2009 – January / February

Jan-Feb, 2009 Issue 54



January/February, 2009

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
                   Wall Street Journal

 Issue No 54

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 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. Our readers include gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons. Many new readers of the newsletter may be curious  about the orientation guiding the selection of content. Our primary aim is to bring to light resources – from research, 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 congenially emerge. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging, and the availability of relevant resources, skills, and resiliencies, research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice, but creates 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, insights, 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 and workshops.

Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu All past issues of the Newsletter are archived at: www.positiveaging.net  To reintroduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is a Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, Brandywine. Ken and Mary are both 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 gerontological inquiry and therapeutic practice. We hope you will join us in the present endeavor,
Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Marital Happiness Across the Years

Are these promises realized over time, or does time take its toll on the relationship?  In this longitudinal study of women, researchers asked about their marital satisfactions from the time they were in their 40’s,  to their 50’s and 60’s.  The women studied were 123 graduates of Mills College in Oakland, California, born between 1937-1938. For most of the women, children were living at home when they were in their 40’s; by their 60’s all who were mothers had experienced the “empty nest,”  – no children living at home. In keeping with the times, 84% of the women were married by age 25, and 30% were divorced by age 45. However, all of the women were  in a partnered relationship at age 43,  91% at 52, and 78% at 61. What became of satisfaction during these 18 years together? As the results showed, marital satisfaction continued to increase with each passing decade.  This increased marital satisfaction was importantly linked to the transition to an empty nest.  The participants rated their enjoyment of time with their partner as increasingly more satisfying. Increasing satisfaction was not attributable to changing husbands, as some previous researchers had suggested.  Researchers speculated that having children living in the home absorbs attention and creates stress for parents. There are fewer enjoyable times as a couple.  The marriages worked best when there were only two lives to a household; as couples spend quality time together, they rediscover  what brought them together in the first place.

From: Contextualizing Change in Marital Satisfaction During Middle Age by Sara M. Gorchoff, Oliver P. John, and Ravenna Helson.  Psychological Science, November, 2008, 1194-1200.

RESEARCH: Reducing Regret: The Assets of Age

All of us carry regrets about the past. We have done things we now wish we hadn’t, made decisions over which we now anguish, and recall opportunities that we let slide. The challenge, however, is to “get over it.” How can we remove the burden of regret and get on well with life as it is now? As many believe, one of the major means of soothing regret is to compare oneself with others who are in worse condition. For example, a man may regret that he did not go to law school, as he had intended to do, but he then compares himself to people in his town who weren’t able to attend college at all.In this study researchers were interested in whether there was a difference between younger and older people in their ability to handle regret.  There were 104 participants in the study, half of whom were 18-35, and half,  60-83. Participants were first asked to recall their most severe life regret and the consequences that resulted from it. Their emotional feelings were then tapped with a standardized measure. Later they were then asked to evaluate their regret in comparison to others who had severe regrets. The result of this comparison lead to a significant drop in negative feelings among the elderly group. The younger group was less affected. Making social comparisons thus proved to be an effective strategy for dealing with the negative emotional consequences of life regrets among older adults. Again, it appears, that living well is an acquired capacity, and the wisdom of age is a valuable asset.

From: I’m better off than most other people: The role of social comparisons for coping with regret in young adulthood and old age by Isabelle Bauer, Carsten Wrosch,  Joelle Jobin (2008). Psychology and Aging, 23, 800-811.

RESEARCH: What is Age? 

  We commonly define the age of a person in terms of calendar years. However, we also have subjective estimates of our age, and these can be more important than chronology. One doesn’t necessarily  “feel her years,” and we are more likely to base our behavior on our subjective estimate than the calendar. In this longitudinal study people ages 70-104 were evaluated over a six-year period. Researchers found that on average people felt they were about 13 years younger than their chronological age.  This difference changed very little over the years.  Interestingly, if participants were asked about their ages from looking in the mirror, the age discrepancy was lessened to about 10 years. The researchers also asked the participants about life satisfaction. Overall, there was a high degree of satisfaction expressed, regardless of age. Illnesses did have a depressing effect on feelings of youthfulness and aging satisfaction. The fewer illnesses, the more social contacts and the more intellectual abilities the participants had, the more satisfied they were.  Researchers speculated that people who live to be 85, the sample average, may indeed be “younger” than their age might suggest. Overall, “older people feel younger than they actually are and generally are satisfied with their aging  “(P377).

