2006 – March / April

March-April, 2006 Issue 37

The Positive Aging Newsletter


March – April, 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 37

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: The Power of Positive Questions

We often encounter a poster featuring a wizened senior who says, “Growing old is not for sissies.” One implication is, of course, that aging is a tough experience to endure. It is all about decline. And it is in this context that we so often find ourselves asking whether we are OK. Is my memory still ok? Can I still think clearly? Have I lost my stamina? Am I still attractive? The list goes on and on.

These questions may seem natural enough, but they are not necessary and they are not good friends. As our family therapist colleagues say, “The problem is the problem.” By this they mean that when we start to inquire into our problems, we begin to construct a world in which problems are central. They become the dominant realities that burden every day. In effect, the questions we ask ourselves are self-creating. To ask about our failings is to create a world in which failing is focal. Yet, this same logic also holds enormous potential. By asking ourselves positive questions we may bring forth future action of far greater promise.

Organizational change agents working with a process called Appreciative Inquiry know this very well. Drawing from their work in organizational development, Frank Barrett and Ron Fry phrase it this way:

“The questions we ask determine whether we eventually diminish our capacity to grow and develop, or increase it.”

The work in organizational change applies no less in everyday life. This is the lesson to be drawn from the work of Jacqueline Stavros and Cheri Torres in their book, Dynamic Relationships, Unleashing the Power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Living. For example, they propose that in our relationships with others we focus our discussions on such questions as:

What is working?

What gives life to the relationship?

How does the way we relate increase our success?

Stimulated by these ideas we ourselves have tried to put them into action. For example, when the extended family meets for dinner, we begin the meal by having each person, young and old, say something about what they appreciate about the day. It is amazing how this sharing animates dialogue replete with mutual caring and optimism. One of us (KJG) experienced an early trauma in public speaking. As a child he was unable to find his carefully written speech as he stepped up to address a crowd of parents and teachers. To this day the panic sometimes returns before his public speaking engagements. The antidote: quietly ask oneself to recall all those occasions in which public speaking was a success. Such positive questions are also effective means for avoiding the compelling but alienating ritual of finding fault in those with whom we relate. To ask about the good is to blunt the edge of apparent faults.

Given the increasing evidence that optimism and longevity walk hand in hand, there is good reason to rethink the ways in which we commonly evaluate ourselves. Rather than asking about what is failing or declining, we may, for example, begin to ask questions that focus on what we appreciate in life, who and what needs our help, what sources of joy can be found in the day ahead?

Growing old well is for the wise, and full wisdom may require that the power of the positive question is always at our fingertips.

Ken and Mary Gergen

Barrett, F.J. and Fry, R.E. (2005) Appreciative Inquiry, A positive approach to building cooperative capacity. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute Publications.

Stavros, J.M. and Torres, C.B. (2005) Dynamic relationships, Unleashing the power of appreciative inquiry in daily living. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute Publications.

Both books are available at: www.TaosInstitute.net

RESEARCH: Self-Reported Ageism

A message from Dr. Erdman Palmore

How often do you:

Send birthday cards to an old person that jokes about their age?

Tell an old person, “You’re too old for that”?

Vote against an old person because of their age?

These are three items from a new questionnaire Katie Cherry, PhD, (Louisiana State University) and I developed to find out how many people would admit to various ageist ways of relating to old people. Would you admit that you do these things?

There is extensive evidence that various forms of ageism are pervasive in our “youth-oriented” society. However, until recently there has been little or no attempt to measure the frequency and types of actual ageist behaviors based on self-report.

We call this questionnaire “Relating to Old People Evaluation” (ROPE). We chose this title, rather than a name with the word “ageism” in it because we wanted to maximize the number of responses, and especially honest responses. We suspected that “ageism” in the title might reduce the number of people willing to respond, as well as the number of ageist behaviors admitted.

The ROPE was designed to answer three basic questions:

What is the prevalence of ageist behaviors in this and other societies?

Which types of ageist behaviors are more prevalent?

Which types of people report more ageist behaviors?

The questionnaire contains 20 types of ageist behaviors: six positive types and 14 negative types. Examples of positive types include Hold doors open for old people because of their age; Offer to help an old person across the street because of their age; and Vote for an old person because of their age. The three items at the top are examples of negative types.

It might be argued that the positive items are not really ageism, but are just showing respect or being helpful. This may be true, but because they are actions that discriminate in favor of old people, they fit the definition of ageism, which includes positive or negative discriminations for or against an age group. Similarly, it might be argued that some of the negative types are actions that are “just having fun” (joking about their age) or reassuring the old person that their ailments are “normal” in old age. This may be true, but it is still discrimination against old persons and tends to reinforce negative prejudice. We do not judge the desirability of these behaviors. They may be innocent or positive in intent, but still constitute a form of discrimination.

A total of 267 responders were included in this first survey. They included college students, community-dwelling older adults and various members of university communities. There were 88 males and 179 females. The age range was 18 to 98 years.

