2009 – July / August

July-August 2009, Issue 57




July/August, 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 Institute.

                             “THE BEST IN…INSIGHTS IN AGING”

                                     Wall Street Journal

Issue No 57

Relational Being: The Key to Aging Well

A constant emphasis in this Newsletter is with the significance of relationships in the aging process. This is so, in part, because it is within relationships that the very idea of “aging” is created, along with the value we place upon “being older.” Indeed, it has been a primary aim of this Newsletter to replace the common conception of aging as “decline” with a vision of aging as a period of unparalleled enrichment. If the conception of aging is a social construction, then why not construct it in a way that is vitalizing and engaging as opposed to alienating and depressing? Over the years the Newsletter offerings have further stressed the importance of good relationships in stimulating interest and activity, engendering joy, providing support, and in sustaining health.    
    It is in this context that I wish to share news of the publication of my latest book, RELATIONAL BEING, BEYOND SELF AND COMMUNITY (Oxford University Press, 2009). In this work I describe how people in relationships create conceptions of reality, rationality, and value. Indeed, it can be said, everything we hold as meaningful and significant in life grows from relationship. In this sense, it is not independent individuals who come together to form relationships, but it is out of relational process that the very idea of independent individuals derives. The interested reader will also find out how all our psychological processes – thinking, feeling, desiring, remembering and so on – are not so much “in the head” as they are between us. I extend these ideas, as well, to  treat issues of morality and spirituality.  Most important, I try to embed these ideas in our daily practices. The book is full of ideas, but it is the quality of our daily lives together that ultimately count for me. The book was written for a general audience, so my hope is that readers who wish to explore this terrain of relationship more fully will find it a rewarding companion.

– Kenneth Gergen

RESEARCH: Aging and Idealism

It is often said that as people age they also become less idealistic and more skeptical about the world. They have witnessed so much intolerance, avarice, and lying in their lives, and have seen so many hopeful movements fail, that their high hopes for humankind are now jaded. Little can be done; there is no use trying. And of course, with this attitude one’s sense of well-being is diminished. With age, one becomes cranky. But is this common view accurate?
    This research set out to explore what they called “World Benevolence Beliefs,” that is, a belief in a kind and generous world, as they changed over the life-span. A large sample of people  answered questions on the internet about their beliefs in benevolence.  In addition to these questions, demographic information on gender, age, race, ethnicity, education and income was obtained.  People also rated their lifetime mental health, lifetime and recent negative events in their lives, and questions about their life satisfaction. The results of the study were revealing.
    First of all, the researchers found that beliefs in benevolence did not decrease over the life-span. On the contrary, they increased. Second, and more to be expected, there was a positive relationship between these beliefs and feelings of life satisfaction. Looking on the bright side seems to be a general orientation. Interestingly, feelings of benevolence were higher among those who had lost their partners in the distant past, as opposed to recently.
    Is this to say that negative life-experiences simply fail to be registered in the outlook of the aging? Not exactly. Those in lower economic  brackets or minority group status did score lower in their beliefs in benevolence. However, it is interesting to ask, in this case, if the move into the “third age” may not be accompanied by a revitalization of idealism. With the advent of grandchildren, hope may be rekindled; with time available to join in worthy causes, one sees the possibility for change. It is no accident that older people are, in general,  more likely to vote than their younger counterparts; once again they see the possibility of creating a better future.

From: World Benevolence Beliefs and Well-Being Across the Life Span by Michael Poulin & Roxane Cohen Silver.  Psychology and Aging, 2008, 23, 13-23.

RESEARCH: Better Job Designs for Older Workers

Many organizations worry about losing their most seasoned and reliable workers. Others find they are increasingly reliant on older people to fill the gaps in the work force. At the same time, many older people are caught between the twin desires to retire from work and simultaneously to continue. German researchers asked the question of what conditions encourage older workers to remain on the job. They studied 176 employees, age 19 to 60, who worked in diverse occupations.  As they found, most older workers do not have an optimistic view of what their worklife will be in the future. They see the potentials at their job as narrowing.  However, there are also many workers who look forward with enthusiasm to continuing their work. As the researchers found, this is especially true when the job is highly complex and the opportunities for making decisions are extensive.  There is an exhilarating sense of growth and achievement that can accompany work on complex tasks in which one’s decisions are crucial to success.  Any avid chess or golf player knows this well.
The researchers recommend “increasing the degree of complexity and control by providing workers with more possibilities to make decisions, schedule tasks, and choose their methods of doing the job….”