From: Self-perceptions of aging: Do subjective age and satisfaction with aging change during old age?  By Anna Kleinspehn-Ammerlahn, Dana Kitter-Gruhn, and Jacqui Smith. Journal of Gerontology: PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCES, 2008, 63B, P377-P385.


To counteract the negativity that often dominates the news, various groups and individuals are creating websites, blogs and other outlets designed to report and encourage kindness, generosity, and the building of “social capital”. Among the sites are OperationNice.com, ifoundyourcamera.net, SpreadLove Project.com, thinkbuddha.org, Actsofkindness.org, and heroreports.orgAll these websites share the view that people are more generous and caring of others – both friends and strangers – than is generally believed.  As Alyssa Wright, the sponsor of heroreports.org, said, “These sites may be in response to a certain amount of sadness about the way Americans are positioned in the world. The cruelty we’ve been a part of.  It’s a backlash, I think.  … So these sites focus on our sense of humanity and compassion.”  Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland,  who studies technology’s impact on society, responded, “It’s not surprising that there’s so much about people being nice. We’re influenced by the idea that people are selfish.  It’s really not true… We like to be liked. And we admire people who help others.”  A professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard, Martin Nowak  has defined a concept of “upstream reciprocity.”  “It’s the idea that when someone is just nice to you, you feel elevated, so the next person you meet, you’ll be nice to them.”  This is the positive spin on “What goes around, comes around.” What’s wonderful about putting these stories on the internet is that it  provides a medium for the promotion of positive ideas. We have the power to change how we view our communities and ourselves.  And it also  encourages altruistic acts. Given the amount of time and resources that the elderly devote to voluntary services, caring for family and community, and philanthropy, there is enormous power here for positive change.

From: Pushing kindness on the Web, By Melissa Dribben, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept, 19, 2008, A1, A7.


Pat Swinfen, a retired nurse in her early 70’s  and her husband, Roger, a retired army office and member of Britain’s House of Lords, run the Swinfen Charitable Trust, a telemedicine charity that uses e-mail  to link people in poor, remote or dangerous parts of the world with hundreds of medical specialists in the world’s finest hospitals.  Doctors in 140 hospitals and clinics in 39 nations volunteer to assist in this service. Often doctors in distant areas, including Afghanistan, e-mail photos (often using cameras supplied by the Swinfens), X-rays, test results and case notes to the specialists, who offer their advice to the local doctors.  The Swinfens began their work on their 36th wedding anniversary in 1998.  Since that time their system has handled 1,800 cases and saved many lives.  The greatest number of cases comes from Iraq, where 39 hospitals have established links to the trust. The Swinfens and one assistant monitor the computer day and night.  They do worry about who will take their places when they are no longer able to do it. No other system exists that is so easy and accessible for patients world-wide.  From: World’s sick get help via e-mail by Kevin Sullivan, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 19, 2008, pg. 61.


The relationship between retirement and well-being is not simple.  One of the most important questions to ask about retirement is: How does retirement come about?  The research described in this article focused on men’s health. For about 1/3 of men, retiring is brought about by health problems.  In this sense the retirement is involuntary. Besides financial problems for the family, involuntary retirement also creates feelings of a loss of control and autonomy, which are often considered noxious states. A surprise retirement is rarely a blessing! Many men make plans for retiring, and when this is the case, retirement is considered a positive and health-promoting transition. As men can generally anticipate two decades or more of life in post-retirement, there are many alternative activities to consider, besides one’s prior work activity.  For those who plan for when and how they stop working, and especially if they are financially prepared, retirement brings on a surge in feelings of wellbeing and often ignite new goals for their retirement life. This period of two years after the transition has been called the “honeymoon” period in that life satisfaction increases during this period. These men are likely to report lower stress, a greater sense of control and more leisure time than when they were working. After two years, these “highs” begin to wane, but always remaining above work-day levels.  This is true, in part, because they are more likely to have healthier habits,  including more regular exercise and physical activity, than men who are employed fulltime.

