2007 – May / June

May – June, 2007 Issue 44


May/June, 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 44

In this issue:

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: December 6-8, 2007

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: Weaving, Marking, and Motivating

We have just completed a season of class reunions during which there was substantial talk of aging and the challenges of creating a meaning/full life. Many people avoid reunions altogether, often for these reasons. A certain suffering results from confronting dear friends from youth, bodies so altered that sometimes they are not recognizable at all. Then follows the companionate fear that one has also suffered an irretrievable loss of the self. And yet, we also found at these reunions a treasure trove of positive aging. First, there was substantial evidence of life weaving, that is, of the way we had woven others and ourselves into a decade-spanning tapestry. The early bonds were not, then, isolated events cut away from the remainder of one’s life, but integral to the developmental journey that followed. The friends of yore remained as silent and supportive companions of the road. For this there was abundant gratitude.

The second contribution to positive aging was contained in the frequency of age marking. That is, rather than the common denial that one is no longer youthful and that life is finite, there was a graceful marking of one’s maturity. There was a pervasive sense that “Life has been filling, and I am fortunate to have lived it.” Yet, this same marking of maturity was so often accompanied by a third contribution to positive aging: the challenge of the future. Following the frequent accounts of years that had passed, were enthusiastic descriptions of adventures in the making, in scholarship, the arts, volunteer services, new business, non-profit ventures, and more.

The marking of finitude was not, then, an invitation to submission but to engage even more passionately in the potentials of life. In response to a 50th high school class reunion, one of us (MG) decided to give expression to such themes in the form of haikus. We include three of these here; others are included in the Reader Response section below:

Joy to reunite!

Perhaps if we are lucky we find 
A lost self.

Hard to believe, but here 

I make a new friend 
From an old acquaintance.

Lined faces and old eyes

Glide into youth 
As dusk darkens into night.

Mary and Ken Gergen

RESEARCH: Well-Being and the Home Environment

An increasing proportion of old people continue to live in their own homes regardless of their physical and mental capacities. As people age they spend more of their time in their homes, so their perceptions of their homes become increasingly important to their sense of well-being. As these researchers believed, strong emotional ties are also developed toward homes, and preventing relocation, especially unchosen, could be of utmost importance in terms of social planning. Thus, a study was undertaken of the relationship between housing and healthy aging among 2,000 people (ages 75-89) in five European countries (Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, and Latvia).

As past research has shown, a good home environment can help alleviate or prevent illness and declining health. Research indicates that housing satisfaction also increases steadily from middle to old age. The capacity of people to actively manage their home environments, even if frail or living alone, represents a major source of well-being. Findings from the present research add further dimension to our understanding: Overall, the research found that the following factors were associated with positive sense of well-being and independence:

* accessibility of the home to needed facilities and friends
* perception of the home as meaningful and useful
* perception of one’s home as voluntarily chosen

Altogether, the outcome of these studies suggest that people should have a big say-so in their choice of homes, and should not be relocated without their full agreement. Home is where the healthy and happy heart is, no matter how much better the alternatives might seem to caring family members.

From Susanne Iwarsson, et al. The Gerontologist, 2007, 47, 78-84. For more information on the study now available in six European Languages is this website www.enableage.arb.lu.se.

RESEARCH: Emotional Mellowing? Not Always

It is generally accepted in gerontology today that older adults are less “emotional” than younger ones. In previous newsletters we have reported on some of this research, concluding that as one ages there is more balance and less erratic surging of the emotions. But like all generalizations of this kind, we must be wary of over simplification. Is this balancing of the emotions relevant to all relationships and situations? The present research explored this possibility. The researchers studied 71 younger and 71 older adults, (students at a university in southern California and participants over 55 in an independent senior community.) Women composed 2/3 of the samples. In private interviews, participants were asked to list the people with whom they had interacted over the past week and to rate the emotions they had experienced with each social contact. The data were classified into three sets: Interactions with old friends, new friends, and family members.

The researchers did indeed find that the older adults experienced less intensity in negative emotions. Age has its benefits, as we have relentlessly stressed in the pages of this newsletter. In terms of positive emotions, however, the results are more complex. The older adults reported lower intensity of positive emotions with new friends, but similar intense positive emotions with established friends, and more intense positive emotions with family members. In effect, the intensity of positive emotions among older people is differentiated. With family members they may indeed be more positively engaged. Perhaps this is a grand-parenting effect. In any case, we now see the possibility of greater emotional intensity among the elderly, with the added benefit that these are emotions one may be pleased to experience.

From: Memories of social interactions: Age differences in emotional intensity by Susan Turk Charles and Jennifer R. Piazza. Psychology and Aging, 2007, 22, 300-309.

