2006 – January / February

Jan-Feb, 2006 Issue 36

The Positive Aging Newsletter


January – February, 2006

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 36

In this issue:

COMMENTARY Positive Aging: Renewing the Vision

 In the first issue of each year it is our tradition to review again the central mission of this newsletter, thus clarifying as well what you may anticipate and how you may participate as readers. Since its inception less than four years ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate – now reaching thousands of subscribers in four languages – including gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons. Many new readers of the newsletter may be especially curious about the orientation guiding the selection of content.

Our primary aim is to bring to light resources – from research, practice and daily life – that contribute to an appreciation of the aging process. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline, we strive to create a vision of life in which aging is an unprecedented period of human enrichment. Such a revolution vitally depends on the communities of research and professional practices that focus on adult populations, especially people over 50. It is within these communities that new ideas, insights, factual support, and practices of growth enhancement can congenially emerge. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging, and the availability of relevant resources, skills, and resiliencies, research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice but creates hope and empowers action among older people. By moving beyond practices of repair and prevention, to emphasize growth-enhancing activities, practitioners also contribute to the societal reconstruction of aging.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If you have writings or practices that you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, you are invited to share them in future issues. We also review selected books and films, and carry announcements of relevant conferences and workshops. Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

All past issues of the Newsletter are archived at: www.positiveaging.net

To reintroduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is the Mustin Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, Delaware County. Ken and Mary are both on the Executive Board of the Taos Institute, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of social constructionist theory and societal practice. Each has a long history of engagement with gerontological inquiry and therapeutic practice.

We hope you will join us in the present endeavor,

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Friendship and Longevity

 We have reported several studies over the last three years which indicate that one’s health and sense of well-being may both be improved as a result of an active social life. The present research adds further substance to this view. In this case, researchers carried out a cross-time study of over two thousand Danish twins aged 75 and older. Their particular interest was in whether social interactions with spouses, children, relatives, friends, and with each other helped to extend life. The twins were both fraternal (1,383 pairs) and identical (764 pairs). They were studied in intervals of two years from 1995 to 2001. At each interval there were fewer people to interview, and by 2001 there were 639 people still alive and willing to be interviewed. The Danish Twin Registry provided demographic information on the twins. At each interview, the respondents were asked about their social relations, as well as other personal information. The twins also responded to the question of how often they met with various people. Health status was measured by asking people “How do you consider your health in general?” Interestingly, self-reported health was quite stable over the study period. In 2001, 65% gave the same answer as in earlier times; 26% actually reported improvement, and only 9% indicate that their health had declined!

The findings were rich and varied. Of central interest: those who met often with friends were more likely to live longer, while those who rarely met with friends were most likely to die earlier. Interestingly in this study the amount of contact with friends was more important for longevity than was contact with children or other family members. There were gender differences: Women were especially aided by having close ties with friends. While men may have contacts as often as women, they don’t seem to carry with them the more powerful longevity benefits that they give women. In terms of twin relations, only for identical twins did the frequency of contact have an effect on risk of dying.

Other findings of interest: In terms of frequency of contact, the proportion of people who had frequent contacts increased over the time span of the study. This finding opposes the pervasive stereotype of aging as social isolation. Also countering common assumptions, men in this sample did not die at a more rapid rate than women. At the beginning of the study about twice as many women as men were alive. However, six years later the proportion of men and women in the sample was unchanged. Apparently, if you are a man who reaches 75, you are likely to be a robust sort. In terms of longevity, as often reported, married people had lower death rates than do others.

From: The Influence of Social Relations on Mortality in Later Life: A Study on Elderly Danish Twins by Domenica Rasulo, Kaare Christensen, & Cecilia Tomassini. The Gerontologist, 2005, 45, 601-608.

RESEARCH: Church-based Support and Health

 As we have previously reported in this newsletter, a frequent association is often found between engaging in church activities and physical health. However, the reasons for this correlation have been a source of continuing interest. Some researchers, for example, feel that church involvement keeps one active, engaged in life, and moving about. In this case, the church is like any other organization that invites activity. The present study offers another interesting insight into the significance of religion. In this study over 500 Christians with an average age of 76, who went to church more than twice a year, were compared with 238 people who did not go to church as frequently. Of the total, 56% were African Americans, 60% were women, and 49% were married. The average educational level was high school.

All participants were asked to rate themselves in terms of overall health, in comparison to others, and to themselves the previous year. They also were asked about their financial strain, and how their finances were at the end of the month. They were also asked about their experience with church-based emotional support. They were asked to rate, for example, how often someone other than their pastor or priest let them know they were loved and cared for, talked to them about their private problems and concerns, and expressed interest in their well-being. These questions were modified for non-church goers, such that the questions asked were about people supporting them, who were not affiliated with a church.

