2007 – September / October

September – October, 2007 Issue 46


September/October, 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 46

In this issue:

Personal Appearances

* On Tuesday, Nov. 13, the two of us will be contributing to the program: You are What You Create – A Boomervision Event, at WHYY’s Technology enter, 150 N. 6th St., Philadelphia. For details: http://www.comingofage.org/register

* On December 6-8, 2007, on the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL, we will be making two presentations at the “The 2007 National Positive Aging Conference: Beyond the Cutting Edge” This conference includes discussions on 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 AARP, American Society on Aging, Civic Ventures, Elderhostel, Generations United, National Center for Creative Aging, National Council on Aging, and Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes For details: http://www.eckerd.edu/positiveaging.

Commentary: Aging and Physical Attraction

As our commentary for this issue of the Newsletter, we are including an exchange based on an e-mail conversation between one of our readers and Mary Gergen, both concerned with the sensitive issue of aging and attractiveness.

READER: I am wondering if you have ever dealt with any fears around aging, particularly in terms of feeling a loss of attractiveness. If so, how did you deal with it? I have had an intense fear of aging since I was in my twenties (am now 58), and it seems to revolve around my fear of being old and unattractive. Though I do have a rich spiritual life which includes a regular meditation practice, the fear remains and is in fact growing. And of course,sabotages my peace of mind.

MARY: I think we all become conscious as we age that we are becoming more and more invisible in terms of being physically attractive creatures. For some women it seems to be a blessing; for some, it was never important in the first place; but for many, it is experienced as you say, with fear and regret. The media and the social sciences collaborate in creating this negative situation. But there it is. I even wrote a journal article about 20 years ago called “Finished at 40” about the lack of interest in women as they matured. However, today, I think I would call it “Finished at 50” because 50 is the new 40. There has been a shift in what we think Old means. Still…

A few women I’ve known have remained quite alive in a sensual way into their late 70’s. One of my friends, Adele, was a wonderful flirt at 99. In my view it seems primarily a matter of style, a way of being in the world, as to whether or not you are seen as attractive. I recall that Ken was absolutely intrigued at a dinner party one evening as he sat next to an artist well into her 80s. I think there is a great range in the ways of getting older, and there are models of aging that appeal to some more than others…I like the “Auntie Mame” idea…being rather unorthodox and free. Wearing what I want.. doing what I want. Letting my beauty be in my ways of being…and hoping people enjoy my presence, and appreciate my style.

To myself, I am still a beautiful woman… and so at times it is rather surprising to look into the mirror and see the older woman I have become. I suppose I might go to a plastic surgeon if I felt very strongly about it. Two of my best friends from college did so when they were 60. But I still feel that it is ultimately style over substance (in this case bodily) that counts. I know physically beautiful women who have no problem in attracting lovers, but they are so self-centered and critical that no one cares to share a life with them. (A former professor of mine once told me he had married just such a woman. Later I met his second wife, an average looking woman who was charming, funny, and kind.)

There are two small thoughts I have found useful over the years. First, when I look back at early photos and begin to feel forlorn about my present state, I say to myself: If I look back in 10 years at the photos taken of me today, I will feel, “Oh, how attractive she was.” A second thought remains with me daily: people always seem to worry about the wrong things. It is life’s surprises that usually bring the demons. So, perhaps we should not spend too much time on useless worries. Its better to count our blessings.

Research: The Political Power of Elders

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: Loneliness and Health

There is substantial research indicating that people who live alone are likely to have poorer health than those who live with someone. We have indeed discussed some of this research in previous issues of the Newsletter. However, the reasons for the relationship between social relationships and health are ambiguous. Important light on this subject is provided by John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. He has been studying the health effects of loneliness for years, and has been particularly interested in the possibility for a biological link between loneliness and health. His research had shown that people who are lonely, who have no one they feel close to, are likely to become ill and die at a younger age than people who feel close to others.

In the present case, Cacioppo’s team studied 14 volunteers — six who scored in the top 15 percent of a loneliness scale, and eight who were the least lonely of the group. The researchers studied the gene activity related to the participants’ immune system cells — the white blood cells that protect us from viruses and bacteria. When all of the human genes were compared, the activity of a group of 200 seemed to differentiate the lonely individuals from the others. These genes are especially involved in helping the body fight off disease. The findings suggest that the loneliest people had unhealthy levels of chronic inflammation, which has been associated with heart and artery disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and other ills.

While the research biologists’ advice was to give lonely people aspirin, (!) our advice is to encourage everyone, especially people who don’t feel close to others, to find ways of making a few good friends and encouraging closer family ties. If physical limitations restrict access to others, connections on the internet could even be a resource. Our reasoning is the reverse of the biologists. While genetic material may influence our social lives, our social lives can also influence our biology. We can’t do much about our genes, but we can do something about our interpersonal relations.

