2005 – September / October

Sept-Oct, 2005 Issue 34

The Positive Aging Newsletter


September – October, 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 34

In this issue:

COMMENTARY Exploring Legacy

 “Legacy too often probably means the giving of thing. But I think of giving of self or spirit as probably just as important. Wouldn’t you think so?”

These are the words of Nellie, a woman of 82, thinking about what it means to leave behind a legacy for the future, a positive contribution of lasting significance. Her musings on legacy were in response to questions posed by researchers, Elizabeth Hunter and Graham Rowles, in their research on the meaning of legacy to people today. Perhaps the desire to contribute a legacy for those who survive us is a secular rendition of the religious vision of eternal life of the spirit. Perhaps it is a way of continuing to feel that one’s life is productive. Warner Schaie and Sherry Willis (2000) contend that Legacy Creating is a normal stage of elderly adult development. Whatever its roots, it does appear to be a way of lending significance to one’s life.

Hunter and Rowles provide a glimpse into the meaning of legacy through their in-depth study of 14 individuals, ranging in age from 31 to 94. As they found, three major forms of legacy were central to people’s thoughts. Two of these were scarcely surprising. There is the Biological Legacy, which primarily includes the creation of the next generation. There is also Material Legacy, the leaving of money, property, heirlooms, and the like.

Most interesting, however, was the fact that almost all the participants felt their most important legacy was neither biological nor material, but one of Values. They believed that their greatest gift for the future could be in the transmission of values such as kindness, helping others, education, and religious beliefs. This legacy could be transmitted in many ways, but one of the most important was through acting as a model. Entering old age also offered new opportunities in this regard. Here they could demonstrate the importance of remaining vital and engaged in value-laden activity.

We were struck by these latter findings, first because they are highly democratic. We need not possess wealth nor produce children to feel we are leaving an important heritage to the world. Values may be shared by all. Equally striking, however, is the emphasis given to human meaning-making. It is not the material fact of children or possessions that are ultimately important, but the meaning we give to life and pass on to others. This same sentiment is found in Bill Clinton’s memoirs, when he said, “Several members of the press began to ask me about my legacy. Would I be known for bringing prosperity? For being a peacemaker? I tried to formulate an answer that captured not only concrete achievements but also the sense of possibility and community I wanted America to embody.” In any case, as we read this research we began to feel that the participants were indeed leaving behind a legacy in the very wisdom of their opinions.

Readers will find more on legacy in the Book Review and Readers Respond sections below.

Ken and Mary Gergen

Hunter, E.G. and Rowles, G. D. (2005) Leaving a legacy: Toward a typology. Journal of Aging Studies, 19, 327-347.

Schaie, K.W. and Willis, S.L. (2000) A stage model of adult cognitive development revised. In R.L. Rubinstein, M. Moss, and M.H. Kleban (Eds.) The Many Dimensions of Aging. New York: Springer.

RESEARCH: Exercising for Happiness

 We often think of happiness as a condition which is either provided by heredity (“some people are just born happy”), or generated by good conditions (“this is a wonderful gift.”). Yet, as these researchers propose, one can develop the capacity for being happy. In the same way one might do physical training in preparation for a bicycle race one can also exercise in ways that will create a more positive sense of well-being.

To explore this possibility, the researchers developed a group of on-line exercises that people could try out for one week in order to increase their feelings of happiness. Three of the exercises the researchers studied were:

The Gratitude Exercise: Participants were asked to write and deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them.

Three Good Things in Life: Participants were asked to write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week.

Using Strengths in New Ways: Participants identified their personal strengths, which they used in new ways in the following week.

Were these exercises effective in increasing happiness? The results were mixed but promising.

The measure of happiness that was used to test these effects contain items to assess how pleasant life is, how absorbing and how meaningful. For example, one might choose among these five options, in one item on the scale:

   1. Most of the time I am bored
   2. Most of the time I am neither bored nor interested in what I am doing
   3. Most of the time I am interested in what I am doing
   4. Most of the time I am quite interested in what I am doing
   5. Most of the time I am fascinated with what I am doing

The results indicated that immediately after the experiment, those in the Gratitude condition were much happier and less depressed than at their baseline. Alas, however, the effect vanished three months later. The participants in the Three Good Things exercise began to show beneficial effects one month after the end of the posttest. They were still happier three and six months later. Similarly Using Strengths in New Ways was slow to increase happiness, but was stable in the follow-up assessments at a high level.

The participants in the study were a convenience sample, drawn from people who explored the website on positive psychology. They tended to be more well-educated and financially well-off than ordinary people. However, despite this, one might conclude from this research that practices of appreciating one’s talents, understanding how they might be applied more broadly, and how many good things do happen in a day for understandable reasons, allows people to feel they are living happier and more fulfilling lives. What began as a one week investment may have become habit forming. But what a valuable skill to possess.

From: Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions by Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Nansook Park, & Christopher Peterson. American Psychologist, 2005, 60, 410- 421.

