2006 – September / October

September-October, 2006, Issue No 40

 The Positive Aging Newsletter

September-October, 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 40

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: The Mature Mind

The assumption that the biology of aging is inherently a biology of decline is widespread, and indeed is the basis for much research. It is thus enormously refreshing to discover a broad based account of aging that takes the opposite perspective. To be sure, abundant research does suggest a general though relatively minor decline in rapid information processing. However, as Gene Cohen proposes in his book, The Mature Mind, such research misses a very important process of positive development. Namely, the biology of aging favors the development of a talent we might well call wisdom.

Cohen’s lodges portions of his argument in neural research. For example, he cites the abundant research demonstrating that the brain remains quite flexible with age, and new neural connections are always being made. In addition, however, he finds research indicating that with advancing age people can increasingly rely on both sides of the brain to do various cognitive tasks. This sets them apart from the young. With this increased balance, argues Cohen, the aging are more capable than the young in their capacities for  1. Relativistic thinking (accepting uncertainty, suspending judgments), 2. Dualistic thinking (holding a view and its opposite possibility), and 3. Systematic thinking (seeing the bigger picture, the forest as well as the trees). These are major characteristics of mature thought. Adding depth and dimension to his research, Cohen has studied over 3,000 older adults by using interviews and questionnaires multiples times over the years since 2000. To organize and elaborate his view of maturity more fully, he proposes four stages of mature development. The first is Midlife reevaluation during the 50s and 60s, which is a time for exploration and transition (Where have I been? Where do I wish to go?) Such a stage need not generate a crisis; in its most positive form it yields a sense of continued quest. Next is a Liberation phase, in the 60s and 70s, (I am not a victim of my past. The time for action is now. If not now, when?). After sustained engagement there may be a Summing up phase. Here one may review one’s life, resolve tensions, and integrate old and new activities and relationships.) This may be a time to create memoirs, and for many, to give back to the family, community, world. Finally one may experience a stage of Encore, in the late 80s and beyond, which may involve a continuing desire to go on, even in the face of adversity or loss.

For Cohen, aging should be viewed with positive anticipation. It is a period that can usher in greater engagement, more satisfying relationships, new intellectual growth, and more fun. Retirement is not over the hill, but a time for climbing new hills. Yet, positive transitions are not guaranteed by biology. If one doesn’t use one’s capacities they may be lost. Among his recommendations for positive aging are:

– Forming active links with the surrounding community
– Balance group activities with solo ones, energetic action with relaxation
– Increasing levels of activity over time; add to one’s activities rather than subtract
– Locate long duration activities, and not simply short term or one-time adventures
– Nourish close friendships
– Consider learning a life-long activity

In sum, Cohen offers an informative and inspiring account of maturity. We applaud the effort.

Mary and Ken Gergen

The Mature Mind by Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. NY: Perseus, 2005

RESEARCH: Stereotype Threat and Memory

In an earlier edition of this newsletter we discussed research indicating people who believed in the popular stereotype of aging as decline subsequently lived a shorter life than those who had a more positive approach to aging.The present study adds further dimension to the view that negative stereo types are dangerous. In this case researchers presented news articles that were either positive or negative about memory loss and aging to people varying widely in age.In the positive condition the news article refuted the notion that memory loss in aging was normal, and the news in the negative condition supported this stereotype.Each group was told that they would later be given a memory test.Often psychologists have found that presenting a stereotype of a group to which one belongs has an impact on their later performance. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat. These researchers anticipated that older people would perform less well if given the negative stereotype about memory loss with age.

The results showed that among the younger respondents, information about memory loss in age had no influence on their later memory performance. Most interestingly,among the 40 year olds, the negative stereotype had the effect of improving their scores on the memory task. The researchers called this effect”stereotype lift,” the effect of having a negative stereotype revealed about a group to which one does not belong. However, this lifting effect weakened as the participants neared 60. For the older members of the sample, the stereotype threat did indeed take effect. Memory performance did decrease. And, most important for the elderly in the positive condition, those who believed the positive information showed an increase in memory ability. In effect, negative beliefs seem to lower one’s abilities, while positive beliefs can lift them.