The report is available freely online in the journal Genome Biology at http://genomebiology.com/.

In the News: No Place Like Home

The media often feature retirees who move to sunny climes and to new styles of life. However, we should be careful not to generalize from these depictions. For the vast majority of aging people, staying in one’s current home, or if not, in a nearby location, is the most likely and desired choice. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 9 out of 10 Americans over 60 stayed in the same home or in the same county between 1995 and 2000. A recent survey of Americans over 50 found that almost 90% wanted to stay in their current home as long as possible.

Having an older population in a community is not a curse, but a blessing according to Stephen Golant, a University of Florida gerontologist. Up until age 75 or so, older residents are strong economic contributors to communities; they support cultural events, restaurants, housing, health and medical services, and they often continue to work and to volunteer. They are ideal citizens in many ways (and they don’t require new schools to be built!). As they age, their contributions may decline, depending on the nature of community resources and their own financial condition. Planning ahead for the future of an aging population is a worthy cause for entire communities to address. Many stresses can be avoided if the right resources are made available. In Swarthmore, PA, for example, volunteers drive older residents to medical appointments; nearby grocery stores deliver to homes; and community center activities are geared to daytime events for older citizens.

“The New Gray Areas” by Anna Bernasek. Key, The New York Times, Fall, 2007, pg. 32

In the News: Gaining Wisdom From Adversity

These are some words of wisdom that Glenn Mangurian created in response to an injury that left him paralyzed, without the use of his legs.

1. You can’t know what will happen tomorrow, and its better that way.

2. You can’t control what happens, just how you respond.
3. Loss amplifies the value of what remains.
4. It’s easier to create new dreams than to cling to broken ones.
5. Your happiness is more important than righting injustices.
As Mangurian concluded: “Many of us underestimate our ability to withstand crisis. I certainly did. If you had asked me before my injury how I would handle being paralyzed, I would have said …”You might as well put me in a corner and shoot me.” “My new life’s a work in progress, and I have to re-create parts of myself every day. ” “In my new life, I am able to use all of my assets, including my paralysis, to be a new kind of leader.” (pg. 130).

From: Realizing what you’re made of by Glenn Mangurian. Harvard Business Review, March, 2007, 125-130.

In the News: Women’s Hockey at 60!

Of all the team sports, hockey may rank the highest in “macho” appeal. Checking opponents into the boards, charging with the puck, taking slap shots, and fighting on the ice and in the crowd are the hallmarks of hockey. Lately the sport has taken a turn to the feminine side, and women have been putting on the pads and forming leagues of their own. And age does not seem to be a limit to participation. Today the Middle Atlantic Women’s Hockey Association is the umbrella organization that puts together hockey games for a variety of clubs. Players range in age from the early 20’s to early 60’s. Sixty-one-year-old Jackie Tanaka is a biology professor at Temple University and one of the grandmothers in the league. She got involved in hockey because her niece plays it. She learned to skate as a child, but not as a hockey player. Of the game she said, “I love it so much. I like the team concept. Being a scientist can be a lonely profession, but here, I have teammates supporting me on the ice and in the locker room.” Part of the fun of a team is that they play together and then go out to a bar for food and drink. As Marcia Welsh, 51, said, “I plan to keep doing it until my body gives out.” Looks like she has quite a few years to go. See http://www.uwhl.org to learn more about the league.

From: Mature women take to the ice. By Don Beideman, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 18, 2007, L14.

In the News: Strange Encounters Can Enhance Moods

Being around people we know well does bring comfort. We feel at home; the world is more predicable; and stress is low. However, being comfortable also reduces excitement and can invite lethargy. Thus, meeting new people, or seeing people who have been absent from our lives for some time, can have great benefits. We put our best face forward, we pay closer attention, and we may have new ideas. In certain respects we are happier.

This possibility was documented by psychologist, Elizabeth W. Dunn, from the University of British Columbia. She studied 38 undergraduate heterosexual couples who had been dating for at least three months. Each member of the couple had a conversation either with the romantic partner or with an opposite-sex stranger for four minutes. Relating to the stranger was harder, in that people tried to make a good impression. What surprised them was how good it felt to do so. Dunn recommends that in long term relationships it might be good to treat each other as a stranger from time to time. As she sees it, making a good impression is a feel-good activity. For older people it also suggests that getting outside of the “gang” from time to time or inviting new people in could enliven the party, create new connections, and enhance everyone’s mood.

From: Making an effort to impress enhances mood by A. Cynkar. Monitor on Psychology, September, 2007, Pg. 12.

Book Reviews

WOMEN OVER 50: PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES, Edited by Varda Mulbauer and Joan C. Chrisler. New York: Springer. 2007 (207 pages).

