2007 – March / April

March-April, 2007, Issue 43


March/April, 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 43

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: http://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 – If Only I Were Younger…

One unfortunate outcome of the common view of aging as end-of-life decline is its pernicious effects on motivation and action. We are left with a sense that the real opportunities are now past; it is too late to begin anything significant. And so we may be saddled with regret, and approach the future with lethargy. We are thus very grateful to a friend of ours, we call her “Mama,” who gave us a present of a book on the occasion of her 90th birthday. She was right on target in thinking that its message might be interesting to the readers of this Newsletter.

Granny D: You’re Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell is the story of an 89 year old woman, Doris Haddock, who was beset by grief. Not only had her beloved husband of 62 years passed away, but so had her oldest best friend, Elizabeth. Rather than simply looking out at a bleak future, Granny D., as she is called, made a dramatic decision. As an honor to the departed, and to make a contribution to her country, she decided to walk across the country on her own. The walk was to be in the service of campaign reform. Granny D was galled at how members of Congress were so often “bought” by the big corporations and money interests in the world and were no longer responsive to the average citizen. She wanted to do something about it.

She began her trek in California, and walked some ten miles a day. As Granny D walked she collected a shifting coterie of family, friends and followers who helped her to face the desert heat, the traffic on narrow muddy roads, the snow filled mountain passes, and the moist green fields of the South and East. Ever determined, she cross-country skied on a canal path when the roads became too treacherous to walk. Along the way she was given hospitality by the rich and the poor; she attended African-American church services and rodeos, gave speeches in high schools, at county fairs and just about any place that people would listen. She was the star of many a parade and local celebration. She looked up influential lawmakers and tried to persuade them of her cause. At day’s end, she would write in her journal, create her speeches, which are included in full length in the appendix, and unwrap the bandages on her feet and the steel corset that held her upright as she walked. Some days her emphysema and arthritis would get her down, but it never stopped her from her mission. She ended her walk in Washington, D.C. in time to see a campaign reform bill pass the House. She shared in the jubilation with Richard Gephardt, Christopher Shays and Mart Meehan, co-sponsors of the house version of the bill.

As she ended her mission she considered how joyful it was to think of her whole life. As she wrote, “I had come to look to my own beliefs and passions and had done something about them while there was yet time. In this, I had discovered what so many already know: that the art of your passion, embraced fully, redeems you from all the sins and shortcomings of a life.” (pg. 240). Granny D.’s message in brief is “It is never too late to do something about your dreams for yourself and your country.”

Mary and Ken Gergen

Source: Granny D: You’re Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke. New York: Villard, 2003

RESEARCH: Long Life for the Conscientious

A currently popular set of personality traits is known as the Big Five. While it sounds like a name for a football league, the five traits are said to be important dimensions for evaluating people over the life span. One of the five is called “Conscientiousness,” and it is a measure of how orderly, responsible, conventional, industrious, decisive, cautious and “civilized” one is. In this case researchers compiled all the studies they could find that assessed conscientiousness and its relationship to longevity. Two major findings emerged: first, conscientious people live longer than other people, and second, people become more conscientious with age.

The majority of evidence as to why longevity is increased is not surprising. Data indicated that people who are conscientious are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and to resist highly risky ones. Highly conscientious people are more likely to have career success and to make good money. They are more likely to marry and stay married, to have more children and belong to more organizations in adulthood. Conscientious people are more likely to see a doctor regularly and to wear seatbelts. They are also more likely to check the smoke alarms around the house. They tend not to smoke or to engage in unsafe sex practices. They don’t commit suicide. Their conventionality is also important: they are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, drive in a risky fashion, or eat unhealthily.

Turning to the second finding, that with age comes increasing conscientiousness, it may simply be that those lower in conscientiousness are more likely to die at younger ages. Thus, only the more respectable people remain alive. The researchers also suggest that “most people invest in the social institutions of work and family in ways that will promote increases in conscientiousness.” The constraints of work and family life encourage one to obey the rules of society, including taking care of one’s health. The older one gets the more sense that makes.

While showing the advantages of a well ordered, careful, and conventional life, it would also be illuminating to hear from the other side. That is, one might make a case for a bit more excitement, and a few more risky choices. Otherwise, one might finally die of boredom.

From: Conscientiousness and Health Across the Life Course by Brent W. Roberts, Kate E. Walton, and Tim Bogg. Review of General Psychology, 2005, 9, 156-168.