Virtually all respondents admitted one or more ageist behaviors. However, the positive ways were reported much more often than the negative ways: on average 59 percent of the positive items were admitted, compared to 38 percent of the negative items. The most frequently admitted behavior, reported by 95% or respondents, was Hold doors open for older people because of their age. Almost as many reported two other positive types: Enjoy conversations with old people because of their age (92%); and Compliment old people on how well they look despite their age (89%). A rare form of positive ageism was Vote for an old person because of the age (17%).

The most frequent type of negative ageism was When I find out an old person’s age, I may say, ‘You don’t look that old.”(81%) This item may sound positive, but is actually negative because it implies that looking “old” is bad. The second most frequent negative item was When a slow driver is in front of me, I may think, “It must be an old person” (68%). The least frequent negative item was Vote against and old person because of their age (12%).

We had expected that older people would report more positive and less negative items than younger persons. To our surprise we found little differences between age groups. Apparently ageist behaviors are so much a part of our culture that they do not change much with age.

However, we did find significant differences between men and women: women were somewhat more likely to report positive items than were men. Perhaps this shows that women are on average more positive and nurturing toward old people.

We hope that many researchers will use this questionnaire to develop an “epidemiology of ageism” as a step toward its reduction, if not its eradication.

From: Fifty Plus, Feb.’06, sent to us by the author, Erdman Palmore, to share with our readers.

RESEARCH: Age and the Smart Use of Technology

Stereotypes suggest that older people are frightened of technology and resist using internet, email, and cell phones. This research undermines this stereotype by suggesting that what determines whether or not this population uses such technology is how much they view it as beneficial to their lives. This study was done with American and Dutch people from 65 to 80 who live independently. The sample of 50 was ethnically diverse, with 65% Caucasians, 25% African American and 10% Hispanic in America, and 80% Caucasian and the remainder from mixed origins in Holland. The research consisted of samples of 20 focus groups organized so as to ascertain their opinions on a variety of issues concerning communication media. Participants also filled out technology-use questionnaires, and discussed communication goals in the sessions.

As the results indicated, perceived benefit was decisive in how much a given technology was preferred. A second, but less important, factor was cost. Older adults were also more present-oriented than younger people; they were less willing to sacrifice their time in an unpleasant way (e.g. installing a computer) for future gains. If benefits are not evident for a technology, it is not explored. Many of these participants judged email negatively, but non-users were more critical than users. There were no systematic differences reported between countries, or within various subgroups.

Interestingly, in this sample, overall, some 70% owned cell phones. Researchers concluded that older people will adopt new technologies when they are given incentives that make it seem personally benefit, given reasonable costs and user friendly introductions

From: Older adults’ motivated choice for technological innovation: Evidence for benefit-driven selectivity by Anne-Sophie Melenhorst, Wendy A. Rogers & Don G. Bouwhuis. Psychology & Aging, 2006, 21, 190-195.


The Archives of Internal Medicine report a study in which Dutch researchers studied 545 men, ages 64-84 for over 15 years, in order to assess their outlook on life and their physical health. The men were asked their views on statements such as “I still expect much from life” or “I am still full of plans.” Their results indicated that the most optimistic men had a 50% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease over the 15 years than the least optimistic ones. While the research is correlational, the researchers speculated as to the reasons for this finding. One possibility is that people who are optimistic are better able to cope with problems, reach out for help when they need it, and follow their doctor’s advice. After all, they think they have much to live for. Perhaps that is the most important reason.

From: A light heart, men, is its own reward by Eric Nagourney, International Herald Tribune, March 9, 2006, 12.

Giving advice has long been the art of the older generation. It’s just that often it doesn’t seem to be asked for. Now, the tables are turned as young people go online to ask their elders’ advice. The idea was begun in 2001 by a San Francisco banker who had a cool, advice-giving grandma. Today advice givers like her can be found at www.elderwisdomcircle.org

The website allows for the wisdom of elders to be shared. The format is simple. Advice-seekers send an online message outlining their concerns, and elders, who have been selected for the participant’s topic, as well as for empathy and open-mindedness, reply. A quality-control volunteer checks the responses for appropriateness. Although the site does not provide legal, medical or financial advice, this is not particularly limiting, as 75% of the queries are about relationship issues. Many of the younger advice seekers are repeat customers. It appears that they have finally found someone who listens and can give answers without the entanglements that family members often provide, along with their advice.

From: Ask whatever you will of these old gray heads by Rita Giordano. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25, 2006, A1, A11.

Author Gail Sheehy became famous 30 years ago when she wrote Passages, a book about women’s development. Today she has written Sex and the Seasoned Woman to chronicle life for women after 50. In Passages, Sheehy admits that she stopped “parsing the stages of adult development at 50 because I couldn’t imagine that anything much happened after 50.” Today that has all changed. She realized that the boomers had changed the hands on the clock.

“In the last 15 years there has been an explosion of cultural and lifestyle changes on the part of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, and they, in turn, excite people even older who may have been dormant, and now they see opportunities they haven’t thought about, and so it’s not over for them, either.”

Asked what the “it” is that isn’t over, Sheehy answered, “Passion. …many people kind of flame out by their 50s — largely because they expect to.”