From:Age-related variation in the influences of aging stereotypes on memory in adulthood by Thomas M. Hess & Joey T. Hinson. Psychology and Aging, 2006, 21, 621-625.

RESEARCH: Cognitive Advantages with Age

The basic assumption of almost all researchers involved in the study of cognitive processes is that as you age, you become slower, less acute, and less able to process information to the degree that younger people can. In earlier newsletters we discussed a variety of important shortcomings in this research. One of our arguments was that in order to draw their conclusions researchers had to select abilities or tasks on which decline could be detected. Seldom did researchers look for conditions under which there was no significant change, or indeed, under which there might be improvements with age. We are most pleased to find a case in which the researchers have bucked the trend.

In this research older and younger people were given the demanding challenge of performing two cognitive tasks at the same time. Seated before a computer, subjects were first asked to make rapid distinctions, for example, between circles and squares. At the same time, however, the screen before them presented groups of letters. Here the participants had to press a key indicating whether the letters formed either a word or a nonsense syllable.The results indicated that older people, average age 71, were more successful on the verbal task in this complex environment than the younger group of student, average age 25. It seems that their greater amount of experience with word usage allowed the older adults to perform more efficiently than the younger people. With a little imagination, one can think of many more contexts in which the elderly would outperform the younger. This is especially so, if you consider that the vocabulary of the older population is over three times that of the late adolescent.

From: Visual word recognition without central attention: Evidence for greater automaticity with advancing age by Mei-Ching Lien, Philip A. Allen, Eric Ruthruff, Jeremy Grabbe, Robert S. McCann, & Roger W. Remington Psychology and Aging. 2006, 21, 431-447.


Thousands of grandparents are now taking their grandchildren along on their travels.In 2005 almost 4 of every 10 leisure travelers were grandparents, and most had taken one or more grandchildren on a vac-ation in the previous year. Lenore Larson of Glenview,IL,for example, has traveled individually with all seven of her grandchildren in the last ten years. Four of the trips were with Linblad Expeditions to Belize, the Galapagos, Alaska and Costa Rica. She swears by these trips as a wonderful way to build closeness with her grandchildren. For Jerry Stempler of Rockville,MD,his joy is biking,and for his grand-children to go along with him, they have to be able to cycle at least 10 miles a day. He has taken a grandson through Nova Scotia, The Netherlands and Northern Spain. Grandmother Helena Koenig stresses the educational value of such trips. She started Grandtravel 20 years ago, which is dedicated to grandparent trips www.grandtrvl.com

Travel experts believe that the best time for traveling together is when the child is between 11-14, old enough to carry her own backpack, but not reluctant to leave her own friends. At that age, memories of the trip will last a lifetime for both grandparents and kids.

Other agencies that have special trips for the “bread” slices of the sandwich include Generations Touring Company, www.generationstouringcompany.com, and Elderhostel, www.elderhostel.org

From: Bonding on Family Trips (Without the Parents) by Caren Osten Gerzberg. New York Times, September 10, 2006, TR 5.

While psychologists have specialized in training specialists in early development, until recently the elderly have received little attention. However, in the past couple of years, psychologists have been in the process of developing an educational curriculum to train PhD students in geropsychology. Among the key areas for inclusion in such training program are: Ageism and Attitudes toward older adults: Over coming stereotypical ideas about aging;Diversity and Cultural Competence: Understanding how different ethnicities, cultures, and even health status can impact an older adult’s treatment; Professional practice issues:Understanding the medicare system and regulations and billing and coding procedures.Training will also provide experience with a wide range of older adults in different settings, including clinics, nursing homes, and primary-care settings. Among psychologists who are involved in developing this new field is Dr. Robert Perloff, 85, an emeritus professor from the University of Pittsburgh and an active advocate for the elderly. He warns that “practitioners often tell older adults what they can’t do, rather than helping them focus on what they can do.” He recommends that patients participate in their own decisions about treatment. In Perloff’s view, advanced age should not be confused with incompetence. Although visited with disabilities, people should showcase their strengths and ask themselves what they can do to make themselves happier and more fulfilled by making the best of their own particular attributes.

