2009 – March / April

March-April, 2009 Issue 55



March/April, 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.

                  Wall Street Journal

Issue No. 55

COMMENTARY Shedding our Ageism

We have often written about the prevalence of ageism within the culture, and the problems it poses for the senior population. However, one of the frequently overlooked facts is that despite the repugnance of the negative stereotypes, most of us grew up embracing them. We laughed at the elderly ways, made jokes, and never ever wished to grow old. We and ageism were one. And most problematic: in spite of the repugnance of these stereotypes, we are not likely to have escaped their clutches. This is no small matter because such beliefs can be deeply injurious to health and well-being. Among the most subtle forms of ageism are commonly held views of what is proper behavior for older people. There are common sentiments against seniors being sexy, risk taking, flamboyant, or actively romping about; rather, they should be more reserved and quiescent. Relevant here is Kay Norman’s view that one of the great unsolved puzzles from gerontology is why the vast majority of adults over 60 are basically couch potatoes. This is in spite of the general understanding that exercise is a major contributor to good health and longevity. As Norman reasons, the problem is primarily one of cultural beliefs.

Historically, people have always had to work very hard physically for their living. Farmers, laborers, and housewives had to put their shoulders to the grindstone everyday of the year or suffer severe consequences. Whatever time could be spent in sedentary relaxation was considered the reward for a hard day’s work. Nothing could beat the porch swing for physical pleasure. The advent of many labor saving devices also forged a strong link between financial success and reduced physical exertion.  There was a clear distinction between laborers and “gentlemen” who did little physical work and between housewives and “ladies of the house” who had domestic help. There were also gender specific beliefs. In terms of play and sports, girls and women generally were discouraged from engaging in recreational exercise.   Exercise was considered unladylike at best and harmful at worst; many young women were counseled by their doctors to avoid hard physical exertion for fear of damaging “female organs”. Many men also have negative associations related to physical activity.  Boot camp was no fun.  Although boys were encouraged to be more physically active than girls, after a certain age physical activity just for fun was considered a frivolous use of time. “A man with so much time and energy should be doing something productive” was the prevailing attitude.

This cluster of beliefs represents an indirect, though powerful form of highly injurious ageism. Shedding such beliefs requires one’s personal reflection and the concerted support of health professionals. In our view  significant changes will depend on the engagement of couples, families, and friends in creating new patterns of living. For example, the health clubs, nightclubs, athletic fields, and swimming pools should not be the private reserves of the young. Physical play will not only contribute to the well-being of those involved, but to future generations for whom earlier beliefs will become irrelevant.

Ken and Mary Gergen

Reference: Ageism – A barrier to healthy lifestyles by Kay Van Norman, Journal on Active Aging, Sept./Oct., 2004, 32-38.

RESEARCH: Avoiding Dementia through Lifestyle

After the age of 80, the risk of dementia is not insignificant. A study by Swedish scientists recently published in Neurology included 500 people, aged 78 and over. During the study 144 people developed dementia.  The  major question was   “Are there lifestyles that are favorable vs. unfavorable to developing dementia?” Among the measures used in the study were  a measure of neuroticism – a term meaningeasily distressed, and   a measure of sociability, or the tendency to be outgoing and sociable. The researchers subsequently found that participants who were low in neuroticism, and thus calm and relaxed, had a  50% lower risk of developing dementia compared with people who were prone to distress. Being sociable also had a positive effect on staying cognitively sharp.

The reason for these correlations remains unclear. Dr. Hui-Xin Wang of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who led the research, said: “In the past, studies have shown that chronic distress can affect parts of the brain, … possibly leading to dementia. Our findings suggest that having a calm and outgoing personality in combination with a socially active lifestyle may decrease the risk of developing dementia even further. Lifestyle factors can be modified as opposed to genetic factors, which cannot be controlled.” Dr. Susanne Sorensen, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society in Britain, commented:…   “It’s a chicken and egg scenario – do these personality traits increase risk of dementia in older people or are they an early sign of the disease?  One in three people over 65 will die with dementia. It is vital to keep mentally and physically active throughout your life to reduce risk of this devastating condition.”

Story from BBC News, 1/19/2009

RESEARCH: The Benefits of Saying “I’m Sorry.”

