2008 - September / October

September - October, 2008 Issue 52


September/October, 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 52

 Wall Street Journal announces that the Positive Aging Newsletter is:
              Sept. 13, 2008

In this Issue:

COMMENTARY: Meaning in Life

The two of us are in high spirits as we drive through the countryside, stopping at designated houses, to “get out the vote.” We chat with each other about how important it is that our candidate be elected, and how
worthwhile it is to sacrifice our normal routine to make even a small difference. And then , on election night, we join the millions who celebrate an election outcome that spells hope for the country and possibly for the world. These have been weeks of high drama indeed. Yet, these weeks also allow us to consider the perennial question of what gives life meaning. We have been taught to look inward to find what is important in our lives. What gives life purpose is supposed to be found in the hidden reaches of the interior. Yet, when we consider the enthusiastic sense of purpose demonstrated during these past weeks, we find this traditional view quite lacking. For the two of us, the importance of the election was not born in some isolated region of the brain, but was kindled within our relationships. This was not inspiration, or a spiriting within, but the result of spirited discussion with friends and colleagues. Is this same relational process not the origin of whatever joy we derive from our professional work? And in our private lives? Even in bearing children and raising them to adults, isn’t the sense of fulfillment provided by a longstanding tradition that endows these activities with value?In effect, if the day is to be filled with a sense of excitement as opposed to boredom or depression, significant relationships are essential. There are important implications here for the aging process. With retirement one often exits a network of significant relationships; when children leave the nest an absence also results; and the death of those near and dear can be the loss of relationship. All such losses may bring about a loss in life’s meaning. This first suggests that one should nurture and cherish existing relationships. Taking one’s relationships for granted or letting them deteriorate through disuse or abuse is an invitation to ennui. Nor should one view the cast of significant others as solidified somewhere during the middle years. Rather, as one grows older the possibilities for new and life-giving connections should remain ever open.  The same may be said for one’s interests, hobbies, and activities. Exploring new vistas of interest will often expand the sea of relationship. By nurturing and expanding relationships, the drama of life will remain robust.

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Adjusting to Retirement

The challenge of retiring from a career is complex, particularly in light of the needs of both the workplace and the workers. We have continued to feature insights into these issues. A study of 778 older Dutch workers offers valuable food for thought. This study focused on 1) their satisfaction with life, and 2) their  adjustment to their new status. (As the researchers reasoned, adjustment requires acceptance of a new social role,
whether or not one is satisfied with it.) Originally studied before retirement in 1995, the participants were again interviewed in 2001, after retirement. The major findings on feelings of satisfaction were straight forward: Having “enough” money, being in good health, and having a good marriage all contributed to feeling satisfied after retirement. This was the case for both men and women. However, in terms of  “ease of adjustment,” the researchers were surprised to find that the factors involving satisfaction were of minor importance.  Factors that most significantly affected adjustment included:

- VOLUNTARY DEPARTURE. Whether the retirement was voluntary. People who chose the timing of  their retirement were most well-adjusted to their new role. Involuntary retirement made adjustment more difficult.
- WORK STRESS. One could look forward to retirement from a stressful job. It proved more difficult to adjust to retirement if work was intrinsically satisfying.
- GENDER. Dutch women had a more difficult time adjusting than men. In part this was because women who had careers in the Netherlands, tended to be deeply committed to them.
- PRE-RETIREMENT ACTIVITY. One of the most useful findings from the study indicated that pre-retirement engagement in volunteer work had a strong beneficial effect on adjustment to retirement

From: Adjustment to and Satisfaction with Retirement: Two of a Kind? By Hanna van Solinge & Kene Henkens.  Psychology and Aging.  2008, 23,422-434.

RESEARCH: The Aging Brain in Question

In his new book, The Brain That Changes Itself, (Penguin) American psychiatrist Norman Doidge, has
again brought forth one of the favored argument in this newsletter, that the brain is a flexible, renewable, retrainable organ, and that if we do exercises to enhance its capacity, significant development and wonderful recoveries can occur. This article, appearing in a British newspaper, suggested that in the U.K., the idea that the brain has these capacities is largely absent from mainstream medical thinking. Of special import is Dr. Doidge’s contention that people who have suffered strokes may well be able to regain lost capacities through exercising the brain. One of the case studies in the book is the story of Stanley Karansky, who began to worry at the age of 90 that he was slipping cognitively. He had retired from medical practice at 70, then took another degree and continued in medicine until he was 80. At 89 he found that his speech was becoming less fluent, his driving was deteriorating, and he found himself withdrawing from social life. So, at the age of 90 he began an auditory memory program and increased his time playing games on his computer; he worked on these exercises for 75 minutes, three times a week for three months. After six weeks, he began to feel more alert, and the motor and social deterioration that he had noted began to subside. He thought his social interactions and communication skills had improved, and even his handwriting looked better. This success story is one of many that have been reported in various ways in scientific and public media outlets in recent years. To what extent people with cognitive decline and strokes can be helped remains an open question.  However, it certainly seems worth the trouble to engage in these types of mental “workouts”, and they offer a good excuse to play suduko without feeling guilty.

