2007 – November / December

November-December, 2007 Issue No 47


November/December, 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 47

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: Benefits of Aging: Giving and Receiving

For the past several issues we announced The 2007 National Positive aging Conference, “Beyond the Cutting Edge” at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. This month we were delighted to participate in the conference, and the newsletter will be vitally enriched as a result. One outstanding question that emerged during the conference was: in contrast to all the talk about loss, what are the benefits of aging? We will have more to say about this during the coming year, but one of the most interesting responses to emerge from our audience is most relevant to the season. It concerned the twin benefits of giving and receiving. As participants suggested, we spend most of our lives acquiring – income, housing, goods, and so on. Yet, while a livelihood is essential, there is something empty about material self-seeking. The senior years provide an unparalleled opportunity to “give back.” We are able to give more of our energies, ideas, and resources to our communities, and indeed, to the needy of the world. A grandmother in our midst told a wrenching story of her joy at bringing a grandchild back to life, after the little girl had suffered radical mistreatment from her father. Another conferee advocated “saving the Earth” as a prime opportunity for older people, who have the wisdom, the resources, and the desire to preserve the planet for following generations. On the receiving end, there were many stories, both funny and tender. One of the participants admitted that she played the “old lady” card from time to time, as for example, taking the empty seat on the bus when several people might be standing. Most of us thought she well deserved to call in her credits, and to enjoy her status as an old lady. Another told the story of a bedridden woman who needed to receive care for the most basic needs of living, including help with toileting and feeding. Yet, despite her limitations, she expressed gratitude to her caretakers for every helpful act they provided. Those surrounding her felt blessed to have the opportunity to care for her.Interestingly, most agreed that it was more blessed to give than receive. In this vein we would like to use this holiday time to express our appreciation for all those who have made this newsletter possible. Prominent among them is Charles Studer, Godfather of the newsletter, and his merry crew of helpers in Europe and elsewhere, who are responsible for distribution. We are also indebted to the newsletter translators – in Argentina, France, and Germany. Finally, we would also like to thank you our readers. Your interest is our joy. We also appreciate receiving comments from you, along with announcements, book suggestions, and other items of interest to our readers. May we all strive together in this New Year to see life-giving advances in peace and environmental well-being.


Mary and Ken Gergen

RESEARCH: Older People and Political Engagement: From Avid Voters to ‘Cooled-out Marks’

In terms of voting power, the elderly are a major political force. When it comes to a presidential election in the U.S., for example, the proportion of the population over 65 who vote exceeds those under 45 by some 20%. Older people also tend to be more knowledgeable about politics than younger people. In various surveys the elders also report the highest level of interest in political campaigns and public affairs. They also make campaign contributions at higher rates. In the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, 14% of people age 65 and older contributed to a campaign. Among those age 35-64, 10% contributed, and among those 18-35, less than 3% gave money to a political campaign. In 2000 12% of all campaign workers were older people. A Congressman once called the senior citizens’ political agenda, the ‘third rail in politics’ (referring to the train lines in which one would be electrocuted from touching the third rail).So powerful is this population in its political potential that many worry they will favor only their special interests, possibly at the expense of those who are younger. There is little indication this is so. For the most part, the elderly do not vote as a bloc. As exit polls indicate, their votes are distributed among candidates in roughly the same proportion as those who are younger. The votes of the elderly are more likely to depend on their economic and social status, labor force participation, gender, ethnicity, and religion. Unless they are directly threatened, their voting patterns will continue to be split by other interests. Yet, the political power of the elders is like a lion: politicians are wise to feed it properly and avoid irritation at their peril.

From: Older People and Political Engagement: From Avid Voters to ‘Cooled-out Marks’ by Robert H. Binstock. Generations. Winter 2006-2007, pg. 24-30.

RESEARCH: Walking and Well-Being

In past issues of the newsletter, we have reported many studies that demonstrate the positive effects of physical activity on health and well-being in age. Walking is, of course, a favored option for many. However, many people do not walk, even when they would benefit greatly from the exercise. The question addressed in this research is “why not walk?” Simply falling back on the common view of will power is insufficient. Rather, the researchers reasoned, environmental factors may make an important difference in whether one chooses to take walks. Two studies thus explored such factors. In the first, women and men from 35-75 were asked about environmental factors that influenced whether or not they went walking in their neighborhoods. For women, safety was a prime factor in their decisions. Women walked more if they considered their neighborhoods free of crime and unattended dogs. Older women were especially sensitive to the attractiveness of their neighborhoods and were more active when they perceived it as beautiful. For men, those who frequently see other people being active in their neighborhoods reported substantially more physical activity than those living in quiet, non-interactive neighborhoods. Older adults seemed to be more affected by environmental factors than younger ones. In a second study, largely composed of overweight and obese people, similar results were found. There was significantly more walking when the neighborhood was viewed as trusting, with recreational facilities and walking trails easily accessible. Trails seemed to be a welcome asset in a neighborhood, and they served as incentives for people to walk, and thus lose weight.The implications for community planning are clear enough. From: Body Mass Index and Environmental Supports for Physical Activity Among Active and Inactive Residents of a U.S. Southeast County by Dawn K. Wilson Barbara E. Ainsworth, and Heather Bowles. Health Psychology, 2007, 26, 710-717.


