2008 – May / June

May- June, 2008 Issue 50


May/June, 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 50

In this issue:

SPECIAL OFFER TO OUR READERSSeptember 24-27, 2008: Hyatt Hotel, Sarasota, FL. Dialogues that Deliver: Generative Practices in Collaboration, Conflict, and Community. Sponsored by the Taos Institute, and featuring talks and workshops with Ken and Mary Gergen and others: therapists, organizational consultants, educators, and health practitioners. For more information and to register go to www.TaosInstitute.netA discount of $100 is offered to our readers. The discount code is XuBBVXFor more information or help in registering, email info@TaosInstitute.net.


In this issue we share some very interesting excerpts from an essay sent to us by Jane, our longstanding friend in California. She wrote the essay in response to a request from her husband, Jon. Jon teaches a college course on lifespan development, and thought his students might like to learn first-hand about what it is like to be 75 years old. As Jane wrote to us, her task was to write about, “How do I grow old gracefully? Or how have I coped with things like: retirement and downsizing; losing friends, family, and affiliations; inevitable physical decline; setting new goals when circumstances change, or dropping whatever you must drop. And what wisdom is there in all this “growing old”, or as some optimists say, “growing better”?

Jane wrote at length about the problems she confronted in growing older. However, upon reflection, she also found that she had substantial resources for living a full and fulfilling life. Among other things, she wrote of the importance to her of remaining “myself through changes (biological and social).” In effect, she did not let age become her identity. She also counted as resources her “even temperament; being financially practical, living ‘green’; being continuously considerate, and helping friends.” The latter two resources resonated well with research discussed in earlier issues of the Newsletter, on the central contribution of thriving relationships to one’s well-being.

Jane also wrote of the particular resolves that helped her most in confronting some of the challenges of aging. In particular, she stressed: – Watching my diet. Fitness is more important than body fat. – Mindful Attention Focus Aesthetic appreciation Working on my memory- Learning new tasks. Continuing education, water color, starting book group & claygroup, learning the computer- Volunteering for community serviceTeaching reading; working for museum (White Elephant Sale) – Retaining vitality by keeping active Health club; yoga; pilates; fix up home and garden, making decisions – Life Review Self reflection; writing group; making changes; hopefully gaining perspective & wisdom

We thank you, Jane, for sharing your insights.

Mary and Ken Gergen

RESEARCH: Emotional Mellowing in Aging

In previous issues of the Newsletter we have reported on emotional changes over the life-span, and the frequent finding that as one grows older, one’s emotional life generally becomes more stabilized. With some relief, we tend to get off the emotional roller-coasters of earlier years. The present research fills out this picture a little further.

Researchers read hypothetical emotion-eliciting scenarios to participants ranging in age from 18-85. They asked them to describe how they might feel in each a situation, and then how the others involved in the scenarios would feel. For example, in one scenario they asked, “Someone who has been critical of you in the past pays you a compliment. How would you feel? How would the other person feel?” Compared with younger adults, the accounts given by older adults’ (those over 59) included a higher frequency of positive and a lower frequency of negative emotions. Thus, older adults would be more likely to say they would feel happy or grateful to receive a compliment, rather than responding, for example, that they would be angry or insulted by the other. In effect, the older group tended to look more on the bright side. Also interesting was the fact that older adults were more sophisticated in their emotional responses. They were more likely to report ambivalence than the younger group that is, describing a mixture of positive and negative emotions. The younger group was more likely to describe the co-occurrence of multiple negative emotions. So, for example, an older person might say, it would be “bittersweet” to meet an old lover after 40 years, rather than disappointing and sad.

The researchers concluded that the positivity in the older group’s reactions to these situations may contribute to more fulfilling relationships. When these reactions are carried over into relationships, the results may be beneficial. Of course, there is a danger that this bias toward the positive may contribute to some vulnerability when it comes to situations in which others may try to take advantage of them.

From: Age differences in descriptions of emotional experiences in oneself and others by Corinna E. Lockenhoff, Paul T. Costa, JR., and Richard D. Lane. Journal of Gerontology, PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCES, 2008, 63B, 192-199

RESEARCH: How Much Volunteering is Good for You?

