2007 – July / August

July – August, 2007, Issue 45


July/August, 2007

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 45

In this issue:

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: December 6-8, 2007

“The 2007 National Positive Aging Conference: Beyond the Cutting Edge” St. Petersburg Florida On the campus of Eckerd College Conference website: www.eckerd.edu/positiveaging.

By attending the 2007 National Positive Aging Conference, professionals in a wide variety of related fields will benefit from the latest thinking in civic engagement, brain fitness, purposeful living, lifelong learning, creativity in later life, living in community, intergenerational programming, and life planning for the third age. Sponsors include American Society on Aging, Civic Ventures, Elderhostel, Generations United, National Center for Creative Aging, National Council on Aging, and Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes

COMMENTARY: Recounting as Revaluing

For many of us, this past month has been a nurturing interlude between seasons of teeming demands. We have had time to visit with family and friends, and to re-connect with neighbors and acquaintances from years past. Most important, we have found the leisure to recount together events of the past – stories, humorous and sad, thrilling and disappointing. Often our story telling seems a way of simply spending pleasant time together. Frequently we exchange the same stories we have told each other for years. A few weeks ago we found ourselves immersed in just such activity. We had rented a cottage with friends we had known for over 25 years, but from whom we are separated by an ocean. As the days dwindled down, story telling absorbed our evenings, and we began to think anew about the activity. We came to realize that our stories were not just dispensable pleasantries, but a central contribution to creating a life of meaning.

As we laughed and moaned and were moved to silence through our well-worn stories, we realized that they injected value into life. They allowed us to share and sustain our creations of the good and worthy. Our favorite story of walking through a cemetery is not simply a good yarn; it also links us to a research project that has made a difference in our lives, and has produced valuable outcomes for many others through its m stories, we no longer see life as simply one event after another, but as going somewhere! And this some where counts for us. As well, these narratives give silent affirmation of the bond among us. “Remember the time we bought the same outfit, we hid smelly cheese in each other’s luggage, our kids babysat Little K, We sang to Abba”? All of these stories allow us to shed our consciousness of separation, and affirm the existence of “we together.” Finally, there is the sheer act of mutual entertainment. In telling a good story we bring about laughter, joy, sadness, desire, and so many other fruits of dramatic performance. In an evening of story telling we indeed echo ancient ancestors around the fire.

In part, this is to say, there are substantial shortcomings in limiting conversation to the here and now or to the next big thing. Looking backward together is a significant contribution to life. This is also an invitation not only to indulge in story telling – even if repetitious – but to look as well for ways of transforming the mundane moments of everyday life to the dramatic. Drama does not inhere in the facts of life, but in our capacity to recreate it in engaging ways. Finally, we must also give honor to the good listener, for without the favor of the listener, stories turn flat. It is in the relationship that a simple recounting becomes a revaluing of life itself.

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Productive vs. Receptive Engagement

Much research we have reported in this Newsletter supports the common view adage: “use it or lose it.” That is, the best way to maintain physical and cognitive functioning in older years is through continued usage. However, this view is also limited in its assumption that the best one can do is cling to past abilities, which will slowly disappear in any case. In the present research this view is challenged. Specifically, the researchers reasoned that if there were highly engaged activity – challenging brain and body – there could be an increase in abilities. New neural pathways in the brain could develop. The distinction is drawn, then, between the kind of Receptive Engagement we might derive from reading a book or watching a film, and Productive Engagement that might result from writing a book or learning a new language. The latter require that we grapple intensively with new challenges. While Receptive Engagement may sustain existing skills, Productive Engagement may expand one’s potentials.

To explore these possibilities, older adults were enrolled in a month long training program in acting. The theater arts program was chosen for its intense, demanding and engaging challenges to cognitive and social capacities. A second group participated in a visual arts appreciation course, and a third constituted a control group. Measures taken at the end of the month indicated that the Productive Engagement group demonstrated greater recall and problem solving ability and reported a greater sense of well-being, than either the visual arts group or the control group. The conclusion was that the total emersion in the theatrical activities stimulated capacities. As the researchers found, these benefits lasted for at least four months (the last time the participants were tested). The bottom line of this research suggests that you needn’t be content to do what you have always done, and that taking on new challenges is to continue the process of development.