RESEARCH: Redefining ‘Sexy’ in Women Beyond 50

 Mildred’s marriage to her husband of 46 years had not been fulfilling to her sexually. Now 83, she had always believed that her own desire was very low, especially after her doctor labeled her as “frigid.” After her husband’s death, Mildred began going to concerts, something her husband had not enjoyed. In the process she discovered a love for jazz — and for a jazz musician. The musician was drawn to Mildred’s vitality and adventurous personality. Together they found that Mildred was far from frigid. “These days it doesn’t take all that much to arouse me,” Mildred reported.

What does it mean to feel “sexy” over 50? Leah Kliger, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, Seattle and Deborah Nedelman, Ph.D. a certified sex therapist set out to find some answers. They surveyed 408 women from 50- 95 from across the United States; conducted 10 focus groups with 100 plus women in ten US cities; and conducted in depth interviews with 55 women in this age group.

The study revealed that women simply do not know what might happen to their sexuality as they age. Although 56 percent have already experienced a drop in desire, 40 percent of the women said their desire was either the same as ever or was greater now than it used to be. Many women said that they had never been asked about their sexual desire before, and they didn’t really know.

The notion that there is a single “best way” for older women to handle their sexuality runs totally counter to what the study indicated. Scores of women described having very full, exciting, creative lives without having any sexual desire–or sexual activity. Just as in their younger days, sexual desire in older women waxes and wanes over time. Women in long-term marriages talked about this variability, as did women who had been single for most of their lives. Widows experienced it, and so did lesbians in committed relationships.

For many women, sexual desire was something they recognized only in relation to a sexual partner. Many acknowledged that the primary factor that arouses their own desire is feeling that they are attractive to someone else. Numerous women said that their desire mirrors their partner’s, that if he (or she) isn’t interested in them, they didn’t feel sexual. Diane, who is in her early 50s, said, “It’s the rush of a sexy man that I respond to. If there’s no guys around my desire fades away.”

Many widows said that when their husbands died, their desire faded away. Yet, Teresa, 78, described an occasional rebound. “About once a month I have a dream about being on an island somewhere, and my husband is there, and I’m aroused sexually. At first I thought, ‘Boy, I’m getting senile or what is the matter here?’ But then I figured out it must be a normal reaction. Most of the time, my thoughts are elsewhere.” Interestingly, 19% of women in the study who were over 80 said that their desire was greater than it used to be. This was a higher percentage than women in their 50’s or 60’s or 70’s. Health certainly matters when it comes to sexual desire, but it is important to know that women over 80 who are relatively healthy can be very passionate, even if their desire had been less noticeable at other points in their life.

Sexual desire in older women seems to be related to their feelings about themselves. Over 50% of the women in the study, across all ages, listed negative changes in their body image as a primary factor in their experience of decreased sexual desire. Women who continued to feel most positive about themselves as sexual beings regardless of their age or their level of sexual activity had found a way to adjust to their altered bodies and reached a level of acceptance of how they now look. This is a major struggle for many women.

Sexual desire was also related to sensuality in general. Numerous women described their increased appreciation for the sensual in everyday life and how important it has become to surround themselves with beauty. For many, their 50s, 60s, and 70s were the decades when they finally gave themselves permission to explore creative impulses and try new outlets, from glassblowing to playing the drums. They found that taking the time to indulge in these form of expression can lead to newfound sources of pleasure and satisfaction, including sexual pleasure.

Also important for sexual desire to flourish is the belief that one has the right, as a woman past her reproductive years, to experience sexual pleasure and express her sexuality as she chooses. Having a positive attitude toward masturbation as a method of maintaining sexual autonomy is one key. Acknowledging that an individual woman’s life experience is extraordinarily significant, and allowing herself to flex her muscles and feel her power is a crucial component of self- esteem and sexual desire.

One of the vital ways that authenticity was expressed by the older women in the study was through their ability to find humor in the process of aging. The experience of talking with other older women about sexual desire in these groups was for so many profoundly liberating and reassuring. And it was often an experience they wanted to repeat. Women talking to women is a powerful tool for change.

From a presentation by Leah Kliger & Deborah Nedelman, New View Conference, Montreal Canada, July 9, 2005. Their forthcoming book is Still Sexy After All These Years? The 9 Unspoken Truths About Women’s Desire, published by Penguin/Perigee. For a full account of this presentation, email info@womenbeyond50.com



It has become a truism in our culture that learning must be a lifelong activity. Before the 20th century it was assumed that after about 65, people withdrew from social life and weren’t interested in learning new things. In gerontological terms this was called the theory of disengagement. Today this idea has been relinquished for the opposite view that the second half of life is one designed to allow for cultivating inner wisdom and self-integration. Along with this latter idea came longer life spans and more retired people.