This book may be a first in the psychological literature on women aging. Instead of being filled with doom and gloom, it is a compilation of chapters that assess and proclaim the middle ages of women as the “prime of life.” The editors note that the meaning of life for women over 50 has undergone an amazing transition in the last four decades, and women are learning to take on new challenges for which they were not prepared and confronting an inviting array of new opportunities. The editors’ major goal is to illustrate through various topics how these shifts in perception and in action are taking place. Chapters on body image, sexuality, health, exercise, well-being, friendship, grand-parenting, care-giving, work life opportunities, and empowerment provide rich contexts for re-creating our lives. The emphasis is on options, opportunities, flexibility, and diversity, whether the issue is about work or play. Women over 50 are “rejecting stereotypes, embracing new opportunities, and forming … a new collective middle-aged identity.”

This books would be an excellent textbook for life span developmental courses, for graduate education in diverse fields, as a basis for adult education courses, or as an upbeat book for friends to talk about together. To disclose a connection to the book, Mary Gergen was invited to write the forward, based on an article written 18 years ago, called “Finished at 40.” We are pleased to see that that title is now very out-dated.

WELLNESS MADE EASY: 365 TIPS FOR BETTER HEALTH. A booklet from the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter. WellnessLetter.com. To subscribe visit their website.

Each month the Berkeley Wellness Letter gives out tips for healthy living. A few of the more interesting ones that seem especially apt for our audience, from a 2006 edition:

1. Cooked tomatoes, as in tomato sauce, (or as they say in South Philly, red gravy) is even healthier than raw tomatoes. Add garlic and onions to be even healthier. And fresh oregano and marjoram are the best herbs for health!

2. Discard the soaking water from dried peas and beans. This eliminates more than half of the indigestible carbohydrates that cause gas.
3. When your mouth is ‘on fire’ from hot pepper, one way to cool it off is to drink milk or a spoonful of yogurt.(In Indian restaurants try the cucumbers and yogurt.)
4. Two quarts of plain popcorn have the same calories as 20 potato chips.
5. To prevent dry skin, limit bathing to 15 minutes a day, and favor a tepid shower over a hot bath. Excessive bathing and use of strong soap washes away the natural oils that trap water in the skin. Maybe the French have got it right.
6. If you often encounter aggressive dogs on your exercise route, carry a pop-open umbrella (one of the choices.)
7. Don’t worry about swallowing pits, seeds or even apple cores. Think fiber.
8. If you are scheduled for a PSA test, do not ejaculate for about 48 hours beforehand. Ejaculation temporarily boosts PSA levels.
9. Kissing a boo boo is not a bad idea. Licking a wound helps disinfect it and promotes healing. (warm water is easier.)
10. Warm-up before stretching. Stretching cold muscles can injure them. Warming up- by jogging in place for 5-10 minutes prepares you for exercise.

Readers Respond

* Erdman Palmore writes from the Duke Medical Center: I would like you to share with your Positive Aging readers the news about our ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AGEISM, published by Haworth Press recently. It tells thereaders all they ever wanted to know about ageism and how to overcome it. For more information you can go to our website, http://www.geri.duke.edu or haworthpress.com

* Mark Connelly offered to the Appreciative Inquiry list serve a practice he used in helping people transitioning into later life to think about their future:

The underlying idea is to discover what ‘works’, what people want to create more of in their lives, and create ways to build on these. I think the ‘magazine cover’ question works well… * it is 5 years time and you are featured on the cover of a popular local/national/international magazine…- which magazine is it?- what is your feature story about?- what have you achieved? how did you do this?- who supported you in this achievement?

This allows people to tap into their own meanings of ‘success’ in future years and begin defining some of the ways they may move towards achieving this future.

* Nancy Marlett wrote to inform us of a very interesting meeting Nov. 1-3; we are sorry not to have been able to announce it on time: On the Move: A National Seniors Assembly

A national meeting in Canada of seniors and those researchers, educators, service providers, and policy makers who work in partnership with them. For more information, http://www.crds.org/nsa.

Announcements and Upcoming Events

National Events USA:

* Nov. 16-20, 2007: San Francisco. The Era of Global Aging: Challenges & Opportunities. The Gerontological Society of America, 60th Annual Scientific Meeting. Visit http://www.agingconference.com for details.

* March 27-30, 2008: Save the Date: Washington, DC: Aging in America. 2008 Conference of the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging.

* International Events:November 30, 2007: Centre for Policy on Ageing, 19-23 Ironmonger Row, London EC1V 3QP. Visual Methods in Gerontological Research. Seminar. Introduction to the use of photography. film and paintings in research on ageing. Hosted by the Centre for Ageing and Biographical Studies, The Open University and the Centre for Policy on Ageing. Access to the full programme and booking form via the web: http://www.cpa.org.uk/events/events.html.

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

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September 1, 2007 12:00 am