From: Remaining time and opportunities at work: Relationships between age, work characteristics, and occupational future time perspective, by Hannes Zacher and Michael Frese, Psychology and Aging, 24, 487-493.


Dying Well, as the Sisters Do

In the midst of arguments over health care policy, especially concerning older  people, we found this story both provocative and uplifting.  As Laura L. Carstenson, Director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University has said, “Every time I speak to a group about the need to improve the dying process, somebody raises their hand and says, ‘You’re talking about killing old people.’ But nobody would accuse Roman Catholic sisters of that.  They could be a beacon in talking about dying without it turning into a black–and-white way of thinking: Either we have to throw everything we’ve got at keeping people alive or leave them on the sidewalk to die.”
This story describes the ways in which a Roman Catholic convent has oriented itself to the needs of is older sisters, especially those near death.  It is a story about choice, and care and inclusion.
Primary care at the convent is provided by Dr. Robert C. McCann, a geriatrician at the University of Rochester, who describes his patients thus: “They have better deaths than any I’ve ever seen.”  What are some of the secrets to their positive death? Dr. McCann has the time to talk to each person about their needs and their wishes.  This can mean active interventions in a disease process, or little or no extraordinary procedures.  Often improving care means greatly reducing prescriptive drug use.  This freedom from drugs often increases quality of life, as unwanted side-effects disappear. Most important for the patient is assuring that a community of care surrounds them as they encounter their own deaths.  
In the new house the sisters built, most nuns live in independent units, but 40 sisters live in the care wing.  The chapel, dining rooms, and library are in a central space available to all so that there is no isolation of those who are most in need of contact and care. As a result, no one feels abandoned or alone.  Dr. McCann also believes the religious faith of the sisters is also an important part of their good deaths.  “There is less pain, less depression” among them, and they only use about 1/3 of the narcotics given to hospitalized patients.  Death in the hospital can be “impersonal and wastefully expensive.”  None of the sisters die there. “We don’t let anyone go alone on the last journey, “ said Sister Marie Kellner, of the order.
What makes a successful aging and a good death?  A strong social network, intellectual stimulation, continued engagement in life, spiritual beliefs, plus health care guided by the less-is-more principles of palliative and hospice care.         

From: “With faith and friends, convent offers  a model for end of life” by Jane Gross. New York Times, July 9, 2009, A1, A18.  


The “Elders” are elder statesmen and stateswomen brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela;  the group offers their influence and experience to support peace building,  help address major causes of human suffering, and promote the shared interests of humanity. They have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against  women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
The Elders are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, that justify discrimination against women. Setting an example, former President Jimmy Carter, an Elder, has recently withdrawn from the Southern Baptist Convention for claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and  prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in  military service. As Carter said, “We ask… that leaders of  all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.”  Given that older women have suffered longest and sometimes most severely the pains of discrimination, exploitation, violence, and deprivation, this call is especially significant for our readership. And as influential leaders within their own religious institutions, older people can have a vibrant voice in addressing these issues within their faith communities.

From: National Institute for Literacy, Diversity and Literacy mailing list  Diversity@nifl.gov


Tai Chi, (pronounced  “tie chee”), a form of Chinese martial arts, involves slow, rhythmic movements   that are circular, flowing and low impact.  Often called “moving meditation,” tai chi helps to develop balance and a sense of  tranquility.  Research done at the University of Illinois, Chicago, found that people who learned tai chi after having a stroke showed significant improvements when tested on their ability to maintain balance while shifting weight, leaning in different directions, and standing on a moving vehicle, such as a bus.  The benefits from tai chi were evident after only six weeks of training with a physical therapist in weekly tai chi classes, and practicing at home alone.  
Besides the benefits of improving balance, tai chi is also credited with improving circulation, flexibility, posture, blood pressure and heart rate, as well as easing pain and restrictions from joints.  Tai chi is also simple and fun, regardless of one’s physical condition and age.  Check out the local community center, Y, or health club for classes.  U-Tube has short films illustrating this graceful practice.

From: Better Balance with Tai Chi by Michael O’Shea.  Parade, May 3, 2009, pg. 13.


According to  Carol Wiseman of Whidbey Island, Washington, in her mid-sixties, there is much to be gained by dropping the shoulder bag we often carry around since adolescence.  As she sees it, in the bag were all the “goodie good” rules that she had acquired during her growing up years in the  ‘50’s.  She resolved, however, to replace her “shoulds” with “coulds.” The result was the opening to a more creative and lighthearted life.  “My brain was no longer cramped by a code, and the free space created a vacuum that sucked in new opportunities to grow.”  Among the things she has given up are looking perfect in public, wearing “torture shoes,” and worrying about what the neighbors think. “I’m no longer polite to the nth degree and have stopped taking things so personally.”  She has also begun swing dancing again, something she stopped after college.  Now she is back, as agile as ever, and has even dared to ask  strangers to dance.

