2008 – January / February

January – February, 2008 Issue 48


January/February, 2008

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 48

In this issue:

COMMENTARY: Positive Aging: Renewing the Vision

In the first issue of each year it is our tradition to review again the central mission of this newsletter, thus clarifying as well what you may anticipate and how you may participate as readers. Since its inception less than six years ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate – now reaching thousands of subscribers in four languages. Subscribers include gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons. Many new readers of the newsletter may be especially curious about the orientation guiding the selection of content.

Our primary aim is to bring to light resources – from research, professional practice, and daily life – that contribute to an appreciation of the aging process. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline, we strive to create a vision of life in which aging is an unprecedented period of human enrichment. Such a revolution vitally depends on the communities of research and professional practices that focus on adult populations, especially people over 50. It is within these communities that new ideas, insights, factual support, and practices of growth enhancement can effectively emerge. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging – the availability of relevant resources, skills, and resiliencies – research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice, but inspires hope and empowers action among older people. By moving beyond practices of repair and prevention, to emphasize growth-enhancing activities, practitioners also contribute to the societal reconstruction of aging.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If you have writings or practices that you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, you are invited to share them in future issues. We also review selected books and films, and carry announcements of relevant conferences andworkshops. Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu.

All past issues of the Newsletter are archived at: http://www.positiveaging.net.

To reintroduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is a Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor Emerita at Penn State University.Ken and Mary both serve on the Executive Board of the Taos Institute, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of social constructionist theory and societal practice. Each has a long history of engagement with issues in gerontology, scientific research, and therapeutic practice.

We hope you will join us in the present endeavor,

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Living with Chronic Health Problems

We often encounter the stereotype of older persons as fragile and unable to cope with the stresses of life. And too, because they often live with chronic health problems their feelings of well-being suffer. In effect, another version of the stereotype: “aging is awful.” To explore further, researchers investigated 3,493 people, ages 25 to 74 in terms of daily ups and downs, and in relation to various stressors, such as chronic health problems. The results indicated that regardless of the number of chronic health problems experienced by a person, the older adults reported higher levels of positive feelings and lower negative feelings than did younger adults. The only exception was that older people with four health limitations were as negative in their feelings as young people with four limitations; however, they still had more positive feelings than their younger counterparts.

Why might this be the case? One idea that has been adopted by social scientists is that older people have a greater reserve capacity than younger people. According to this idea, as people meet the challenges of everyday life, they accumulate capabilities that enables them to withstand difficult circumstances. When confronted with a stressful event older people are able to reach beyond their usual level of coping and locate useful resources. Older adults are less “shook up” when a bad thing happens. They know that every challenge or stressful event can be lived with, absorbed or counteracted over time. It is also reasoned that older people are more willing to shift their goals if their path is blocked to an original target. Older people are also more likely to engage in less upward and more downward social comparison. That is, they are less likely to envy those who are younger, richer or stronger, but rather tend to compare themselves with the less fortunate, and thus feel better in comparison.

The major conclusion of this research is that even when confronted by major problems in health, older adults have greater resources to handle them.

From: Living with Chronic Health Conditions: Age Differences in Affective Well-Being by Jennifer R. Piazza, Susan T. Charles, and David M. Almeida. Journal of Gerontology, PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCES, 2007, 62B, P313-P321.

RESEARCH: Designing a Third Age Life Portfolio

Retirement, whether chosen or forced upon one, doesn’t always work out as one might have hoped. William A. Sadler has studied 200 people over a twenty year period. As he found, for most of them retirement is a time of growth and enjoyment. But for some, serious readjustment issues arise. One study participant said, “I failed retirement; so I went out and got another job.” One way of dealing with problems in retirement is to develop a Third Age Life Portfolio. According to Sadler, building a Life Portfolio is similar to building a financial portfolio. The goal is to diversify personal investments in the categories of Creativity, Work, Play, Love, Service, Learning, Community, Self-care, and Spirituality. In each category it is important to take stock of one’s investments, and to redefine what constitutes success or satisfaction.