From: Improving cognitive function in older adults: Nontraditional approaches by Denise C. Park, Angela H. Gutchess, Michelle L. Meade, & Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow. Journal of Gerontology, Series B, 2007, 45-52.

RESEARCH: Taking up Art

One of the most stunning contradictions to our normal view that artists are born, not made are the stories of artists who have developed their talents in their late adulthood. This was the focus of Pamela Brett-MacLean’s PhD dissertation research. Her participants were eight women and three men, ranging in age from 59 to 89. Seven of the participants had already exhibited and sold their artwork. The remaining four were involved with art as a serious pursuit, but not at the professional level. MacLean’s analysis was focused on the stories that each of them told about their developing involvement in art the primary storylines involved how they became artists, how their lives were enhanced by doing art, and eventually, for many, how their life as artists became their most significant identity. As their stories revealed, becoming an artist is a stage of growth that is facilitated by the aging process. The end result, psychologically, is a sense of agelessness and vitality, which accompanies a focus on their artistic productivity. Being artists is a vocation from which they never plan to retire. As one respondent said, “I found a part of me that I didn’t know I had before. So now I can claim it… I’ll paint with my feet if my hands go.” Another said, “I haven’t retired from art. I don’t think I ever will. I hope I die with a paintbrush in my hand.” A third said, “I can’t imagine doing anything else, or enjoying anything more than painting. I love it.” As Brett-MacLean emphasizes, life acquires a deeper sense of meaning through aesthetic activity, and there is no end to its potential for enhancing human existence.

From: Art(ists) in the Making: Exploring Narratives of Coming to Art in Later Life By Pamela Jean Brett-MacLean. PhD Dissertation, University of British Columbia, June, 2007.

In the News

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania tested the effects of Transcendental Meditation on 23 African American heart-failure patients, average age of 64. Over a six-month period, half the participants practiced meditation, while the others received health education. They all received standard medical treatments. At the end of the study, those who meditated improved more than the control group on measure of walking and quality of life measures. They also reported feeling less depressed and had fewer hospitalizations. The meditation lessened heart failure by reducing nervous-system activation, which contributes to stress and heart dysfunction. The study was published in the winter 2007 issue of Ethnicity & Disease.

From: Meditation may ease heart failure. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 19, 2007, E2.


What is brain fitness? For most people, it means: Being alert, having a good memory, being able to think clearly; and not being senile or having Alzheimer’s Disease. These were some preliminary findings of a national phone survey on brain health, conducted by Harris Interactive in April, 2006 for people 42 and over. Further findings from the survey are most interesting:

Relevant to the study reported above on Productive Engagement, 90% of the people over 41 surveyed believe that one can improve the fitness of their brain. It is encouraging to find that 84% report that they spend time, usually daily, in activities that are good for brain health. These activities are creative projects, reading, physical activity, playing games and doing puzzles, working, socializing. Adding to the picture, 60-70% also agree with many researchers who believe that avoiding tobacco, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and limiting alcoholic drinks helps to maintain brain health.

Interesting in terms of all those who feel they are losing their memory capacities, 96% of the sample rate their current memory as excellent or good. However, they do worry about tomorrow. The older we are, the later the age we think we should worry about memory decline. Interestingly, there is not much difference in those who rate themselves as having an excellent ability to remember things from last week, regardless of age between 42 and 64. About half think they have an excellent memory. However, the drop in self-rating occurs among those over 65. Here only 34% rate their memory as good or excellent. Whether this is accurate, or simply the application of the stereotype to oneself (e.g. attributing common failures of memory to age) cannot be determined from this study.

From: ASA-Metlife Foundation report on Attitudes and Awareness of Brain Health Poll, 2006.