Research frequently reports on the positive effects – in health and well-being – of volunteering activities among older people. This research asks the interesting question: Is there an upper limit to the positive effects of volunteering? Could too much volunteering be counter-productive to well-being? The 2,500 participants in the study were 60-64 year old people from Australia, and in a survey they enumerated their volunteer activities. Other information, including a sense of well-being, health indicators, employment status, marital status, and years of education, was also gathered.

After adjusting for various demographic variables, the researchers concluded that a moderate amount of volunteering is most beneficial. People who volunteered at least 100 hours per year, but fewer than 800 hours scored highest in well-being. There was no indication that volunteering great amounts of time to good causes filled the gap left by the absence of a partner. There were no gender differences found in satisfaction, but the types of volunteer activities tended to follow stereotypical lines, with women engaged in more nurturing activities and men in more managerial ones.

The researchers caution that government policy that retreats from addressing social ills by assuming that the older population will pick up the burden may be detrimental both to those in need and to those who feel morally obligated to provide. “Social policy could be best served by working toward the optimal balance of creating opportunities for older adult volunteers while guarding against excessive burden on individuals and ensuring that human services and the voluntary sector have adequate funding support” (pg. 69).

From: Volunteering and Psychological Well-Being Among Young-Old Adults: How Much is Too Much? By Timothy D. Windsor, Kaarin J. Anstey, Bryan Rodgers. The Gerontologist, 2008, 48, 59-70.

RESEARCH: How Long do you Want to Live?

We often think that most people would like to live “forever”. Medical science is committed in many ways to sustaining life for as long as possible. Yet, only recently have researchers begun to ask people to speak about their own desires for longevity. In this study 1200 German adults of all ages were asked in a telephone interview how long they would like to live. Regardless of the age of the respondent, the most popular age was 85. How interested people were in the scientific study of aging varied; for those who were interested, the news from the scientific community about longevity was influential in affecting the answer to the question of how long one might want to live. In a second study, done with a face-to-face computer-assisted interview, people were also asked about their interest in news from the scientific community about longevity. Not surprisingly, those who wanted news also wanted to live longer. Many participants expressed a strong desire to control the “when and how” of one’s death. 75% of the men and 80% of the women agreed they would like to decide when and how to die. This desire was not related to the age of the participant. Sadly, Paul B. Baltes, the Principal Investigator on this project and a major contributor to the field of gerontology, died on November 7, 2006. He had not reached the magical age of 85.

From: Desired Lifetime and End-of-Life Desires Across Adulthood from 20 to 90: A Dual-Source Information Model by Frieder R. Lang, Paul B. Baltes, and Gert G. Wagner. Journal of Gerontology: PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCES, 2007, 62B, 268-276.

In the News


Can’t think of your next door neighbor’s first name? Don’t remember your brother’s birthday? Having a “senior moment”? Most people worry that as they age, their brains are going to become less sharp. But in certain respects, the assumption that the aging brain is in decline is itself in decline. Studies reported in a new edition of Progress in Brain Research suggest just the opposite. For most aging adults, much of what occurs over the life-span is a gradually widening focus of attention. As the focus broadens, it is more difficult to recall one small fact, such as a name or a telephone number. The older brain has more information to remember, thus making it more difficult to select one out of the crowd. (After all, how many more people has a 60 year old met than a 20 year old?) Because older adults retain more information, they can be better problem solvers than younger people. They can transfer information learned in one situation to another different one more readily.

These tendencies can offer benefits in life situations when it is unclear what information is useful in solving problems or avoiding them. A broad attention span may enable older adults to know more about a situation and the indirect messages about what’s going on than their younger peers. Some scientists conclude that a reduced ability to filter out so-called “useless” information could also contribute to creative thinking.

The results of various psychological studies suggest that older people are “wiser” than younger ones. As Jacqui Smith, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan said, “ If older people are taking in more information from a situation, and they’re then able to combine it with their comparatively greater store of general knowledge, they’re going to have a nice advantage.”

From: Getting Older May Indeed Bring Wisdom by Sara Reistad-Long. International Herald Tribune, May 22, 2008, pg.11.