From : About Freedom by Carol Wiseman, AARP Bulletin, July—August, 2009, 32.


To assist in making healthy choices among summertime treats, judges rated the following frozen delights as “American’s healthiest,” by counting calories and noting the types of ingredients used. Haagen-Dazs’s “Mango Fat Free Sorbet,” a blend of juicy, tropical mangoes, at 120 calories, was the top pick.  Ben & Jerry’s “Black Raspberry Swirl Low Fat Frozen Yogurt” and “Strawberry Ice Cream,” all made with real berries, came next at 140 and 170 calories, respectively.  For a chocolate treat, Baskin-Robbins “Light Aloha Brownie Ice Cream” was chosen, (160 calories), and finally, “Haagen-Dazs Cranberry Blueberry Fat Free Sorbet” (100 Calories) made the list.   Cake cones are by far the lowest in calories at 17. So lick away!

From: American’s Healthiest Frozen Scoops, Health, July/August 2009, 174.  


Book Review by Mary Gergen: The Love Ceiling by Jean Davies Okimoto.
(2009). Burton, WA: Endicott & Hugh Books.  $15.

This book was sent to us by the publishers in order to consider it for review in this newsletter. I read it this summer and found it is indeed an intriguing, absorbing, and unusual novel. The major protagonist is a 64 year old woman, who is struggling with issues related to her alienation from her world famous father, as well as complex involvements with her husband and children. Only with her grandson is there unmitigated joy. The major thrust of the novel, however, focuses on her intensely ambiguous desire to become an artist, despite the fact her famous father, a painter, has disparaged her artistic talents from childhood. The novel deals with the age-old question that women, especially, seem to ask: How can I give myself permission to become something that is separate from family duties and desires.  “There is a glass ceiling for women, and its made out of the people we love.”   The Reader’s Guide at the end is arranged to facilitate book club discussions.
Film director, Charles Nicholas  has created a new version of a program guide “Elderquest II: Four Programs on Gender and Aging.” The first guide, “The Elderquest in Today’s Movies and Novels,” was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.   The second version includes screenings and discussions of the films that feature  positive narratives for later life.
For details on how to buy a CD version of the program, contact Charles Nicholas at (978) 526-9228. To read more about Elderquest, visit:


To locate volunteer opportunities, see the following:       



David Updegraff writes:  
I am happy to invite you to visit my new blog: “70 and Beyond,” through which I   will explore what it means (to me, anyway) to turn 70 and experience the next  chapter.

      Feel free to comment!

We received an email from Nancy Gray-Hemstock (nancygrayhemstock@shaw.ca) that describes a conference,  Peaceful Passages:  Making Death a Part of Life,   a 3- day workshop sponsored by The Sage-ing Guild & The Southeastern Region of   the guild.  October 23-25, 2009 in Altamonte Springs, FL .  Valuable concepts and psycho-spiritual tools to meet the needs and interventions of people who are dying, family members, spiritual caregivers, Sage-ing® Leaders, hospice volunteers, and healthcare and social service professionals. Email or call Nancy for more information at 250-389-1448.


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 Third Annual Positive Aging Conference will be held Dec. 7-9, 2009 at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Conference themes include: Life Transitions, Holistic Health Care, Building Community, and Artistic Creativity. For details about the Positive Aging Conference and how to participate or submit proposals for sessions at the event, visit:


Tower Poetry Society and the McMaster Centre for Gerontological Studies are soliciting poems written after the age of 70.  Selected poems will be published in a jointly sponsored anthology. “Celebrating Poets over 70” will be the tenth volume in the Writing Down Our Years series published by MCGS.
A maximum of four typed poems may be submitted. Send poems and a 50-word biography by email to Ellen Ryan (ryaneb@mcmaster.ca) or by mail to: “Celebrating Poets over 70,” Tower Poetry Society, c/o McMaster University, 1280 Main St. W., Box 1021, Hamilton, Ontario L8S 1C0.
Individuals with poems selected will receive a free copy of the anthology. Due date is November 15, 2009.

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:


To change your e-mail address, e-mail Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

For general information: http://www.healthandage.com

See also the further activities of the Taos Institute:

September 11, 2009 12:00 am