Life Style and Depression

Psychologist Stephen Ilardi, from the University of Kansas contends that what has given rise to the “depression epidemic” among adults in the Western world today is the lifestyle we have evolved. For Ilardi, people “were never designed for our sedentary, socially isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, poorly nourished lifestyle.” The solution: take a hint from our cave-dwelling, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and follow some of their best habits. Ilardi’s 14 week program pairs group therapy with familiar healthy habits: getting enough sleep,aerobic exercise, bright light exposure, social interaction, and replacement of rumination with physical activity. In a study of 64 patients who have completed the program,77% experienced a favorable response (that is, a cessation of symptoms) compared to a 27% success in a control group, in which people were receiving medication and/or traditional psychotherapy. Ilardi believes that exercise is an especially potent curative because of its direct effect on brain chemistry. Although there is a view that older people are more likely to be depressed, Ilardi disagrees. Depression is highest among younger people. Perhaps older people know better how to live “caveman style.”

From (!Simply Happy) by Dr. Stephen Ilardi. AARP, The Magazine, November & December, 2007. Pg. 42, 44.


For years, it has been a truism that as we age, our abilities to sleep well deteriorate. Today, this idea is being challenged. According to recent research, sleep does not change much from age 60 on. Poor sleep does not appear to be caused by aging in itself, but can be facilitated by other factors, such as pain from physical ailments or from the medication used to treat them. As Sonia Ancoli-Israel, a sleep researcher at UCSD (San Diego) reports, “If you look at older adults who are very healthy, they rarely have sleep problems.” About 50% of older people over 65 report no sleep problems. Interestingly, an analysis of 65 sleep studies, including 3,577 healthy subjects, ages 5-102, indicates that most changes in sleep patterns occur not in old age but middle age. After age 65, there is little change. And surprisingly, research indicates that there is no increase in daytime drowsiness among healthy older people as they age. The mysteries and benefits of sleep: Aging has little effect on a good night’s rest by Gina Kolata.International Herald Tribune, October 25, 2007, 23.


In May of this year, the Taos Institute sponsored a conversation about death, dying, grief, healing, and the future, featuring two prominent contributors to this field: Robert Neimeyer, Professor of Psychology, University of Tennessee, and author of Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss, published by the American Psychological Association, and Lorraine Hedke, California family therapist, grief counselor and co-author with John Winslade of Re-membering Lives published by Baywood. Among the major outcomes of this dialogue were the following: 

1. People are comforted to know that they will live on through their stories about them and their relationships. 
2. Relationships do not die when a person dies. 
3. There are many stories that surround the loss of a loved one, besides those filled with grief: love, humor, relief, connection, and perhaps bitter-sweetnesses are also present. Focusing only on what is lost omits conversations about what remains following death. 
4. Our stories are stronger than our biologies. Our stories transcend death;they outlive us. This thought can produce conversations that are hopeful for those facing death. 
5. Grief is a relational process – not an individual process.a. It is our separation distress and continued need to connect that gives rise to missing someone. Death often gives us an opportunity to refocus the relationship. People need to make meaningful choices about how they want relationships to feature in their lives after a death has occurred. 
6. Grieving is an active process, not one of passively waiting until one is “healed”. 
7. Grieving is the act of constructing meaning. Our social worlds can be challenged when dealing with loss/grief. Grief changes our assumptive world. It unsettles our beliefs about many related things. 
8. Grief is not a process that only happens within a person; it happens between others in a relationship.

The panel concluded with the sense that a death may be an opportunity for new forms of living, for continued connection with those ho have died, and for hope and comfort, along with longing and sorrow.


Through 61 years of political activism, Lillian and George Willoughby have participated in the most important peacemaking movements of the twentieth century in the United States. They helped resettle European refugees in the late 30’s, to relocate interned Japanese-Americans when World War II broke out, and to serve as conscientious objectors during the war. They protested nuclear weapons in the 50s. They promoted integration of the races, preservation of open spaces, and new ways of communal living. They opposed the Vietnam War and participated in peace walks, one of which reached Moscow. They helped to develop nonviolence training workshops, based on Gandhian principles, and took these to India and other countries in Asia. In the new millennium, they continue to ply their ministries and engage in the new social issues – nonviolent peacekeeping in Central America and Sri Lanka, protection of open spaces from the grasp of developers, opposition to the violence of the so-called War on Drugs and the real war in Iraq, and promotion of the need for their country to look deeply into the causes of others’ anger at the U.S.” -Sunday, December 9, 2007, George Willoughby turned 93. In January, Lillian Willoughby turns 93. Their commitment to peace and social justice and their vision of nonviolent practice around the world has enveloped our times.