Brain fitness is all to the good. However, lifting weights is also a health tonic for older people, according to Wayne L. Westcott, author of Strength Training Past 50 (Human Kinetics, 2007). Over the years, people lose muscle mass, about 6 pounds a decade. This causes a weakening of the body and a slowdown in metabolism the implications of productive engagement, this decline can be stopped, and even reversed by strength training. Research at the University of Alabama found that lifting weights for 30-40 minutes three times a week increased muscle strength for women 60-77 years old by almost 40%, putting them on a par with 35 year olds. To check this out yourself, you need only two things: an hour a week, in two 30 minute segments, and a pair of dumbbells. Beginners should start with 5-8 pound weights, and do 8-12 repetitions of each exercise, which includes various physical movements and positions. Look at the May & June issue of AARP’s Magazine for the precise details on doing the exercises or check out your favorite book store for a volume that describes how to do weight training as a mature adult.

From: Get Stronger, Live Longer by Gabrielle deGroot Redford. AARP Magazine, May & June, 2007, pp. 24-26.


The National Council on Aging now offers an online service to screen for federal, state and some local private and public benefits for older adults. It contains 1,450 different programs from all fifty states and DC. In addition to identifying the programs that a person may be eligible to receive, BenefitsCheckUp provides a detailed description of the programs, local contacts for additional information and materials to help apply for the Extra Help for people with limited income through Medicare’s Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D). An even newer feature allows eligible individuals to enroll for Extra Help online.

Book and Journal Reviews

TRANSFORMATIONAL ELDERCARE FROM THE INSIDE OUT: STRENGTHS-BASED STRATEGIES FOR CARING, by James Douglas Henry and Linda Gambee Henry. Silver Springs, MD: American Nurses Association, 2007

This book is a wonderful text for people studying in all areas of geriatric care, as well as a helpful book for people who want to rethink their own process of aging. Through stories, background information, and recommendations, a lively and informative view on aging and caring for older people from a strength-based perspective is given. The book ranges from the physiological to the psychological to the spiritual, as the authors integrate various fields of study into a coherent whole; their message encourages all stakeholders in the aging process to work from a vision of possibilities and potentials, rather than loss.

Changing from the Inside Out, as the title indicates, is a matter of changing the negative stereotypes of aging that permeate Western culture. It suggests that caregivers and others recognize that all older people have weathered many a storm in their own fashion. Each person has accumulated a wealth of experience that has brought joy, insight and sorrow. No one is alike. Thus, rather than grouping “old people” together as one homogeneous bunch, it is important to recognize the uniqueness of each person. It is through coordinating with others on the basis of their unique capacities that life can be better lived, despite what may seem to be enormous deficits or handicaps. Ultimately the book is meant to be a conscious preparation for one’s own death, along with creating the possibility of overcoming the fear of dying so that life may be lived more joyously.

The book contains excerpts from interviews conducted by the authors with hands-on care-givers as well as with administrators and academic experts in the field of geriatrics. Using a participatory research methodology, they strive to integrate the new ideas from these various people into their reflections andconclusions. The first chapter contains a vast summary table of Innovative Programs, Elder Places/Comm., Workshops/Training/Consumer Information, Movies/Videos, Therapies/Techniques, and Philosophy/Research, which touches on the major innovations elicited within the interviews and other research. The result is a compelling and optimistic vision of the potentials of aging.

As a companion to the book, the Henry’s have created a Facilitator’s Guide on CD to assist healthcare professionals and educators to use the multiple care-giving perspectives from the book.

JOURNAL REVIEW: THE LLI REVIEW. The Annual Journal of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. Published by the Osher Lifelong Institute.

The focus of the new journal is on learning in the later years, and is written, reviewed and edited by “seasoned citizens,” many of whom work within the Osher Lifelong Learning organization. The articles forge strong links among research, theory and everyday life. In addition the journal contains poetry and short fiction, related to the topic of learning in the later years. Profiles of exemplary and inspiring colleagues within the field are also included. The journal contains sections of Research and Theory, of Life Stories, Best Practices, and Learning Resources, as well as the poems. The journal is free and available to the public via the internet: www.osher.net. One copy a year is planned.