From: Help wanted: Geropsychologists by Laurie Meyers, Monitor on Psychology, September, 2006, 28-29. Retired and inspired by Laurie Meyers, Monitor on Psychology, September, 2006, 30-31.

For over 50 years mathematicians interested in web geometry confronted a problem that was called “hopeless” by its originator, German mathematician Wilhelm Blaschke. This year Professor Vladislav Goldberg of the New Jersey Institute of Technology shares credit in its solution, along with two others, Maks Akivis of Ben-Gurion University and Valentin Lychagin of Norway. Goldberg, who had a long career in the Soviet Union, is now in his 70’s. Who says math geniuses must be in their 20’s?

From: Math riddle, 51 years old, is solved. AP. Philadelphia Inquirer, August 13, 2006, B8.


* This is part of an essay on Healthful Aging sent to us from Joseph Fino, Retired, Penn State Abington ( jafin5@usadatanet.net ) “Aging should not be looked on as something that we dread, but as a third
stage in life, where one believes that their decisions on health can make a difference, and that they do have some control over their lives. … Aging and death may be inevitable, but physical disability and declining health are not. Our health and vigor are something that we can influence, even in later years. New research is showing that many conditions that once were thought to be the consequence of aging, are in fact the result of disease. We are now learning that sound health practices such as avoiding tobacco and drugs, modifying bad eating habits and changing a sedentary life style, can delay or offset some chronic diseases. Additionally,the basic approach to healthful aging includes maintaining a physical fitness program, managing stress and emotional health, and above all, accepting self responsibility for your well being. If we adopt healthy patterns of thinking and behavior in the younger years, then we can minimize the risks of disability or sickness, reduce the chances of premature death, and hopefully live the later years with dignity and extra vigor. Not dependence.”

* Dawn Dole, Executive Director of the Taos Institute, asked if we might share the views on aging of humorist, Larry Miller:

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we’re kids? If you’re less than 10 years old, you’re so excited about aging that you think in fractions. “How old are you?” “I’m four and a half!” You’re never thirty-six and a half. You’re four and a half, going on five!

And his tips on positive aging.

  1. Throw out nonessential numbers. This includes age, weight and height. Let the doctors worry about them. That is why you pay “them!”
  2. Keep only cheerful friends. The grouches pull you down.
  3. Keep learning. Learn more about the computer, crafts, gardening, whatever. Never let the brain idle. “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” And the devil’s name is Alzheimer’s.
  4. Enjoy the simple things.
  5. Laugh often, long and loud. Laugh until you gasp for breath.
  6. The tears happen. Endure, grieve, and move on. The only person, who is with us our entire life, is ourselves. Be ALIVE while you are alive.
  7. Surround yourself with what you love, whether it’s family, pets, keepsakes, music, plants, hobbies, whatever Your home is your refuge.
  8. Cherish your health: If it is good, preserve it. If it is unstable, improve it. If it is beyond what you can improve, get help.
  9. Don’t take guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, even to the next county; to a foreign country but NOT to where the guilt is.
  10. Tell the people you love that you love them, at every opportunity. AND ALWAYS REMEMBER: Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away