Excerpted and revised from A Biography of Lillian and George Willoughby, Twentieth Century Quaker Peace Activists” by Gregory Barnes (2007) The Edwin Mellen Press. Found in: The Brandywine Peace Community newsletter, “A celebration in honor of George and Lillian Wolloughby” Nov. 30, 2007.

Book Reviews

LEARN TO WRITE YOUR MEMOIR IN 4 WEEEKS: A STEP BY STEP GUIDE TO RECORD STORIES OF YOUR LIFE, by Jerry Waxler. Quakertown, PA: Neuralcoach Press. 2007. (82 pages).

There has been much discussion in recent years of the value of reviewing one’s life in the later years. The present volume will greatly increase the availability of such practices. In the author’s words “This workbook will help you turn memory into story by breaking the larger assignment to ‘write your memoir’ into smaller steps and techniques.” And what could be more helpful than having a guide to give one the tips and strategies that might allow one to tell one’s stories in a way that could be shared with grand children. The book begins with a justification for becoming involved in writing one’s own memoir. Waxler encourages one to write up a list of them, so that when one tires, it is possible to stay focused. Perhaps it is to allow one’s children to know about one’s past or to give up secrets that have been important to one, or to share some expertise or amazing events; or to provide wisdom that might help others. One must also imagine the audience for the memoir, and what it is important to tell them. Then there is a matter of the form. Will it be fact or fictional? An essay or a memoir? What part of one’s life will be the focus and what will be tread over lightly or not at all? Waxler also confronts issues of fear, of hurting someone through the writing, and of failed memory. The book promises grand adventure for all.

MY GRANDMOTHER IS ALWAYS WITH ME, by Lorraine Hedtke and Addison Yost. To see more about this book and others related to loss and bereavement, see www.rememberingpractices.com. Written by a 13 year old girl, Addison Yost, with the help of Lorraine Hedtke, a well known psychotherapist, this book is aimed at helping children deal with the death of a loved one. Addison’s grandmother died before she was born, but through the stories told to her by her family members, she developed a relationship with her grandmother. She knows her grandmother’s favorite songs, plays her piano, and finds connections in her everyday life to the stories of her grandmother’s life. She wore her grandmother’s jewelry to a family wedding. The book is illustrated with collages made of fabric, paper, yarns and lace, created by artist Annette Olson. Reading this book with children serves to open conversations on difficult topics for those who have suffered a loss of a significant other. It is also an incentive for contributing memories to future generations.

Readers Respond

* In reply to Mary’s commentary on the loss of beauty, Ingrid writes: Mary, So many segments, of your newsletter strike a bell. I too am surprised to see a wrinkled face in the mirror, but the loss of atractiveness does not bother me much. In my heart and mind, I still feel to be in my twenties. It is the mirror that reminds me I am not. What surprises me most are the elderly men that strike up a conversation with me, in public places like grocery stores. Regarding loneliness. I have always liked my own company and find a lot of interesting things to do. Whereas my sister needs to be entertained by other people but will not seek them out. It is very rare for me to be bored but that is my sister’s complaint (along with depression). It makes me wonder just how important is it to like yourself? Keep up the good work.

* In reply to our news story about a 61-year-old female hockey player, Larry Espe wrote: I also play in a community hockey league. One of our most enthusiastic players, was 78 years old. He died in September after being diagnosed with cancer last fall. However, in 1999 he lost all four fingers on one hand in a saw accident. This didn’t stop him. He had a hockey glove specially made so that he could hold his hockey stick. He missed very little hockey while his hand was healing.

Announcements and Upcoming Events

January 7: The Living Spiritual Elder Project! An eight-week discovery and discussion series. Sarasota, FL The project uses rare DVD films and audio CDs to explore the teachings of revered spiritual elders from diverse faith and spiritual traditions. The series plumbs the wisdom of the elders of the human family, with an emphasis on renewing personal lives and shaping a common destiny. The Sarasota series will be held each Monday afternoon 4:00-6:30 pm from January 7th through February 25, 2008. The Florida series will be held at New College, 5800 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. For more information, email info@rogersmckay.org.

March 27-30, 2008: Aging in America, conference of the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging. Washington, DC. See www.agingconference.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

November 1, 2007 12:00 am