In the News

Myths about the Aging Body

One of the most difficult aspects of growing older is hearing about all the terrible things (or even slightly annoying things) that are inevitable as your body ages. According to this article, these are the leading myths:

  1. You gain weight: Not necessarily true. Not only is it possible to maintain your weight, you may even lose it. (but check out the dangers of frailty before you rush to diet.)
  2. You need less sleep. You may be getting less sleep, but the vast majority of adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night to keep on the sunny side. Insomnia is not a natural companion to age.
  3. Your muscle strength declines. Again, Its “use it or lose it.”
  4. Menopause is always difficult. Not necessarily the case. About 20% of women report no difficulties. 40% report mild to moderate symptoms. The remainder report moderate-to severe hot flashes, night sweats, and other symptoms. Regardless of your symptoms, each day has many trouble free hours, at least from menopausal symptoms.
  5. You get Alzheimer’s. The statistics indicate that for people under 70, about 1% or less of the population are diagnosed with it; for those 70-74, its closer to 2%; for those 80-100, it jumps from 9% to 18%. (And if you play mental games, you are more likely to beat the odds.)
  6. You get arthritis. There is a risk, with some forms of arthritis among 50% of oldsters. Proper weight and exercise help prevent and control it.
  7. If you’re a man sex is over, and if you are a woman, its just as well. After 50, most men have erections more slowly and they are more easily distracted from the fun. (Sexual encounters can take longer, and there is always Viagra to help keep up the action.) For women, there is nothing like a good partner and sex lubricants to increase the pleasure of intercourse. In addition, sexual enjoyment need not be defined only as penile penetration.

From: Myths About Your Body. AARP Bulletin, February, 2007 pg. 43.

Frailty: Not Intevitable

Getting old is often associated with becoming frail. People who are frail are characterized as being underweight, losing muscle mass, being exhausted, and therefore unable to enjoy everyday activities, having poor grip strength, walking slowly and engaging in little physical activity. It has often been thought that this fate is inevitable for old people. Research by Dr. Linda Fried, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health, studied a group of over 5,000 men and women ranging in age from 65 to 101. About 1 in 4 of people over 80 were considered to be frail, with women more likely than men to be so. What was most interesting to Dr. Fried was that the condition of frailty was not an inevitability related to age. Rather, it is a syndrome, which is brought on by one simple thing: poor eating habits. Older people are frail because they do not get the necessary vitamins and nutrients to be healthy. Sometimes people may have an ailment or loss in their lives that triggers a change in eating habits. This shift may lead to weight loss, loss of muscular mass, weakness, and a further decline in exercise, which reduces energy levels and appetite.

Because frailty increases the possibility of other diseases and accidents to happen, it can and should be stopped. To fend off frailty, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that people get adequate amounts of healthy foods ( for men 2,400 and for women 1.800 calories a day). This includes 4-5 cups of vegetables and fruit, 3 cups of milk, 5-6 oz. of meat or beans, 5-7 tsp. of oil, and 6-8oz of grains. The Department of Health and Human Services of the U. S. government, suggests that people get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week, and at least two days of strength-training exercises. It is amazing how little effort is required to keep at bay a bodily condition that could end up making life a withering away experience.

From: “Unraveling the Mystery of Frailty” The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter, April, 2007, pg. 4.

Aging as a Fresh Beginning

One of our persistent themes has been that one can become truly dedicated to some type of work after retiring from one’s usual occupation. Jay Rolfe was a Pennsylvania lawyer, who worked seven days a week, marking his life on the clock, ever 15 minutes. At 63 he retired from this “rat race” and began his vocation as an artist. Today, he paints large, three-dimensional, colorful canvases. “To me, they represent powerful, emotional or fun experiences that resonate with my subconscious.” While he does his art for the love of it, he is pricing his pieces at gallery rates, up to $350,000. (see www.jayrolfe.com) Becoming an artist in the last third of life is not unusual. “Art historians will tell you that the late period of many artists is also the period of freedom, a time when they really come into their own and blossom,” according to Robert Butler, Professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. For Rolfe, discovering his bliss was an epiphany that has been occupying him for the last five years.

From: Goodbye career, hello bliss by Art Carey, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4, 2007, B1, B8.

Book Reviews

THE ART OF AGING: A DOCTOR’S PRESCRIPTION FOR WELL-BEING, by Stewart B. Nuland. New York: Random House, 2007.

According to Stewart Nuland, “Aging … is first and foremost a state of mind.” Written by a surgeon-writer, the book is designed to help people consider how to age well from a variety of perspectives. In general, Dr. Nuland believes that “The goal of our lives at any age is to attune” to the various challenges and opportunities that are availed to us. A metaphor that carries throughout the book is that it is important to aim for the stars, but to check out the ground below from time to time so that we do not lose our balance. Although the book contains chapters on the physical side of aging, of being stricken with unfortunate conditions, of facing loss and decline, each one also details case studies in which the overpowering message is that no condition is essentially filled with doom. Human resilience is ever present. Living well, with an emphasis on harmony among the various strands, is a key to living long. The author has had a long history of communicating with the reading public, and his writerly skills make this a comfortable, insightful and uplifting book for those who are celebrating birthdays after 49.