The Lifelong Learning Institute is supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation, founded in 1977 by Bernard Osher, a businessman and community leader. The Foundation’s mission is to support lifelong learning through institutes, which are located on 90 campuses from Maine to Hawaii, and through its integrative medicine programs. The Institutes are based on peer-taught courses and other activities for adult learners, age 50 plus. The Institute in Maine is the National Resource Center of the Institutes.

It facilitates the exchange of information and experiences among institutes throughout the country.

Readers Respond

* Wisdom from the Ages: What Cicero had to Tell Us About Aging

The following is taken from Maior De Senectute, a work by Cicero, translated and sent to us by Robert Hill, whom we have met through Taos Institute workshops; Bob is a classics scholar in his leisure time.

1. To those lacking the inner resources necessary for a fulfilling and happy way of life, every age is risky. To those realizing all their wealth within, nothing can seem a hazard, since it is merely compelled by nature.

2. Nature, having scripted so well the other parts of life, is not likely to have neglected the last act, like some hack playwright. Rather, there would have to be a sense of an ending; fruits from the tree, produce of the earth, readied by the fullness of time, to be born gently away by the wise man, ripened and ready to fall.
3. Older people who are well-balanced, and neither inflexible nor close-minded, find aging manageable, while those lacking a sense of graciousness and cosmopolitan outlook will find every period of life oppressive.
4. Old age couldn’t hope to be carefree amidst grinding poverty, even for a man of good sense. Nor could it fail to be oppressive to a fool, even one in the lap of luxury. The most effective strategy for aging is the imaginative cultivation of practices that over the course of a long, full lifetime prove incredibly fruitful. Not only since they never desert you, not even in the final minutes of life -although that’s probably the best part- but also because the most beautiful thing to recall is that of a life lived well in the service of others.
5. There is also a way of aging that is contemplative and restful, the fulfillment of a life lived graciously, marked by reflection, personal growth and intellectual development. In this category was the philosopher Plato, who died at 81, pen in hand. The great courtroom figure Isocrates, too, is said to have delivered one of his most famous arguments at the age of 94, and held on to life still another half a decade after that. In fact his teacher Gorgias of Leontinoi made the best of 107 years, and never retired from active pursuits. And when they asked him why he’d hung around so long (rather than seeking an easeful death, as was common), he famously replied: “I just couldn’t find grounds to bring charges against old age.” Spoken like a true lawyer!…

Thank you, Bob, for your translation and thoughtful sharing of this fascinating work.

Announcements and Upcoming Events

Last Minute Reminder: September 6-8: AARP’s National Event & Expo in Boston at the Convention Center. Hear Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Michael and Kurt Douglas, and entertainers including Rod Stewart and Lily Tomlin; interactive exhibits, nightclubs, exercise classes, and more. www.aarp.org/events 1-800-883-2784.

September 17-20, 2007: Autumn Series on Aging, East Coast, Philadelphia. October 8-11, 2007: Autumn Series on Aging, West Coast, San Francisco. American Society on Aging. Intensive workshops for professionals who work with older adults www.asaging.org/autumn-series.

Conference: Ageing femininities, representation, identities, feminism

U of Western England (UWE) Bristol, UK Saturday, October 6, 2007. Papers will explore representations of older women in any medium from feminist perspectives.

Topics to be addressed include:

– Representations of older women- Older women and consumer cultures- Older women and the gaze- Classed femininities, aging and cultural capital- Aging and racial/ethnic femininities- Aging and sexual identities- Feminine bodies and aging- The cultural production of female aging- H.R.T and the menopause- Age, the body and performativity

E-mail- josie.dolan@uwe.ac.uk for more information

September 20, 2007 – Elder Training program. Facilitated by Macrina Scott, a certified Sage-ing leader. A 22 week program for transitioning to elderhood, using exercises created by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. For information, call 303-756-3083, Ext. 123; email: macrina@mpbdenver.org.

Information for Readers

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July 1, 2007 12:00 am