From: Retirement and Older Men’s Health by Adam Shapiro and Raijab Yarborough-Hayes. Generations, Spring, 2008, 49-53.


The 18th annual celebration of the UN International Day of Older Persons – A Call for a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, was held Oct. 2,  2008.   There is a U.N. committee that works to raise world awareness of  the opportunities and challenges of global aging and is an advocate within  the UN Community to further integrate aging issues in to the UN policies and programs.The aim of this year’s event was to begin a process that will lead to the development and acceptance of an international  treaty to ensure the Human Rights of Older Persons.  Speakers from Brazil, Ghana, Argentina, Lebanon,  the Czech Republic, and Nepal gave reports at the celebration on the progress of aging issues in their countries.

From:  by Deborah DiGilio, Psychology International, 19, Dec. 2008


The Long Baby Boom: An Optimistic Vision for a Graying Generation by Jeff Goldsmith, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, $24.95 hardcover from Robert D. Reischauer, The Urban Institute:“Too often experts look at the aging of the baby boom and see only insoluble fiscal, health, and social problems. Goldsmith takes this demographic challenges as an opportunity to adopt innovative policies that would create a more equitable and productive economy and a healthier society.” Aging, (6th edition)  by Harry R. Moody. Sage Pine Forge publishers.This is a best-selling text for introductory courses in social gerontology, aging, and aging policy. Moody effectively covers the important and controversial issues at stake in these domains. The Focus on Practice and Focus on the Future sections help students relate academic issues to applications relevant to their lives.


From: Prof. David Myers <dmyers@hope.edu

Thanks for your continued work on the Positive Aging Newsletter.  Fyi, here’s the latest article that’s part of my continuing effort to promote positive aging for people with hearing loss (via hearing aid compatible  assistive listening): http://www.hearingloss.org/enews/2008enews/docs/MeyerSepOct08AudioLoopHLM.pdf

From: David Cohn I am happy to write  that  “When the Longevity  Revolution Hits Your Town – A Three Part Series, http://spot.us/stories/47  has been published on Spot.Us – and is available for republishing. We only ask that you give credit to Cecily O’Connor (the reporter) and the Spot.Us community for funding this work.This story represents three months worth of reporting spanning five diverse Northern California cities – San Francisco, San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and Vallejo.

From: Marybaird Carlsen, ,845 Fern Court, Walla Walla, Washington99362You may know my book, “Creative Aging” written when I was in my 60’s, reflecting my belief in the highly creative challenges of that era of growing older. Now I am 80, living in Walla Walla, sharing my life with husband James of nearly 60 years, and savoring the Quest program sponsored by Walla Walla Community College, with over 300 50+ members invested in lifelong learning. I have been fortunate in teaching six successive classes, and in being in on the beginnings of this program in 1998. BUT I represent another side of “positive” “creative” aging: the arrival of health problems that require new kinds of creative courage and effort to transcend the physical interruptions.  Five years ago I discovered I had pancreatic cancer, requiring a Whipple procedure for the resecting of the pancreas.  My surgery was highly successful removing a “cancer in situ” with no chemotherapy required.  I am a five-year survivor who is regarded a bit of a “miracle.”  But now I am facing new challenges as a result of my reworked plumbing.  I think all will go well but I am calling upon the spirit that has nourished me so far. What I am still looking for in the annals of creative/positive aging is the stories of those outside many of the research studies who are offering powerful stories of “gerotranscendence” (cf. Lars Torstam in Uppsala,Sweden) that wrestle with the arrivals of physical concerns.  And I am thinking about writing “Creative Aging Revisited” as a contribution from  the “other side.”Thank you. You are doing a great work.


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.


March 15-18, 2009: Aging in America, a conference sponsored by ASA-NCOA,  to be held in Las Vegas, Nevada. Offers a comprehensive educational program and dynamic networking opportunities. Plenary sessions feature Debby Reynolds and Louis Gossett Jr. For more information: www.agingconference.org/asav2/conf/jc/jc09/index2.cfm


– 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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January 1, 2009 12:00 am