From: Brain, Heal Thyself  by Penny Wark.  The Times, September 8, 2008, 10-11.


We can all appreciate how the sounds of a calming voice or of ocean waves lapping against the shore might help us to relax. They can also help to lower blood pressure, as new research has shown. Jean Tang, from the College of Nursing at Seattle University, and her colleagues have demonstrated that the systematic exposure to such sounds may help those suffering from high blood pressure. These researchers studied the effects of listening to a relaxing CD on 42 older men and women with hypertension. (Hypertension is defined as a condition in which the blood pressure tends to remain over 140/90.) Half of participants were asked to listen to the 12-minute-long relaxation CD, while the remaining participants were asked to listen to a 12-minute-long CD of a Mozart sonata. Both groups were asked to listen to the CD three times a week for four months. Results showed that blood pressure dropped by an average 6.4% in those listening to the relaxation CD, compared with nearly 5% in those who listened to the Mozart CD. It has been suggested that small reductions such as these in systolic blood pressure would result in a 9% reduction in coronary heart disease related death and 14% reduction in stroke related death. According to Tang, in a news release issued by the American Heart Association, “Higher systolic blood pressure is very prevalent in the elderly population. This program may provide yet another way to help manage hypertension in conjunction with medication, lifestyle changes, exercise, diet and stress management.”??

From: Presentation by Jean Tang at the American Heart Association’s 62nd Annual Fall Conference of the Council for High Blood Pressure Research, 2008.?


For a brief look at a tv program about aging on which we were guests, you may go to the website below.  We talk about changing the stereotype of aging. http://www.securepathbytransamerica.com/app/


In a ten year long study, researchers at the University of Minnesota have found  that people who care for cats are 40% less likely to die of a heart attack than people without pets.  Petting a cat seems to reduce stress and anxiety, which helps avoid heart problems.  Similar findings have already been established for dogs.  From: Fluffy to the Rescue by Melissa Gotthardt, AARP September/October, 2008,
pg. 28.


The job prospects are bright, now, for various skilled positions, and by 2014 the country will need 900,000 engineers and 3.5 million new teachers, trainers and researchers, and 1.2 million registered nurses. As employers get the picture that older workers are better workers, (and research suggests that they are more knowledgeable, loyal, and reliable than younger workers), there will be more and more incentives to find, keep and hire them. This suggests that older workers can call the shots as to their working conditions. At Penn State University, for example, the provost’s office has initiated a program where full professors who have retired are now encouraged to return to their departments to teach a course in return for a modest research stipend.  Recently at the Brandywine campus, three professors retired, and all three were back teaching a class the following year. This was a boon to the students, the faculty, and the budget of the campus. One of the facets of careering that is especially exciting is the chance to shift one’s area of expertise. Sheila Umlauf, of Seattle decided at age 60 that after raising four sons and retiring from a nursing career she would follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. Although at first she was afraid her age would be a detriment to her studies, she soon discovered that she was in fine shape to succeed. Three years later, and with the bar exam behind her, she was ready to begin her new profession. However, instead of taking a regular job, she decided to do pro bono legal work, especially helping women and low-income elderly with their cases. Today she said, “At 82, I am still enjoying volunteering. An added bonus is having younger friends as well as the opportunity to work with such a diversity of people in a community”Braving a New World by Elaine Chao, AARP Bulletin, Sept., 2007, pg. 32. Intelligent retirement planning: Its about more than money by John Trauth & Alan Bernstein, Aging Today,  July-August, 2007, p. 11

* PAUL  NEWMAN (1925-2008)

Creating a world of positive aging requires its models, and in this respect we owe much to the life of actor, Paul Newman. Many of us in the Baby Boomer and plus generations always have had a special attraction to Newman, who recently died of cancer. We have joined so many others who appreciated such films as, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Sting (1973), and perhaps most of all  his buddy film with Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Besides his work as an actor, he involved himself in many other endeavors. After learning to race cars for a movie in 1969, he continued to pursue this passion, becoming a dedicated race car driver. Eventually he won a 24 hour race at Daytona, making him, at 70 years old, the oldest driver ever to win a major professional auto race. He also loved to cook, and his friends persuaded him to market his products, including the salad dressing we all know. The millions of dollars in profits went into charitable foundations, most prominent of which was the Hole in the Wall Gang camp for seriously ill children. He often visited the camp, and even built a cabin on the grounds so he could stay there over night. His 50 year long marriage to actress Joanne Woodward was an exception for Hollywood stars, and he was famous for commenting to Playboy magazine on his faithfulness to her, “Why go out for hamburger when you can get steak at home?” According to Woodward, the secret of their success was the friendship they shared. Newman seemed to be very grateful for the lucky breaks that helped him along his path, and he was dedicated to giving back for what he had received. Some of Paul Newman’s last words, “It’s been a hell of a ride.”      