Why eat 50 dark chocolate chips a day? According to recent research, dark chocolate is the best food for providing antioxidants to the body. Antioxidants absorb molecules in the body that damage cells. Benefits include lowering blood pressure, reducing blood sugar, activating enzymes that eliminate cancer-causing carcinogens, reducing the risks of blood clots, keeping cholesterol levels stable, and enhancing cognitive functioning by increasing blood flow to the brain.

Second and third choices for an antioxidant boost: Pecans and a glass of red wine. Lets party!

From AARP Bulletin, April, 2008, pg. 39.


A study of more than 45,000 men over 12 years discovered that men who drank four to five cups of coffee a day had a 40% lower risk of gout than those who drank none. Coffee tends to lower uric acid levels in the blood. Gout is caused by an accumulation of crystals caused by the acid in the joints.

From: The International Herald Tribune, May 31, 2007, pg. 9


One of world’s richest and wisest investor is Warren Buffett, and he continues to astound the financial world with his acumen and conservative ways of doing business. At 77, Buffett has been investing in companies for 5 decades, and he is still going strong. This year 31,000 people from 50 countries found their way to Omaha, Nebraska to attend his annual corporate meetings, which are part informational and part a festival for the faithful. Speaking of the turmoil in today’s markets, he offered advice designed to calm his flock. His style of investing is to find good companies and stick to them through thick and thin. His loyalty has paid great dividends for the company, despite the usual ups and downs of the market. For Buffett, the worth of a company is in what it does, and not what the day’s stock market says.

From: Time Magazine, May 19, 2008, pg. 6.


Helping someone who is having a heart attack has gotten a lot easier. No special training or mouth to mouth resuscitation is needed. The new “Hands-Only” CPR method issued in March by the American Heart Association suggests that in an emergency you should first call 911, and then apply the method until help arrives. The goal is to push hard and fast on the center of the victim’s chest; at about 100 pushes a minute, with the chest depressed about 2 inches, the heart attack may be relieved. According to the American Heart Association, the new technique can more than double a victim’s chances of survival. For more information see www.americanheart.org/handsonlycpr.

From: AARP Bulletin, May, 2008, pg. 20.


The Guinness World Record for the Oldest Person alive goes to Edna Parker. Born in 1893, Edna lives in Shelbyville, Indiana. Life has not always been easy for Edna, although her grandson says, “She’s never been a worrier.” Her husband died in 1938, but she continued to live alone in their farmhouse until she was 100, when she moved into her son Clifford’s home. A few months later, on a winter’s night, her son and his wife came home from a high school game to find her missing. She was discovered near the farm’s apple orchard, frozen, stiff as a board. Her son carried her back into the house, where she thawed out, and recovered fully, except for some frostbitten fingertips. She now lives in a Convalescent Center, where she is surrounded by photos of her five grandchildren, 13 great- grandchildren, and 13 great-great-grandchildren. She has outlived her two sons.

Edna had two sisters who lived to ripe old ages, which is typical in families with extraordinarily old people. Researchers believe that old age is the result of both genetic variations and environmental factors. Research on 1,500 centenarians suggests that people who do not have heart attacks and strokes appear not to dwell on stressful events. Today there are 75 people alive, 64 of them women, who are 110 years old or older.

World’s Oldest Person has much to Share by Rick Callahan, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21, 2008

Book & Film Review

Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life, by Marc Freedman. New York: Perseus (2007). Just as in music, “encore,” asks the performers to continue playing because the audience is eager to hear more. Just so, with life after regular employment days are over. There is much more to life, and the stories in this book by Marc Freedman illustrate the transformations that people have made after their 8 to 5 days are over. Many have continued to earn considerable incomes, but the point is that they do work that matters to them. In their productive activities they not only find renewed commitments to long term goals, but find ways to make the world a better place. Among the profiles are those of a housewife who becomes an Episcopal priest and a truant officer who becomes a critical care nurse. In addition the book contains websites and other resources for new beginnings during the “crown of life”. For more information visit www.geron.org.

