into bed and restrained her there. In the morning the doctor came, and she asked for him to remove her restraints. He did, but admonished her to follow the staff’s instructions. As he looked at her chart, she reached over to her bowl of fruit, picked up an orange and threw it at him. As it bounced off his forehead, he looked at her, stunned. She said, “Don’t ever tie me up again.” Later that day she was discharged, went home and died the next night.

The importance of a legacy is illustrated in various dialogues and examples in the book. There are many legacies, and Solie describes ways that younger family members can help older ones to leave one that feels right for the older person in the context of the family. He also shares tips on how to best communicate with clients, such as his. One idea is not to be rushed in reaching conclusions. Being respectful of the older person’s pace is very helpful to maintaining the sense of control that each person wants to have. Resisting a sense of hurriedness or urgency results in useful interactions. It is also good to be able to have nonlinear conversations. One need not be old to enjoy such conversations, but they seem to be considered dangerous diversions by many professionals. Learn to love them and to find insights of importance in them, Solie advises. He also urges people to pay attention to the small details in older people’s stories, as they convey important information on what is valued by the teller. He also warns that there can be uncouplings, that is disconnects in which the conversation is dead and needs to be resurrected.

Solie discusses the concept of the legacy coach, that is someone who can help an older person come to terms with a legacy. A major focus of the book is on how to relate the person’s deepest interests to the financial side of life. Additionally, he describes how someone may help a person who is dying to settle his or her relationships with others who have been important in life. He describes this work as discovering “the right way to say goodbye.” He also gives tips to professionals who only see a person in a particular arena of life. Similar to the more personal relationships, the professional should take some of the same advice as family members may receive about patience, respect, a willingness to listen, and to wait. The book is easily read, full of helpful insights, and it takes a sympathetic tone to all who are in this situation, either as an older person or as a younger helpmate.

THE CAREGIVER’S TALE: LOSS AND RENEWAL IN MEMORIES OF FAMILY LIFE, by Ann Burack-Weiss. New York: Columbia University Press (March, 2006). 208 pages, $22.50.

A series of memoirs by caregivers who are in a relationship with ill or disabled family members, this book is full of triumphant moments. These tales describe lives that are transformed by the experience of caregiving. The book offers insights, support and comfort to those who care for loved ones, and it is also a helpful book for health care professionals, who want to understand the caretaker’s life in a new way. This book serves as a rebuttal to the pervasive view that caregiving is a stressful and debilitating role in life. Rather it is fulfilling in many deeply important ways.


The Coming of Age website: www.comingofage.org from Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning. The goal of this center is to promote civic engagement and lifelong learning among older people in the Philadelphia area. It offers ways to find volunteer opportunities, educational options, cultural events, advice on the next phase of life, working in retirement, enjoying leisure time and learning new skills. The website also has information on financial planning and caretaking.

Shift is an empowering board game for 2-6 players. Using philosophical themes from Buddha and Gandhi, combined with a perspective from a creative comedian, Shift emphasizes learning through laughter. One small shift in thought, it is said, can shift your whole life. Life coaches, organizational consultants, and church groups are bringing the game into the workplace and study circles, and psychologists and therapists are interested in using Shift for group therapy or one on one. Baby Boomers thinking about retirement might find it a thought-provoking and amusing start to the New Year.

The Gerontological Society of America is partnering with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and PBS to do a documentary and outreach project on housing with older people. Entitled “Almost Home” the program is designed to show viewers how residents live in various settings, including retirement communities and nursing homes.

At this site you can post your resume, find a representative, and browse current positions in the field of aging.


5th Annual National Peer Support Conference in Prince George, , January 27-29, 2006 The Peer Support Network, along with the First Nations Centre presents “Finding Balance: The Bi-Cultural Approach to Peer Support” with a keynote address by Dr. Lewis Mehl Madrona, internationally renowned author of Coyote Medicine & Coyote Healing. For more information, contact Sandra at macdonas@unbc.ca or 250-960-5962, or see: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/shra/Community.php

For information about his workshops in healing practices, contact Dr. Mehl Madrona, coyotehealing@aol.com

ASSOCIATION FOR GERONTOLOGY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, February 9-12, 2006: 32nd Annual Meeting, Westin Indianapolis. For information see www.aghe.org

*JOYOUS LIVING PLAYSHOPS FOR ADULTS in New York allows older adults the ability to be creative and experience the joy that comes through play. Director Laraine Pearson can tailor Playshops to any group setting (includingintergenerational). Information: 718-432-8679.

*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.

SENIOR THEATRE will be featured at the Summer 2006 conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). The conference will be held August 3-6 in Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel. The sessions will include: using life memories to create productions, directing the mature performer, the history of Senior Theatre, and a Senior Theatre performance. See www.seniortheatre.com for details as they become available.


– To subscribe to the Positive Aging Newsletter, go to the HealthandAge.com subscription page at: http://www.healthandage.com/Home/gm=22
or if you prefer, write to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

– Questions & Feedback
If you have any questions, or material you’d like to share with other newsletter readers, please e-mail Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

– Past issues Past issues of the newsletter are archived at:

– How to unsubscribe or change your e-mail address
We hope that you enjoy The Positive Aging Newsletter. If you wish, for any reason, to stop receiving it, please send a blank email to:

To change your e-mail address, e-mail Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu
Go to: http://www.healthandage.com
See also the further activities of the Taos Institute:

November 1, 2005 12:00 am