* Project Renewment: The First Retirement Model for Career Women By Bernice Bratter and Helen Dennis ( Scribners, 2008).

In the last few years a movement has sprung up among career women who either have retired from desirable and demanding jobs, or are contemplating it. The Project Renewment: A Retirement Model for Career Women  began in October of 1999, when the authors met over a 4 hour lunch and concluded there was much to discuss about women who love their work and are trying to decide what to do after they retire from the jobs they have. Then they moved out and started having conversations with other friends and friends of friends, and the idea spread The word Renewment is a combination of renewal and retirement.   They wanted to stress that choices, vitality, opportunity and personal growth are central to those who are retiring. The book contains 38 essays about the issues women in the group had discussed. One section is on how to start and maintain a Project Renewment group. Another book on a similar topic Women Confronting Retirement is coedited by Nan Bauer-Maglin and Alice Radosh, (Rutgers University Press, 2003). They too were looking at the need to create a retirement model for women, with an emphasis on the special interests and values of women. The women of Project Renewment are clear that they don’t want a traditional support group moaning about their fates, nor did they want to become involved in a  nonprofit organization, or found a national movement.  However, the idea has grown. To date, 11 groups have formed. Over 100 women meet monthly to discuss diverse issues, such as: Who am I without my business card? What if he retires first? Why do I feel guilty reading a novel? How do I feel about not earning another productivity? While the focus of these materials has been on women, who have often been ignored in the post-work retirement world, the good news about “renewment” is that it can apply as equally to men as to women.

From: Aging Today, July-August, 2008. , 14-15.

* September Songs: The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years, by Maggie Scarf (Riverhead Books, 2008)

Maggie Scarf, a well-known journalist, has delved into the marital lives of six couples, 50-75 years old.  She inquired about finances, sex, children, religion, disappointments, and regrets, as well as the happy times.  Each of these topics could be a bombshell, given the “hot topics” involved, but this was not what Scarf found.  Instead, she met with couples who seemed to be satisfied and generally happy, and not at all simply enduring their remaining years together. Both the reviewer and author tended to be  skeptical of the level of cont-entment found, and Scarf accepted her therapist’s challenge to interview her and her husband;  the therapist said, “Interview me. My marriage is a mess.” Yet when Scarf interviewed the husband, asking “What do you think were the smartest and dumbest moves you ever made in your life?” he answered, “The smartest move I ever made … was marrying Julie, “who sat with tears in her eyes. So this was as bad as it got. Among the difficulties discussed were illness, impotence, and on-line porn. These tended to evoke negative tensions. But in most instances, whatever was an annoying aspect of one’s partner became background noise as the years went by. (“He is never going to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket, so I might as well give up on asking him to.”) Unlike past generations, when people didn’t have long marriages, today, there are decades in which to create a good marriage in later adulthood.  Scarf calls them the “bonus years” –time in which marriages are strengthened and enjoyed.  
From: This Old Marriage: Interview with couples who have stayed together yield surprising answers. By Hilma Wolitzer, The New York Times Book Review, September 21, 2008, pg. 25.


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.


The just-released Winter issue of Itineraries, Second Journey’s e-newsletter, is now posted at SecondJourney.org/NEWSLTR.htm. See especially,  Meaningful Work, Paid or Unpaid, Through the Last Breath, in which Guest editor Janet Hively, founder of Minnesota’s Vital Aging Network, has assembled articles exploring new approaches to work in later life. Barbara Kammerlohr also reviews three related books, including Marc Freedman’s newest, Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life.

November 12, 2008: The Second Annual National Positive Aging Conference at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis focusing on "Achieving Purpose, Meaning and Vitality in the Second Half of Life." Broadcast live from the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, world-renowned experts and best-selling authors will address the importance of purpose and meaning in later life as well as lessons for health and longevity learned from regions around the world. This year's Positive Aging conference will feature Richard Bolles, author of WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARACHUTE?; Richard Leider, author of SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR and founder of The Purpose Project; Harry R. Moody, Director of Academic Affairs for AARP; and Dan Buettner, explorer, educator and author of THE BLUE ZONE: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Live the Longest. For more information about attending the Positive Aging  conference, hosting a site, or sponsorship opportunities, contact Beth Somerville at [email protected] or visit:

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 at www.agingconference.com

November 23-25  Resilient Aging for Extrordinary Times, A series of programs of the The National Center fro Creative Aging, in collaboration with the Washington National Cathedral and the Gerontological Society of America. At the Washington National Cathedral. For more information, see: www.creativeaging.org.

Dec. 9-10 Creativity Matters: Lifelong Learning though the Arts Symposium. At the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami FL For more information, see: www.creativeaging.org.

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