The interviewer, (obviously not a Positive Aging reader) asked, “But surely there’s the danger of over encouragement the fact of physical changes that come with age, for example, would be hard to deny.” Sheehy answered that you may have changes, but “you can negotiate with them in new ways.” “One thing you have going for you after 50 is more time, more freedom to make choices without guilt.”

From: Verbatim: “One thing you have going for you after 50 is … choices without guilt.” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 2006, C2

A variety of people who had been stricken with various illnesses discuss their philosophy of life following treatment for their illnesses. Andrea Fox, 52, from Santa Barbara, California, had this to say about her experiences as a breast cancer survivor. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but cancer turned out to be a life-altering, positive experience. It helps you focus and realize what is or isn’t important. The most important thing is to know that you will come through this. You will have discovered things about yourself you didn’t know – mainly how strong you are. The strength will continue for the rest of your life.”

Heath Calhoun, 26, an Iraq veteran, who lost both legs in an attack on his truck. “I wasn’t going to sit on my butt …. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I can’t do but there’s a whole bunch of other things I can do, so I just jumped back into life as if nothing had happened.”

Sheely Cushing, 32, was paralyzed on her left side by a stroke when she was a senior in college. Doctors removed 3/4 of the right lobe of her brain. Still she regained movement of her leg one year later, and regained sight in her left eye. “There were many times I could have given up because of the doctors’ dreary predictions, but we each know our own bodies and limits better than anyone. So don’t limit yourself. We’re all still learning and discovering, most of all when we are striving to overcome the impossible.”

From: American’s True Heroes by Bruce E. Beans. Update. Independent Blue Cross, Spring, 2006, pg.16-19.

Conductor Sarah Caldwell, 82, called the “first lady of opera” died of a heart attack in March. Caldwell, famous for her adventurous productions, was a director of the Opera Company of Boston for over 30 years. Before this she was the first female conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and was even then recognized as “one of the great impresarios in all the American performing arts,” and “the best opera director in the United States,” according to Time Magazine. She produced unusual operas, world premieres, and creative adaptations of Carmen and La Boheme. For the Barber of Seville she concocted the idea of accompanying Beverly Sills, the great soprano, by a music box with a mechanical singing bird. She was beloved for her wonderful flair and zest for life, as well as for her eccentricities – her 300 pound frame, her tendency to lose whatever she carried, and her bouncing checks from the opera company. In 1999 she was appointed a distinguished professor of music at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; the town where she grew up. We include this notice as a way of recognizing her as a wonderful role model for a life replete with creativity, productive work, successful collaboration, and fun.


Betsy Best-Martini shares the following:
I always enjoy receiving my newsletter online. Excellent work you all are doing. I am a geriatric recreational therapist specializing in exercise for frail elders and adults with special needs. If any of your readers are looking for an excellent resource as to how to get started with a specific safe and effective routine, my book is available through Human Kinetics. Exercise for Frail Elders, Best-Martini and Botenhagen.

You can review the content on their webpage. See below.

Mona Fishbane also shares:
I continue to enjoy your newsletter. I’d suggest a book that’s a great resource: Gene Cohen’s, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (2005, Basic Books). Very fine book. Keep up the good work!


BOOK SERIES: We have been impressed with a series of offerings by a book company, Human Kinetics (www.HumanKinetics.com). They view themselves as, “The Information Leader in Physical Activity,” and possibly there is truth in advertising. The series is called, Aging and Physical Activity Resources, and includes a large range of books providing information on exercise for an older population. Among the many titles are “Fitness After 50”; “Active Living, Cognitive Functioning and Aging”; “Motivating People to be Physically Active”, and “Exercise for Older Adults”. An interactive online course called “Fitness for Older Adults” is available, as well as books for exercise professionals who develop courses for older adults.

VIDEO: Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women over 65
A film by Diedre Fishel
www.Stilldoingit.com New Day Films

It’s easy to blush looking at this film about women over 65 in lust and in love, especially if the lover is 40 years younger. Students tittered uneasily to see the foreplay of the couple, although the young man was clearly smitten by his 67 year old mistress. Touching also was the scene between the 80 something woman and her lover, whom she found so appealing in her last earthly fling. Tender are their feelings, and lively are their interests; they find opportunities for sex, despite her wheelchair’s confinement during waking hours. Also blind, she claims, “My drive in life is affirmative. Whatever is good, I’ll take.” Lesbian love is also explored, and we see women who would never have made the cover of Playboy having wonderful fun together. Altogether, nine women, some African-Americans, talk frankly about the joys of sensuality at any age.


 * The Gerontological Society of America, 59th Annual Scientific Meeting: Education & The Gerontological Imagination.
November 16-20, 2006: Adams Mark Hotel, Dallas, TX, (202)842-1275 www.agingconference.com

*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 & Feedbacks
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: http://www.positiveaging.net

– How to unsubscribe: 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: mailto:leave-whef-positive-463511O@nl.healthandage.com

– 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:
http://www.taosinstitute.net info (at) taosinstitute.net, 888-999-TAOS or 440-338-6733. Full contact details.

March 1, 2006 12:00 am