ELDERESCENCE: THE GIFT OF LONGEVITY, by Jane Thayer and Peggy Thayer, Hamilton Press, 2006. Life expectancy has risen 25 years since 1900. While once only a lucky few lived past 65, today it is commonplace. Even getting to 100 is not such a remarkable accomplishment any more. The long period of life after the conventional age for retirement from paid employment is gaining considerable attention. Jane and Peggy Thayer, a mother-daughter team, address this period of life, which they call Eleder escence. (Think Adolescence without the addled). Rather than retirement, this period of life is seen as a time of challenge, discovery and change. The book grew out of a series of interviews with people who were “retired,” with the focus on discovering their secrets to a fulfilling life. The cautionary aspect to the tale is that life devoted to leisure, without a commitment to something outside oneself can be dangerous path. However, the forms taken by this outside interest are many. (Volunteer work, a new career, learning a new skill or engaging in creative pursuits).  The authors also provide evidence to undermine the myth that creativity is for the young. For example, in architecture Frank Lloyd Wright produced the Guggenheim Museum in New York City at 91, in science Galileo completed his opus on science at 74; and in politics Golda Meir, Castro, Mao, DeGaulle, and Churchill, were highly effective well into their 70s. It must be said that the people interviewed have had rather interesting and often complicated work lives so the challenges of elderescence may be different for someone who has labored physically for many years. The stories the Thayers’ tell have been called “sometimes funny, often poignant, and always instructive.” (Visit www.elderescence.com ).


* American Society on Aging is pleased to announce an upcoming web seminar, “Planning and Coor-dinating Care for People with Alzheimer’s.” Caregivers and health care professionals are invited to join this educational event presented by the Medicare Rights Center. This informative 90-minute web based seminar will provide the tools you need to help loved ones and clients who have recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The seminar will be presented live on Thursday, November 2, 2006 at 1:00 PM Eastern Time and 10:00 AM Pacific Time. Beginning on Friday, November 3, the program will be available on demand (24 hours a day). There is no fee for the seminar, live or on-demand; however, the live version will be limited to the
first 50 registrants. To register for this free web seminar, visit www.asaging.org/webseminars

* National Conference on Arts and Aging: Creativity Matters Nov. 3-4. New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, NJ The Conference will build the capacity for and expertise in “arts and aging pro-gramming of attending organizations and artists by: 1) highlighting research findings pointing to the physical, social and psychological benefits of cultural programming on older people; 2) providing an overview of “best practices;” 3) providing professional artists and organizations with the opportunity to exchange expertise; 4) exploring the obstacles that prevent older adults from having full access to the arts and the steps needed to overcome them; and 5) disseminating the findings of the conference to professional artists and arts organizations through a subsequent publication. For more:

* The Preliminary Program for the Gerontological Society of America’s 59th annual scientific meeting, Nov. 16-20, 2006 in Dallas, Texas: So often gerontological research emphasizes decline in abilities and
capacities with age. It is thus with great pleasure we note that in the forthcoming meetings of this important organization there is another strong voice: In his introduction to the program, Charles F. Longino, Jr., a noted gerontologist and president of the society, writes about the theme of the meeting, “Education & the Gerontological Imagination, in which he notes that “People creatively adapt to changes in their lives, and sometimes they find creative ways to overcome obstacles, even big ones.” They use their imaginations in life-giving ways. The Presidential Interdisciplinary Symposia also reflect this theme and give support to the positive aging agenda. Among them are “The Good Life in Old Age”, “Living Well with Chronic Illness: Imagining the Possibilities;” and “The Fountain of Gerontological Inquiry: Unique Insights on Aging from Interdisciplinary Studies.” It is refreshing to see this more inspiring theme now writ large, and we salute their endeavor. (www.agingconference.org)

* The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education will hold its 33rd Annual meeting and Educational Leadership Conference, March 1-4, 2007. Hilton Portland and Executive Tower, Portland, Oregon. See: www.aghe.org

* March 7-10, 2007: Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging. Chicago, IL www.agingconference.org

*Careers in Aging Week, April 10-14. 2007. This is an annual venture between the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE). The goal is to increase awareness and visibility of the wide-ranging career opportunities that exist in aging and aging research.


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September 1, 2006 12:00 am

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