What happens in the medical world is often more relevant to older people than almost any other demographic group.  How one is treated as a person, as well as a patient, is of utmost concern to most of us. A recent trend that allows medical personnel, hospitals, and nursing homes to speak frankly, with empathy, and, in some cases, with apology for things that go wrong has greatly improved relationships among the parties concerned when mistakes are made and mishaps occur.  Families greatly appreciate being able to communicate with caregivers and to hear that caregivers are sorry if something goes wrong in treatment. In the past, lawyers and insurers have strongly advised doctors and others involved in the case as medical personnel to have no contact with the injured parties and to admit no wrong-doing or give any apology for an incident.  Now, the notion is to change this pattern, in part, because anger at the offending parties is at the base of many law suits and expensive claims against various institutions and medical personnel.  People feel that if they cannot be acknowledged and given apologies, they will take it out in cash.  This pattern of responses greatly increases medical costs, which  eventually strikes at all consumers.

At the University of Michigan Health System, one of the first to experiment with such disclosure policies, existing claims and lawsuits by dissatisfied patients dropped from 262 in 2001 to 83 in 2007.  Costs for legal defense and claims have been cut by two- thirds, and the time spent resolving cases has been halved. In addition, Richard C. Boothman, the chief risk officer from the Michigan system, said, “Improving patient safety and patient communication is more likely to cure the malpractice crisis than defensiveness and denial.” Today 35 states have passed “apology” legislation, and more are on the way.

Kathy Clark, Ph.D. a lawyer, and a graduate of the Taos Institute PhD program in Applied Social Science, has been working to decrease the gap between various professions involved in malpractice suits, and with the patients and their families, when medical malpractice situations are encountered. She was inspired to do this research through working with a close friend, whose son was a victim of a medical error. The dialogues she has created have brought forth common themes across professions, increased trust,  and concrete methods for building community and expanding  collaborative law processes to involve underserved patient groups.

From: “Letting caregivers say they are sorry” by Stuart H. Shapiro, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 2009, A19. And Personal communications from Kathy Clark, Esq., Ph.D.,  March 29, 2009.


A Johns Hopkins based research project studied the effects of volunteering with elementary school children among a group of African American women who belong to the “Experience Corps.”  The women, aged 60 and over, were found to be more physically active than a non-volunteering counterpart group, and they sustained this physical activity over time.  Those who volunteered also burned twice the calories of those who did not. Another study with these volunteers indicated the volunteers showed greater improvements in memory and executive function than those who did not participate in the program.  The older adults with the lowest baseline performance in these areas made the greatest gains. As Dr, Erwin Tan, the Johns Hopkins researcher, said, “Volunteering with children may be as good for their health as gym membership.  For our children, the wisdom that our older adults have is priceless.”

From: Older women find health benefits through volunteer program, Gerontology News, March 2009, 4.

If you walk for one-half hour a day, at a brisk pace of 3.5 mph, you could accomplish great things:
1. Increase your aerobic capacity and physical functioning
2. Lose weight
3. Improve cardiovascular health, lowering risks for heart attacks, strokes, and type 2 diabetes.
4. Fight cancers: lower risks and raise survival rates
5. Battle degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, Arthritis, and Osteoporosis
6. Heighten good moods and enhances healing from skin wounds
7. Reduce annual medical bills

From: Walking 50 Miles a Month by Betsy Towner. AARP Bulletin, January-February, 2009

After discovering he had brain cancer, a  professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, David Servan-Schreiber, decided to improve the chances of his survival by changing his life style. He had conventional medical treatment, but that wasn’t all he could do. Dr. Servan-Schreiber noted that everyone has cancer cells within them, but what allows the cells to overcome our natural bodily defenses and create a tumor  has to do with the environments around the cells.  (For example, other research had shown that adopted children have the cancer rates of their adopted families. This suggests that our social environment contributes to the development of cancer).

So what is the good news?  Dr. Servan-Schreiber suggests that “living with cancer for 16 years, I’ve discovered we can all make our bodies tougher targets for cancer through the choices we make in our lives.  Indeed, I’m in better health and happier today than before I became ill. I feel more at peace, lighter, with more energy, drive and passion for life…. What I’ve learned in my own journey is that the best way to go on living is to nourish life at all levels of my being: Through my meals, through my walks in nature, through the purpose in my work, [and] through the flow of love in my relationships.”

AARP/The Magazine, March April, 2009, 20-23.

Dr. Joe Mamlin, a professor of medicine at Indiana University went to Kenya in the early 1990’s through a partnership with the Moi University of Kenya.  In  2000, nearing retirement, he went back to Kenya to head up the joint program.  There he found himself in the midst of the world’s AIDS pandemic.  Antiviral medicines had become available, but often the patients did not recover, despite the drugs.  Before long he realized that many of those who came to the clinic were too poor to eat and too weak to work.  This insight led him to begin prescribing healthy food for his patients, as well as medicine.  To obtain the food, he collaborated with others who were expert in farming and raising chickens.  Soon over two acres of the hospital grounds were turned into a flourishing garden.