RESEARCH: Singing for Dear Life

In this research project, people with an average age of 80 either volunteered to join a singing group that met once a week at the Levine School of Music in Washington D. C. or they were recruited to be in a comparison group. The purpose of the study was to discover how significant participation in a cultural activity on a regular basis might influence the well-being of the participants in terms of their health and social life. The music group sang in a professionally conducted chorale for 30 weeks, and in addition they gave several concerts during this period. Baseline measures of physical health and medical treatments were taken, as well as scores on a morale scale, a loneliness scale, a depression scale, and a survey of social activities. Participants kept a journal of doctor visits and lists of medications they were taking. Researchers took care that the differences between the groups were controlled for in all analyses. While at baseline there were 166 participants, 12 months later there were 141. About 80% were women, and most of the participants were white (92%).

The results from this year-long study were highly favorable to those who participated in the musical program. They reported a higher level of physical health, had fewer doctor visits, used less medication, and had fewer falls and other health problems. They also reported better morale, less loneliness, and they had a more active social life at the end of the year; the comparison group’s social activities showed a decline.

This study supports the view that serious engagement in cultural activities, such as music and artistic programs, supports healthful behavior in other realms as well. A lively, culturally-engaged older population is one that is more likely to be self-directed and fulfilled, and less likely to require long-term care.

From: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on the Physical Health, Mental Health, and Social Functioning of Older Adults by Gene D. Cohen, Susan Perlstein, Jeff Chapline, Jeanne Kelly, Kimberly M. Firth, and Samuel Simmens. The Gerontologist, 2006, 46, 726-734.

In the News


Psychologist Katie E. Cheery, a professor of aging studies at Louisiana State University, was interested in studying the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the people of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While the hurricanes did no major damage there, the population of the city was greatly affected by the reports coming from nearby areas and the huge number of refugees that poured into the city. Cherry and her research team surveyed people to discover how these storms affected people from a mental health perspective. Of particular interest were people in three age groups, 45-60; 65-89; and 90 and older. Participants described their storm-related coping and filled out psychological and self-perceived health batteries. Approximately 60 participants answered questions immediately after the storms hit, and 6 months later.

Indications were that the older two groups, especially the oldest-old scored highest on self-perceived health and quality of life. While many expressed sadness and sympathy for those who had been afflicted by the storms, and felt good about helping others out, more than 40% reported no emotional distress from the storm. Why were the older people rather insulated from experiencing distress? Cherry suggested several reasons: They had experienced and resolved previous stressful events, such as hurricanes. Almost all of them had lived through previous storms, and had experienced or observed severe damage from them. They have fewer current stressful experiences and fewer worries about children or aging parents than their younger counterparts. They have developed coping strategies from the past that help them remain relatively tranquil. The oldest people are seasoned copers, and it takes a lot to “blow them away.”

From : “Oldest-old fare better post-hurricane by B. Murray Law. Monitor on Psychology, October, 2006, pg. 41


Waltzing is as beneficial to your health as working out on treadmills and stationary bikes, according to researchers at the Lancisi Heart Institute in Ancona, Italy. The dancers in a research study at the Institute had better oxygen uptake and less muscle fatigue than the control group, which did traditional exercises. They had more fun too.

From: One, Two, Three, One, Two, Three. AARP Bulletin, January, 2007, 17.


Eye glasses are a fashion item, and have been ever since the designers took to creating new frames and new forms. People enjoy showing off their new glasses. But hearing aids have been another matter. Many people sacrifice the ability to hear well rather than be seen wearing a hearing aid. Now all this is changing. Besides becoming technically more powerful and selective in terms of amplification, not to mention smaller, the latest trend, is toward making hearing aids fashionable. Last May, The Danish company, Oticon introduced “Delta,” which is designed to appeal to middle age people who are starting to lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds. The new designs feature a triangular shaped form that fits behind the ear; they come in outrageous colors, such as racing green and cabernet red. One happy user is Cathleen Osborn, 45, who chose the leopard-skin design to go with her dark brown hair and her personality. “From the day I wore them, they just completely changed my world. I can hear people talking in the back of the car. I can even hear whispers.” Hearing aids are expensive, ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 for one. Price doesn’t seem to be the major obstacle, as compared to the old stereotype that only old people wear them. Once the stigma is gone, many more people will find themselves loving the sounds of the world they are currently missing out on.

From: The hearing aid as fashion statement by Anne Eisenberg. The New York Times, September 24, 2006, pg. 7.