UP WITH AGING, by Liz Waring. (2007) New York: Exlibris

This is a stunning new picture book featuring photography of Liz Waring, supplemented with quotes by gerontology experts. The collection of whimsical and artfully presented photographs is a tribute to senior lifestyle. In this book, elders are captured in light-hearted, stylized photographs that beautifully come together along with the messages, as one inspiring portrait of the upper years.

Readers will learn that environment and lifestyle contribute more to healthy senior years, than genetics; and such qualities as passion for life, optimism, creativity, fitness and volunteering are empowering. Up with Aging is a life-affirming book, and would be a wonderful gift, particularly appropriate for baby boomers on up.

A portion of the proceeds of the sale of Up with Aging will benefit The Home, a non-profit charitable corporation for elder care since 1891.


To request a complimentary paperback review copy, contact the publisher at (888) 795-4274 x. 7836.

Readers Respond

Gillian Nienaber writes:

Thank to you both you once again for the workshop in London earlier in the week. When we were discussing the subject of death towards the end of the day, I referred to the bbc documentary entitled “How do die a good death”. I thought you may be interested in this subsequent booklet that was produced in relation to the programme.

Death has always been a taboo subject, however by talking about our wishes for when we die, we can start to break down the barriers and ensure that our final requests are carried out. The Planning a Good Death booklet covers areas such as care during illness, putting your affairs in order, wills and planning a funeral, as well as information to help you deal with the emotional aspects of dying and bereavement.

Download and read the Planning a Good Death booklet and discover how ‘a good death can become the ultimate celebration of a good life’. Go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/lifestyle/tv_and_radio/how_to_have_a_good_death/booklet_index.shtml.

During our London workshop on positive aging, we asked Michael Flower, a Systemic Family Therapist, if he would be willing to share the following:

I am a Systemic Family psychotherapist working privately in London. I used to work in public social work, with abused children and their families. For 10 years I found it fascinating, but also exhausting. I liked the direct work with the client group but the pressures from the senior management and Government combined to make it an unlovely job. … Social workers are seen as the whipping boys of society. It would take very little to become front-page news if something catastrophic happened to one of my cases, beyond my control.

I wanted to devote more time as a psychotherapist having trained while I did social work. I reduced my full-time job to three days in an attempt to create a balance. I fantasized about leaving to practice as a psychotherapist full-time. However, such a move seemed almost like stepping into the unknown, rather frightening.

Meanwhile, I had a biopsy on a painless lump on the back of my right hand. I had an idea I would need an operation but my thoughts stopped there. When I got the diagnosis the consultant was brutal. He told me I had a low-grade malignant sarcoma in my right hand and I needed to have my little finger and its metacarpal removed. The full import of having cancer struck me when another doctor said, “You have a life threatening condition and I recommend you have the surgery.”

I told my social work manager and arranged to take long-term sick leave, closing and transferring my cases. In this process I talked with my family about what would happen after my operation. There was a lot of crying and I was treated with great tenderness. My son asked me to play the Chopin piano pieces he used to hear late at night as a child when he was upstairs in bed. We used to laugh at the bars I struggled over, but on this occasion he sat in a shadow. I could tell he was crying knowing it might be the last time he heard me do this.

There was an overwhelming sadness in the family at me losing my finger but I decided to lose it rather than ignore the cancer and with such unsentimental thoughts I tried to remain calm. I began to think that if I wanted to move away from social work, to escape almost, then this was the time to do it rather than find myself back in work that I had begun to loathe. Even though I had to go through the surgery, I began to look forward to life afterwards.

My children tell me that after the operation I was just so happy. I felt euphoric knowing my life would be different. It was like being given permission to determine my own destiny. It was not only about leaving social work but also about a much broader self-determination…. I went back to my social work job and within a week I had written a letter of resignation. It felt so thrilling.

I’d had cancer and it was like a passport to a new working life.

Mary Gergen’s haiku expressions, following the 50th reunion of her St. Louis Park high school class:

Years collapse into one pile
Making a confusing, rubbled
Treasure trove.

Looking into eyes
across the years
We find our young togetherness.

  Neural pathways
slashed open
As memories return.
 I cannot sleep.

As memories return.
We cry as we embrace.
Do our hearts know it may be
For the last time?

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. AmericanSociety on Aging www.asaging.org/autumn-series

World Ageing and Generations Conference, St. Gallen, Switzerland, Sept. 6-8,2007. For information, see: www.wdassociation.org

Information for Readers

– Questions & Feedback
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:

– How to unsubscribe or change your e-mail address
We hope that you enjoy The Positive Aging Newsletter. If you wish, forany reason, to stop receiving it, please send a blank email to leave-whef-positive-741056M@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:

Back to Positive Aging Newsletter Main Page

May 1, 2007 12:00 am