The results indicated that in general, people under financial strain experience lower health. However, when their social support is high, the effects of financial strain on health are largely removed. Having close support seems to function as a buffer against the ill effects of financial strain. Interestingly, however, the data indicate that the social support received from fellow church members is much more effective in buffering the effects of stress. And the significance of church related support is maximal for the African American sample. More generally, it appears that churches often supply a source of very dedicated social support, and such support may be especially important in times of high stress.

From: Exploring the Stress-Buffering Effects of Church-Based and Secular Social Support on Self-Rated Health in Late Life by Neil Krause. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 2006, 61B, 535-543.

RESEARCH: Regrets and Well-Being

 In one of her most memorable songs, famous French chanteuse, Edith Piaf, proudly proclaims, “Je ne regrette rien” or “I regret nothing.” As research indicates, this may not only be a healthy approach to life, but one which we increasingly master with age. In this case, researchers examined the relationship of having regrets to one’s quality of life across the life span. In this research people who were classified as young, middle aged, and over 60 reported on their most severe regrets of omission (things I wish I had done) and commission (things I wish I hadn’t done). They also rated how distressed they were about their regrets, whether they could undo the consequences of these regrets, and how much they cared about whether they could counteract their regrets. They were also asked about the extent to which they were depressed, had health problems, and were satisfied with their lives. In addition they listed their future goals for the next five years.

The researchers first discovered that there was not much difference in the kinds of regrets people had over the life span. Family/love-related issues claimed 35% of the regrets and work/educational regrets involved 23% of them. Results indicated that the older sample saw less opportunity to undo the consequences of the regret, but, more importantly, they cared less about this regret or its consequences.

Intrusive thoughts about regrets were associated with depressive symptoms and also with health problems and lower life satisfactions at all ages. However, the older adults also reported lower levels of intrusive thoughts than younger people did. In addition, older adults seemed to be more capable of regulating their negative emotions compared to younger people.

Finally, the presence of future goals provided a cushion against intense negative emotions related to regret and increased feelings of life satisfaction. Overall, it appears that older people have accomplished the task of the famous adage that one should change what is changeable, accept what is inevitable, and know the difference between the two.

From: Regret and Quality of Life Across the Adult Life Span: The Influence of Disengagement and Available Future Goals by Carsten W. Rosch, Isabell Bauer & Michael F. Scheier.

Psychology and Aging, 2005, 20, 657-670


One of the most successful and easy to master forms of yoga training involves laughter. Jeffrey Briar, a yoga teacher of more than 30 years, follows the old adage: “Laughter is the best medicine.” This orientation to yoga has been practiced in India for many years. Briar’s teacher, Mada Kataria, an Indian physician, has written Laugh For No Reason, which is intended to help people relax and accept laughter as a personal form of medication. As she reasons, with laughter the body produces chemicals that are designed to reduce stressful reactions.

Briar suggests that the next time you encounter a familiar stressful situation you take the opportunity to laugh. The credit card bill, the lost key, the flat tire – no use fretting over it. Laughter allows the meaning of the event to shift from the tragic to the comic. As Briar reasons, laughter under such circumstances may feel artificial at the beginning; yet, if one continues to laugh even if the situation is not obviously humorous, eventually the laughter generates a sense of mirth. From the role playing comes a reality that “comes from the heart.”

From: “Laughing till You Can’t Cry” by Amanda Strindberg.

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 12, 2006, M1-M2.

Betty Friedan, famed author of the Feminine Mystique, which was published over 40 years ago, died on her 85th birthday, February 4. The book’s description of “the problem without a name,” (the boredom and tedious work of being a full time housewife), struck a cord with educated married women without career in the 1960’s. It helped to ignite the women’s movement just under way at that time. Herself married, with children, Friedan avoided the tender trap of domesticity by became a reporter. Later divorced, she continued in public life until her death. She was a founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women, and of NARAL, a pro-choice organization. Her life was dedicated to feminist causes, and in 1993 she published her last book, The Fountain of Age, a critical treatment of society’s treatment of the aging. She wanted to resist the ways that old people were talked about with the same “patronizing, ‘compassionate’ denial of their personhood that was heard when the experts talked about women 20 years” before. According to Eleanor Smeal, president of NOW, this work on aging was as important to Friedan as her earlier work had been. “She wanted people, especially women, to see these as years that could be creative and productive,” as hers were. Betty may be gone, but her “boop” will live for ages to come.

From: Friedan ‘opened doors and minds’: “Feminist mystique” sparked women’s lib movement in 1960’s by Tom Vanden Brook and Craig Wilson. USA Today, February 7, 2006.

Penn State football coach, Joe Paterno, who celebrated his 79th birthday December 21, 2005, had a great birthday present in the shape of the Associated Press and Sporting News award:

Coach of the Year. It was quite a comeback for Paterno, whose teams had suffered a losing streak the past several years. Many fans thought that after 40 years as head coach, Paterno had become too old to keep pace with the increasingly competitive football season in the Big Ten. But when the votes from the AP poll were counted, Paterno had garnered 45 of the 65 votes. Why? Because this year Penn State won the Big Ten championship with a 10-1 season, and a chance to play in the Orange Bowl January 3. The team also won the bowl game.