One participant in Sadler’s longitudinal study was a landscape architect, who was working 100 hours a week in his 40’s. As a result he was in danger of losing his health and his second marriage. When he was 48 he went on an Outward Bound course, where he took the time to reflect on his life and to envision some needed changes. Interviewed at 55, he had followed through on his plans to live a more balanced life. Although he worked less, the business in which he was a partner flourished; he had a much better relationship with his wife, and had grown closer to his three children. At 65. he had renegotiated his work life so that he had a one time position in the firm. Despite the reduction in time, the part of his work he most loved had grown, and he was able to avoid the tedious aspects of administration and management. He also volunteered to do work gratis for several non-profit organizations that he cared about. He had begun teaching short courses in his field at universities around the country, so he could travel in a way he had not been able to before. At 70, he said that he felt that he had received a “promotion” because he had been able to enlarge his work life in the most gratifying ways he could imagine. In addition, his play life became more central. Although in his sixties he had had a hip replacement, which meant a shift from tennis and sailing, he and his wife began to train sled dogs as their outdoor activity. They have also taken up drawing and painting. He has also taken good care of his health and has managed to lose 15 pounds over the years. Another investment in family has been to design and build a home together in an area where they had previously vacationed. Now it is theirprimary home, and a hearth for their children, eight grandchildren and friends as well.

The idea of the portfolio is to engage in an appreciation of one’s many talents, capabilities and desires over the entire spectrum of one’s life and to consider ways of balancing these various goals in order to seek a new and greater sense of satisfaction and joy than one has ever had before. The path for each individual is different, as the relational context that supports these dreams are varied and significant.

From: Changing Life Options: Uncovering the Riches of the Third Age by William A. Sadler, The LLI Review: The Annual Journal of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes.Vol. 1, Fall, 2006, 11-20.

In the News


In previous newsletters, we have reported on a variety of studies suggesting that engaging in challenging intellectual activity helps to preserve cognitive capacities and ward off dementia. This research project indicates that older adults can even increase their cognitive capacities, not just maintain them. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on improving brain plasticity, that is, the capacity of the body to create new neurological pathways in the brain through learning. In this study 182 participants over 60 were divided into three groups; the first group was challenged with active mental tasks. They worked on the computer one hour a day for 8-10 weeks doing memory games, following spoken instructions, and answering questions about a short story. A second experimental group engaged in more passive activity: they listened to lectures. A third, or control group did neither.

Results indicated that the first group, challenged with active tasks, showed improvement in their intellectual skills. They were faster at processing information, more accurate in word recognition, and able to recall more details of a story than the other two groups. As the researchers concluded, “To get protective benefits, you may need to include games, puzzles, or other mental exercises that you find especially challenging and not just enjoyable.” Bring on the Suduko!

From: Mind Games: Do They Work? The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter, July, 2007, pp. 4-5.


A new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that among people 60 and older, fitness is more important to one’s longevity than body fat. The study was conducted over a twelve-year period with 2,600 adults, average age of 64. Researchers frequently measured body mass, waist circumference, and percentage of body fat. Over the twelve years, 450 participants died. Most of them were older people who had lower fitness levels and greater risk factors – such as diabetes, hypertension or high cholesterol. However, body fat was not a factor in who did and did not die. In itself, fat seemed to make little difference. At the same time, death rates for individuals with higher fitness levels, as measured by a treadmill fitness assessment, were less than half the rates for participants who were labeled unfit. Fitness makes a positive contribution to longevity, but being fat does not in itself seem to shorten life.

From: For longevity, being thin isn’t as important as being fit. Philadelphia Inquirer, December 10, 2007, C2.


We have been very impressed with the work of the Intergenerational School (TIS) on Cleveland’s east side. This is one of only seven K-8 charters in the entire country to be featured in the U.S. Department of Education’s K-8 Charter Schools Guide: Closing the Achievement Gap. The publication profiles seven of thenation’s most innovative and successful charter schools serving at-risk populations, and highlights common practices among them.

Although the school is primarily concerned with the education of the young, the vision of education is vitally expanded. It is viewed as a life-long process in which all ages may participate. The Intergenerational School invites the participation of older citizens, thus fostering an educational community that provides experiences and skills for life-long learning. Volunteers perform a variety of tasks from painting and setting up classrooms to mentoring young readers and writers. Both the students and the volunteers gain from the experience, not only in terms of the curriculum topics, but as well in terms of knowledge and appreciation across the age span. The lesson of this school seems to be that you can profit by going back to grade school at any time of life.

For more information on the school, see info@TISonline.org.


For many people the challenge of retiring from engaging professional work is formidable. In response to this challenge, The Transition Network (TTN) is organized to help professional women find new lifestyles following retirement from high-paced jobs. It was founded in New York City by executives Christine Millen and Charlotte Frank, and is now composed of local networks across the country. Today there are 3,000 participants throughout the country. The group is divided into networks of women who meet monthly in their local areas to discuss and learn about possible life transition activities, to engage in meaningful community service, and to do advocacy work. To learn more, visit http://www.thetransitionnetwork.org.