Positives Altern – Neue Perspektiven für Beratung und Therapie älterer Menschen. Thomas Friedrich-Hett (Editor), transcript Verlag: Bielefeld, 2007 (Positive Aging – new perspectives for consultation and therapy with elderly people).

This book has recently arrived from Germany with information for potential readers in other countries. A typical reader responded to Thomas Friedrich-Hett’s book, “Finally a book that broaches the issue of counseling with elderly people!” As the book is described, “Taking as an important point of reference Mary and Ken Gergen’s Positive Aging Newsletter, this book first invites a broad deconstruction of the traditional stereotypes of aging. Based on a postmodern approach, chapters in this work discuss central issues in consultation and therapy with elderly people, and provide demonstrations of effective practice. Topics explored in the book include: methods of experiential therapy with elderly people, consultation for partnerships in age, consultation of gay seniors, empowerment coaching for the retired, writing-group work, and feminist-theological perspectives in spiritual welfare.

As editors of the Newsletter, we will be delighted when this volume is available in other languages. Steven Rea, film reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the recent film, Young@Heart:This is an outstanding independent film shown at film festivals and art theatres about the Young@Heart Chorus, a group of seniors who sing popular music including songs by The Clash and Talking Heads. The film follows the chorus and its director as they make arduous preparations for a concert in Northampton, Massachusetts, their home base.

The British director of the film, Stephen Walker, objects when these hearty singers are described as “cuddly, lovable oldsters.” “Seven year olds are cute, little kittens are cute, but these people are not cute. They have this amazing wealth of experience…. they’ve made very extraordinary choices in their lives.” “They have these big voices, I wasn’t expecting that. And I also loved the way the lyrics suddenly took on these new meanings when these guys sang. … The Clash’s “Should I stay or Should I go” became a song about life or death, the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” became about mortality, the Ramones’ “I Want to be Sedated” became this defiant, ironic commentary on senior care…. All the stereotypes I had in my mind were blown to smithereens.”

Readers Respond

David Lawson writes from the UK:I thought your readers might be interested in this article in today’s Observer: You calling us old? We never felt so young. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/jun/29/therollingstones

Laurie Schur of Schur Shot Productions writes:I am making a documentary about extraordinary women over 80 called The Beauty of Aging. These women are good examples of aging well. While this film is not finished, we did cut a 35 minute version on two of the women – Shirley & Lavada – entitled, Greedy for Life. We just presented at the Aging in America conference in D.C. and showed Greedy for Life there.Please check our our web site for more information about the project.


Open Invitation

Readers ask if they may reprint or circulate materials published in this newsletter. We are most pleased for any expansion in circulation.

You are free to use any or all that you find in the newsletter, but trust that you will acknowledge the Newsletter as the source.

Announcements and Upcoming Events

HUMANITIES AND AGING. (July 29, 2008, Chapel Hill, NC). “The Humanities and Aging: At the Frontier of Interdisciplinary Inquiry” Seminar presentation by H.R. Moody, 9- 10:30 AM, followed by coffee and a general discussion of interest in networking among humanities and aging scholars, with support from the Univ. of North Carolina Institute on Aging. To attend send a message to diane_wurzinger@unc.edu.

SECOND HALF OF LIFE: “Something to Live For: Finding Your Way in the Second Half of Life” (Aug. 8-10, 2008, Rhinebeck, NY). Workshop with Richard Leider (CLAIMING YOUR PLACE AT THE FIRE). For details, visit: http://news.aarp.org/UM/T.asp?A910.52852.5937.19.3321138.

AARP Life@50+, and the 50th Anniversary of AARP (September 4-6, 2008) Washington, DC Convention Center. Concerts, celebrity speakers, exercise classes and hundreds of exhibitors. Register at www.aarp.org/events, or calling 1-800-883-2784.

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


Road Scholar offers educational travel adventures designed for Baby Boomers across the globe. Places are discovered through experiential learning, with local resident experts and hands-on activities. Programs balance scheduled and independent time. Programs such as whale watching in Baja and wandering in the Swiss countryside have been designed for women only. Road Scholar is a division of Elderhostel. (1-800-466-7762)

Information for Readers

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May 1, 2008 12:00 am