Doris Bersing, a clinical psychologist, describes her experiences trying to establish a therapeutic relationship with James Eddy, an 89 year old Texan, diagnosed with “dementia.” Eddy lives in AgeSong Senior Community, founded by Nader R. Shabahangi. The staff had been having difficulties with Mr. Eddy, a strong, large man, who would threaten anyone who tried to stop him from leaving the facility. He seemed to be on a course of his own, but Dr. Bersing did not find that he was declining or lethargic, rather he seemed full of life and firm in his opinions. When she researched the medical literature on dementia, so as to better understand Mr. Eddy, she came away frustrated. “I was struck by how little science knows about dementia.” She decided to simply spend time being with him and forget the textbook descriptions of his condition. Often they would sit quietly, looking into each other’s eyes, or she would tell him a story, although it often seemed that he was not listening. Sometimes they talked about his hard working past, life in Texas, or her travels. One day she told him that her father and she loved horses, and that it made her sad to see them get sick or die. One day several months later, Dr. Bersing came to work, feeling depressed about a personal loss. Mr. Eddy looked at her, and said, “Has one of your horses died because you look very sad.”

This comment helped her to think of the experience of dementia in a new way. “I began to understand … that those labeled as ‘demented’ simply dwell in a different reality. Instead of embracing consensus reality, they tend to dwell in ‘dreamland’ or in a spiritual realm…. He taught me that people with ‘dementia’ are not necessarily demented – and if we would learn a different language, we can communicate and understand the richness of their experience… Now… I listen to the language of dementia, forgetting the label and seeing the person behind it.”

From: “One Clinician’s Search for the Person behind the ‘Dementia’ by Doris Bersing. Aging Today, September-October, 2006, pg. 11.

Book Reviews

NARRATIVE MEDICINE: THE USE OF HISTORY AND STORY IN THE HEALING PROCESS, by Lewis Mehl-Madrona. (2007). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions

We have frequently discussed in this Newsletter the limits of the biological view of aging, arguing in particular that the meaning we place on biological changes may be more important in its impact on well-being than the changes themselves. This book extends this line of thought by examining the history and foundation of the indigenous use of story as a healing modality. Citing numerous case histories that demonstrate the profound power of narrative in healing, the author shows how when we learn to dialogue with disease, we come to understand the power of the “story” we tell about our illness and our possibilities for better health. He shows how this approach also includes examining our relationships to our extended community to find any underlying disharmony that may need healing. Mehl-Madrona points the way to a new model of medicine — a health care system that draws its effectiveness from listening to the healing wisdom of the past and also to the present-day voices of its patients.

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE: DISCOVERING YOUR OWN LIFE’S WISDOM IN THE SECOND HALF OF LIFE, by James E. Birren & Linda Feldman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. (171 pgs.)

MEMOIRS OF THE SOUL: WRITING YOUR SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY, by Nan Phifer. Cincinnati: Walking Stick Press. 2002. There has been a growing interest in leaving behind more than just a stock portfolio when you die. The legacy of one’s ethics, values, and life stories has become a focus for boomers, authors and spiritual guides. Two books have been sent to us dedicated to helping people get down to the business of writing their autobiographies. It is a challenging experience for most people, who have not written about their life histories, perhaps since elementary school, and whose last experience with writing was a letter of complaint to the electric company. For the Birren/Feldman book, an important purpose of writing about one’s life is to help one to focus on making the most of the time remaining. It is also a blessing to discover through one’s writing, they propose, how much one has survived and accomplished. Creating a life story often gives people a fresh respect of their own worth. One tool used in writing a life story is a visual life line. On a sheet of graph paper, people put the dates from their birth to the present in five year intervals (for example) and then record their birth, and the subsequent highs and lows over their lifetime across the page. This graph helps give direction to the stories. (Of course, it might be necessary to have more than one time line, if parts of life were going up as others were going down.) Various chapters suggest questions that might prompt the telling of a life story: “What kind of family were you born into?” “When did your childhood end?” “Who were you trying to be?” “What are your ideas about love?” “What have you invested in?” and “What strategies do you have for the future?” The last section of the Birren and Feldman book has an organizing section that includes sensitizing questions that help a writer focus on his/her past life. Stories from various people with whom Dr. Birren has worked in group sessions add luster to this helpful little book. In Memoirs of the Soul, Nan Phifer takes the reader on a journey to discover life in a way that extends beyond the stories that we tell ourselves and others in everyday life. Based on a Jungian framework, the quest is the nature of the journey. The discovery is one of a spiritual dimension. Dreams, longings, visions, and aspirations are significant aspects of this project. Once one has discovered the vital elements of one’s inner life, she proposes, one will experience spiritual growth. While the goal of personal change is evident in both books, in Phifer’s book, the promise is that one will discover the most important goals of one’s life, one’s strengths and commitment to reach these goals, and a new sense of integration. According to Pfifer, writing about one’s spiritual life is a great adventure, one that facilitates open communication and an unsurpassed intimacy. been available before. Unlke Birren and Feldman’s book, Memoirs of the Soul is not chronological, but rather proceeds from outer events to inner experiences. For Phifer, your biography can be visualized as “a great labyrinth in space.” Using a form of free association, writers begin by responding spontaneously to prompts offered by another. This becomes a rough draft, that will be filled with errors and messiness. The process of writing involves gathering ideas from photographs, documents, souvenirs, and other reminders. Orally describing a story helps organize one’s written work. The book also helps writers to find the most important topics that should be included. Making lists of important people to include, or events or places is suggested. For these authors, having groups of writers gathering together has been helpful; writing is easier if one is involved with others who are participating in the same challenging task.