Paterno grew up in Brooklyn, and studied literature at Brown University, where he was a star football player. A philanthropist, as well as a highly paid coach, Paterno has donated more than $3 million to Penn State, much of it to support what is now named the Paterno Library.

From: Paterno’s present: Lions coach honored for comeback season by Frank Fitzpatrick. Philadelphia Inquirer, December 21, 2005, C-1, C-6.

Cars and independence are so closely associated in the U.S. that giving up driving may seem a major threat. Yet, a new form of trade has emerged with promising possibilities. The plan, now implemented in Portland, Maine, is a prototype for other communities in the world. The way it works is that someone who doesn’t want to drive anymore donates a car to a network, which organizes a credit based on the value of the car. From that base, the donor is able to charge rides, which are provided by drivers either volunteering or being paid from the organizational headquarters. So if one has a car worth $3,000, one trades in the car for that much in rides. Friends, family members and the donor may also add to the account to keep it renewed. This year, pilot programs that copy the Portland idea are being initiated in Santa Monica, CA, Orlando, FL, Charleston, SC, and Trenton, NJ. Having a car waiting is a far cry from standing on a street corner waiting for a bus. No wonder there is a great deal of satisfaction among those who have the option to use the system. Let’s hope great ideas travel far.

From: Trade-in deal: They give up cars and are given drivers by David Sharp, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 17, 2006, A3.

 Anthony Bolton wanted us to share the following:
Dr. Bill Thomas and his wife Judy Meyers-Thomas are innovators, and last May at the Northeastern Visioning Council — held at their farm and retreat center in upstate New York – – they were just rolling out their latest idea. Their Eden Alternative(TM) has revolutionized our thinking about nursing home environments. Their Green House Project has pioneered a radical new approach to residential long-term care for frail elders.

Now Eldershire offers a refreshing challenge to traditional thinking about “retirement communities.” I’m pleased to share the announcement below about a series of informational workshops and the opportunity to visit Avalon, the first Eldershire demonstration project being developed on a scenic hilltop down the road from the Thomas’ farm.

Eden Alternative(TM) originators Bill and Jude Thomas and Arthur Rashap want to invite interested people for an informational workshop about the Eldershire Community concept and the pioneer Avalon Project. Chose your most convenient date from five scheduled weekend workshops: March 10-12 – March 31-April 2 – May 5-7

The workshop is appropriate for those interested in exploring living in Avalon, those considering developing an Eldershire Community in their own location, or those just wanting to learn more. Eldershire is a new concept in housing and community building that draws on the lessons of history and the creativity of our times. It involves the creation of an elder-rich living experience that allows residents to continue to grow, learn, contribute, and age with grace and spirit. An Eldershire Community revolves around the beneficial contributions elders bring to our society. Rather than repeating the gated or continuing-care retirement community model, an Eldershire Community embraces the idea of intentional community.

An Eldershire Community design involves grouping private homes in a manner that promotes interaction among the residents.

Residents share indoor and outside spaces, as well as facilities such as gardens, gathering areas, trails, and play spaces. A common house is used for shared meals, meetings, workshops, offices, mail, and activities. A vehicle-free central campus and other shared spaces foster the connection among residents, neighbors, and guests. For more information, see www.eldershire.net or call Arthur Rashap at (607) 674-2650 or send an e-mail to: arashap@eldershire.net


 Seven Sins for a Life Worth Living, by Roger Housden, Harmony Books, 208pp, $18.95.
In this collection of quirky but entertaining essays, Roger Housden, a British writer who has seen and done it all in terms of world travels and work, has learned how to cut just the right corners to a life worth living. Due to an unplanned encounter at age 53 with an enchanting women, he came to realize that “the only happiness worth living for is the full-bodied sensuous and sensual experience that is possible now.” His book celebrates many sins, including the pleasures of being foolish, not knowing, and being ordinary. His chapter on sloth, entitled “The Pleasure of Doing Nothing Useful,” contains timely lessons for the workaholics among us. In general, the book effectively gives a fresh and inviting look at many behaviors that we may have narrowed our lives in avoiding.

Film: Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Neil Young: The just released film, Heart of Gold, has garnered four stars, a must-see concert movie for the old-time rockers who have always loved the faraway falsetto of Neil Young. Backing him up on the stage are Emmylou Harris, famed country western singer, his wife, Pegi, and Ben Keith, who help to make the music live. A special feature of the show is the music from Young’s recent album Prairie Wind, a compilation of songs he wrote before surgery for a brain aneurysm. The movie presents these songs, plus some old Young classics, such as “Heart of Gold.” Movie critic, Carrie Rickey says, “He plucks his instrument as he plays our heartstrings. It’s movie and music bliss.”


 *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.

August 10-13, 2006. New Orleans


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January 1, 2006 12:00 am