In the 1970’s many state legislatures created laws that allowed older people to attend institutions of higher education, tuition-free. Other forms of adult education were expanded, along with federal money for senior centers across the country. In the 1980’s the growth of senior educational facilities, federal agencies for the aging, and the elimination of mandatory retirement became important for older learners. Between the 80’s and today, “The field of aging has undergone a paradigm shift…from the biomedical decrement or ‘failure model’ of aging,… to the more optimistic ’successful’ or ‘productive’ outlook on aging” (pg.206). A new theory of aging is called “gerotranscendence, which means developing a new, more reflective, perception of life. Gerotranscendence has helped to spawn many spiritually oriented educational programs in recent years, and might be represented by Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s From Age-ing to Sage-ing.

It is important that there is diversity in older learner programs because there is no unified elder group. Rather there is as much diversity among older people as younger ones. Not one size fits all. The author is concerned that as a new and active image of the elder population is produced, and age becomes a less-relevant demographic cipher, then the special educational advantages that have previously been developed may fall by the wayside. Recent data does suggest that enrollments in certain adult educational programs are decreasing. Elderhostel’s rates have dropped and the average age of the participants has increased from 68 to 72. Still, it is not a serious crisis if older people are engaging in non-segregated activities, instead of those that have been specially designed for older people. That is a crisis we think we can handle.

For information on Lifelong Learning Institutions (LLI) check out the Elderhostel Institute Network which has information on over 300 LLI’s (www.elderhostel.org/ein/intro.asp)

From: The Older Learner’s Journey to an Ageless Society: Lifelong Learning on the Brink of a Crisis by Ronald J. Manheimer. Journal of Transformative Education, July 2005,198-220.


 * Dick Barrett writes about his mother’s legacy

I want to share with my friends in the campus community that my five brothers and sisters and I attended my mother’s funeral yesterday morning. She was 96 years old.

Our mother was a teacher for parts of five decades, beginning in the 1930’s and into the 1970’s. We scheduled calling hours the day prior to her funeral Mass primarily so that we as a family could gather from different parts of the country. We were surprised when, beyond family, over 130 people came to pay their respects.

One woman brought a 62-year old library card, her first, and still remembers hearing my mother’s version of that old saw about never being lonely if you have a library card. Another man brought a storybook that his mother had given him in the 1950’s. His mother had been so taken by “the beautiful way Mrs. Barrett had read” the same story to her as first grader that she made a point of reading it to her children.

Anne, a 96 year-old woman who had been my mother’s classmate, came alone to the calling hours so that she could tell the family what a wonderful person our mother had been “even as a young child.” When asked how she had arrived at the funeral home, she said that she had driven her car. She told us that she was only supposed to drive five miles but in this case she drove ten miles to say goodbye to her friend.



This review was contributed by Judith Helburn, Certified Sage- ing Leader from the Spiritual Eldering Institute.

This book focuses on legacy and the spiritual-ethical will. Freed is familiar with Spiritual Eldering, the work of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; she follows many of his teachings such as forgiving, facing one’s mortality and, especially, the spiritual-ethical will. Freed gives us suggestions in creating such a will of how to turn our values into blessings. I have, on occasion, tried to write a legacy for my children and I have found that it ends up sounding like instructions or even orders. Here is just one of her examples:

Instruction: Love deeply. Blessing: May you be blessed as I have been with people to love deeply, and may your love be returned in abundance.

One of the last chapters, “Alternative Legacies” suggests planting a tree, making a collage or creating a visual, artistic legacy such as a quilt as alternatives to writing a spiritual-ethical will.


This self-help guide is a treasure of practical and therapeutic advice for women facing what may be the most difficult emotional experience of their lives. A widow and a therapist, the author describes the reconstruction of life after this loss using her own experiences and those of her clients. While clearly the loss is difficult to bear, there are some gains to be made as the process of adjusting to this new status goes on. Most importantly, perhaps, widowhood gives one the opportunity to develop a new identity, unencumbered by the expectations of former roles, such as daughter and wife. Late life singlehood is a time to rediscover or create a new self, one that is independent of former expectations. Old hobbies, interests, and life habits can be retrieved and enjoyed. (Popcorn in Pj’s watching old movies til midnight, according to one friend.) This can be a very liberating, if strange experience. The support of close friends and children helps to make this transition more fruitful. The book emphasizes that there is not one way to grieve and to overcome the separation. Each person, within different cultural and social contexts, with different personal preferences, may face this new role differently. In addition, some days are days for mourning losses, and others are for cleaning out closets.


 * ITHACA COLLEGE and the ITHACA CENTER FOR CREATIVE AGING will host “Memories and Storytelling: Developing Story Circles with Elders” on October 26, 2005. This workshop will review research from gerontology, psychology, anthropology, and folklore studies. The workshop’s goal is to identify the best program approaches for residential facilities and community organizations. Info: Terry A. Beckley, Outreach Program Coordinator of the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute at 607-274-1967.

* 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 (including intergenerational). 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.


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September 1, 2005 12:00 am