From: More than Money: Older Women Find Help in Facing Transitions by Janet Mandelstam. Aging Today. Nov.-Dec., 2007, 1,5.

Web Resources

* Advice on how to live a longer, healthier life, from the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter: WellnessLetter.com

* Smarter Travel, tracks senior travel discounts. Among hotels the Starwood Hotels and Resorts beats other hotel chains that participate in AARP’s senior discount program: http://www.smartertravel.com.

* The Starwood group, with more than 850 hotels worldwide, gives seniors up to 50% off published rates. AARP members are advised to book 21 days in advance, and arrival must be on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. For their website, http://www.starwood.com/aarp. Or call 1-877-778-2277.

* Older people working with kids in schools, primarily. State focused: http://www.Experiencecorp.org

This is a story written by one of the volunteers, from the site:

I walked quietly into the special ed classroom, not knowing what to expect. I counted quickly – five boys, one girl. The teacher asked me to work with Alice, the obviously angry child who protested immediately. No she did not want help, no she did not want me to sit next to her, and no she would not read with me. I learned quickly I couldn’t even touch Alice’s hand or shoulder, since she would jump away and cringe. We started with my sitting next to her, quietly encouraging her, trying to keep her on task in the classroom. She knew most of her alphabet but hadn’t yet made the connection between alphabet sounds and words. We took small steps, and I set little goals.

After several weeks, Alice trusted me enough to sit with me right outside the classroom door. She “helped” me read, as I pointed to the easy words I knew she would know. Soon we were going to the library, picking out books and reading together. Alice started to sound out more words. One day, Alice wanted to read in the library balcony. I was very pleased but, due to a health problem, going up the steps was difficult for me. I explained we would have to go very slowly. Quickly, Alice grabbed my hand and assured me she could help. And so we climbed slowly, hand in hand, up the library steps.

By the end of the year, Alice didn’t need me to pick out books or point out words. She was very excited about reading, eagerly sounding out any words she didn’t know, even bringing in books she wanted us to read. By the end of the year, I no longer needed Alice’s help to climb the stairs, but I never told her.We all need a helping hand at some point in our lives.

– Charlene Connors, Experience Corps member, Cleveland

Readers Respond

* From Bella DePaulo:
You were so helpful about mentioning my book in the newsletter when it first came out in hardcover. Now it is out in paperback: SINGLED OUT: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After By Bella DePaulo, Ph.D. St. Martin’s Press 2006 Website: http://www.BellaDePaulo.com.

* Brian Guest writes:
I am reading M. Scott Peck’s book “The Different Drum – The Creation of True Community”, which includes a section in which he “attempts to build a bridge between the basic concepts of community-making on a personal level and on the level of international, intercultural understanding.” This is the area I am trying to understand better.

* From Jim McFarland:
Your article on the benefits of walking spurred my interest to offer an observation or two that may be helpful to some of your readers.

First, it is true that many older adults do not have the willpower to move into the exercise zone. It is too comfortable and too easy to have a cup of tea, turn on TV, and avoid what is best for the mind, body, and spirit.

However, there is some hard research and plenty of anecdotal evidence that creation of support groups, buddy systems, and other organized motivational devices can get older adults into exercise regimens. Clearly, with women support groups and buddy systems work very well-having a friend with whom to take a walk or go to the gym, make the activity a more enjoyable social experience. With men, the story is different and not as positive. Men are wily characters who do not react well to pressure, support, or buddy systems as readily as women do. The appeals must be more individualized to be effective.

Second, the most common reason given by both older and younger adults for not engaging in exercise is lack of time. How often have you heard the following comment: “I would exercise if I could just find the time.” The truth of the matter is that we all have the time. The time obstacle can be very easily put to rest through a simple exercise I call “Time Reality 24/7.” Here is how it works. On a piece of paper, write Monday at the top left hand corner. Put the number 24 right beneath the day. Do this for each day of the week.

Go back through the list starting with Monday and add hours for working, eating, sleeping, watching TV and other activities you are doing that day. Upon completing this exercise for each day of the week, most adults will find they have 3 to 6 hours per day available for activities.

If you do not believe me, you might believe John Robinson, author of “Time for Life: The Surprising way Americans Use Their Time”. Robinson points out in his book that adult Americans have about 40 hours of free time per week to use in any way they like. Frankly, his research puts the time argument to rest.

Announcements and Upcoming Events

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

November 21-25, 2008: The Gerontological Society of America 61st Annual Scientific Meeting: Resilience in an Aging Society: Risks and Opportunities. Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, National Harbor, Maryland. Information and call for papers and online abstract submission form available athttp://www.agingconference.com.

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
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