EAGER FOR YOUR KISSES: LOVE AND SEX AT 95. This film by Liz Cane documents the determination of a 95 year old man in his efforts to retain a romantic life, including sexual liaisons. After mourning the loss of his wife of fifty years, Bill Cane, a singer and music teacher, found ballroom dancing as a promising way to meet new women. Singing and wooing went together and Bill produced two CD’s and found new love. Available on HS & DVD http://www.newday.com (1-888-367-9154).

Readers Respond

From: Robin Smith Chapman Several years ago we enlisted your newsletter in soliciting poems (thank you!); the resulting anthology will be out in April 2007 and available from the press or Amazon: ON RETIREMENT: 75 POEMS, edited by Robin Chapman & Judith Strasser, University of Iowa Press.(140 pages, $19.95 paper)

“This collection is a magnificent entrance to a season of life when time is at once bountiful and limited, is taken and surrendered, has been invested and withdrawn. Some of these voices say that time is leaden and some say it flies, and all are resolute in facing the arc of life’s course.”

-Dave Ekerdt, director, Gerontology Center, University of Kansas Robin Chapman is professor emerita of communicative disorders at the University of Wisconsin.

She is the author of three books and five chapbooks of poetry, including The Way In, and Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos, both winners of the Posner Poetry Award. Judith Strasser retired in 1999 from her position as senior producer and interviewer for To the Best of Our Knowledge, the nationally syndicated NPR program. Since her retirement, she has published a memoir, Black Eye: Escaping a Marriage, Writing a Life; a poetry collection, The Reason/Unreason Project, which won the Lewis-Clark Press Expedition Award; and a chapbook.

* From Lois Knowlton, La Mesa, CA: I would like to recommend a book for your readers: Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death by John Fanestil. It has a unique approach to studying how people “die well” when they have faith in some higher power. It also does a good job of encouraging putting limits on how much technology should be used to prolong the dying process in the name of “prolonging life.” I hope you will consider reviewing it.

Announcements and Upcoming Events

* JUNE 24-29, 2007: TRANSFORMATIVE DIAOGUE: Special Senior Rates for readers of the Positive Aging Newsletter. Taos Institute Summer Workshop Series, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, The Taos Institute, one of the sponsors of this newsletter, is a non-profit educational organization that works at the interface between social constructionist ideas and diverse professional practices and everyday life. (This newsletter, in its dedication to constructing positive images of aging is an example of a core project of the Institute.) This summer the members of the institute are giving a series of workshops for the general public on various topics ranging from education to leadership to positive living. We offer a discounted rate for registration to our readers. This is a $100 saving off the regular rate. For more information, check out the website: http://www.taosinstitute.com/upcoming/c200706.html. Let them know you are a reader of the Positive Aging Newsletter and claim your discount.

* May 28th – June 1st. “The Heart’s Wisdom & Legacy,” a 5 day training workshop that teaches the importance of the elder years in taking active leadership roles and formulating a spiritual legacy for future generations. Features Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, Falls Village, CT. Contact http://www.elatchayyim.org, or call 800/398-2630 ex. 307.

* June 19-21, 2007: Diversity & Aging in the 21st Century Sponsored by AARP. Hotel Bonaventure, Los Angeles, CA. The conference will address the impact of diversity and aging on public policy, service delivery and community outreach in the 21st. Century. For information go to http://www.aarp.org/diversityandaging.

* 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. http://www.aarp.org/events, or 1-800-883-2784. People who are taking donepezil for probable Alzheimer disease are sought. The study is designed to evaluate the safety and tolerability of another drug, in patch formulation. For more information see: View this and additional information on this study at

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March 1, 2007 12:00 am