Under  Dr. Mamlin’s guidance, the agricultural team has developed the capacity to provide four tons of vegetables and fruit each week; the food is taken each day to various clinics in western Kenya.
After recovery, patients are taught the skills of raising their own food, and today many are leading active and secure lives. The clinics currently treat more than 40,000 patients and feed more than 30,000 people, including the families of patients.  Additional financial and food support comes from various donors, including the U.N.  and the Gates Foundation.  For Dr. Mamlin, in his early 70’s, this project may well be the highpoint of his career.

From: In Kenya, AIDS Therapy Includes Fresh Vegetables by Roger Thurow, Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2008

WISE WORDS: Passion and Aging, by Heather Hill

Passion is probably the last thing one associates with older people, so I felt it was worthwhile sharing the words of two older women who had led full and active lives, living well into old age, and who wrote of their experiences of ageing.

In Florida Scott-Maxwell’s book, The Measure of My Days: The Private Notebook of a Remarkable Women of Eighty-Two, passion is a prevailing topic:    “As we age we are more alive than seems likely,
convenient, or even bearable”.  “Another secret we carry is that though drab on the outside… – inside we flame with a wild life that is almost  incommunicable.”

Passion is also experienced  intensely by Elisabeth Polk. Sheeschews being “old,” by which she means how we stereotypically think the old feel and behave.  Instead, she retains her playfulness and enthusiasm, perhaps more so than the young because with age one knows how to savor and enjoy the everyday.

“I am considered an old woman – at least to a stranger looking at me.  I can’t believe it.  I don’t feel old.  What is “old?”  If I can’t laugh, heartily laugh, and enjoy little things, that must be “old” behavior. …I look at the fresh fallen, fluffy, soft, white snow and I want to touch it, taste it, put my face into it.  I want to throw snowballs – a big one at the next passerby! Is this proper behavior for an old woman?

Can I cry?  Yes, but I don’t waste my life on trivia. … There is so much joy in watching a young mother nursing her baby, watching stars come out and turning a dark sky into a shiny Christmas tree. Watching children running home from school, bursting with energy, throwing their schoolbags at one another. Telling them to stop is for old ladies.  I watch and laugh.  This is life.  Dear God, keep me alive – not just living, and I shall never feel old.”

Florida Scott-Maxwell worked as a stage performer, a writer of short stories and plays.  She moved to Scotland with her husband, continued to write, raised a family and at age 50 trained as a Jungian psychologist.

Elizabeth Polk, who died at  99, was one of the American dance therapy pioneers.  Her passion was dance with children and she continued her work until she was 89 years old!  She helped found Timelines, a non-profit organization created to promote the wisdom and creativity of elders.  The above words came out of a weekly writing workshop in which she participated.

From the Latrobe University Gerontology Association (LUGA) Newsletter

BOOKS OF INTEREST: Recent Books on Women and Aging

STILL GOING STRONG: Memoirs, Stories, And Poems About Great Older Women, edited by Janet Amalia Weinberg (Routledge, 2005).

AGE MATTERS: Realigning Feminist Thinking, edited by Toni M. Calasanti and Kathleen F. Slevin (Routledge, 2006).

SMART WOMEN DON’T RETIRE, THEY BREAK FREE, by Gail Rentsch and Christine Millen (Springboard Press, 2008).


From: Peg (Margaret) Cruikshank, from the University of Maine, in Orono:
Perhaps you could mention that the 2nd edition of my 2003 book, Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging (Rowman & Littlefield) is now available.  www.rowman.com/isbn/0742565947.

From Katherine, a third age reader of the Newsletter:
At the suggestion of a friend, I joined Second Life. Second Life is the Internet’s most popular virtual reality site. Through my avatar “Ladykat Tigerpaw,  I was able to soar  high above the maddening crowd and the depression of real life limitations. I made new friends – a large group from England and others from around the US.  One is a real life and Second Life Furry, another a slave, some teens, many who have one or another disabilities that seriously limit first life.

I have some beach front property on which I have two houses, one which will become a library for the Naughty Auties, a group of people I number among my friends and who carry  the label of autism spectrum disorder,  mostly people with Aspergers. I host this group on my land and  facilitate a Sharing Knowledge meeting with them once a week.  I have set up and participated in two conferences and a health fair. I think the  best event at the health fair  was a poetry reading organized by a young woman with Aspergers.

Finally, I run a small Emotional Fitness Training business and think some of your readers would enjoy reading my web page. It is at www.emotfit.com.  The Staying Strong newsletter details the twelve daily exercises I and others have found helpful in staying strong.


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May 1, 2009 12:00 am