2009 – May / June

May-June 2009, Issue 56



May/June, 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 56

COMMENTARY Saying “No” to Aging

As we often stress in this newsletter, how we age is very much related to our social lives. As Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer proposes in her new book, Counterclockwise, we are all potential victims of negative stereotypes about aging and health; too often we accept these stereotypes, and this shapes both our conceptions of self and our behavior. Consider, for example, her early research. Here she brought a group of  men who were in their 70’s and early 80’s to an old New England hotel. In the hotel she created a time warp scene;     as in a theatrical play, all the props told the men that it was 20 years earlier, which was when they were in their 50’s and 60’s.  They were instructed not to reminisce, but to act as though they had traveled back in time.  Langer’s findings were stunning: After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity, and less arthritis in their hands.  Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture.  Photographs taken of the men at the hotel were rated by outsiders as significantly younger than their actual ages.  In many ways, they had become younger.

In another study, Langer investigated the impact of our clothing on our aging process.  She looked at the differences between those people who wear uniforms at work, versus those who don’t.  Her reasoning was that uniforms mask the ages of the wearers and do not offer cues to others or to oneself about age.  As she found, those in uniform missed fewer days of work owing to illness or injury, had fewer doctors visits and hospitalizations and had fewer chronic diseases.

Despite these results we may not want to dig out our old miniskirts and bell bottoms, but it does suggest that we  consider both context and appearance in terms of how we live our lives. Rather than spending our time and dressing according to the stereotypes of what an “old person” should do, we should spend our time and dress  according to what most suits us, despite the wicked urge to conform.  As we often suggest, you are as old (or young) as you act.

Mary and Ken Gergen

See:  Langer, Ellen (2009) Counterclockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility. New York: Ballentine.

RESEARCH: Avoiding Depression through Activity

It is widely reported that, with advancing age, there is an increase in diagnosed depression. Further, there is an increasingly  strong tendency for psychiatrists to recommend drugs as the “cure.” At the same time, other forward looking practitioners are seeking means of combating depression without promoting pharmaceutical dependency. The present study adds strength to these latter efforts. This study first clarifies how patterns of social activity are related to trajectories of depression over time. The analysis was done with a nationally representative sample of over 5,000 adults, 70 and older. The study was also longitudinal, assessing these individuals three times between 1994-2000. Of specific concern was the relationship between activity and depression. As it was found, many specific activities were associated with lower levels of depression.  The activities that were most protective against depression involved participation in religious services, exercise, sports, movies and eating out. Also of major importance was talking on the phone with family and friends; this communicative activity was prominent among those who were least depressed. For women, social connection was one of the most significant insulators against depression.

Echoing reports from previous Newsletters, volunteering also had positive effects.  In a related study, a third of the volunteers reported that they were “a great deal better off” because they volunteered, and two thirds indicated  that volunteering benefited their families as well. Opportunities for volunteering that were most appreciated were those that encouraged involvement, provided adequate training and ongoing support, and gave  stipends to volunteers.  (Morrow-Howell, Hong, & Tang, 2009).   

In the national survey, participants who said that they had ‘enough” activity also had lower depression levels.  Interestingly, this finding  suggests that one’s perception of what is “enough” is as important as the actual amount or type of activity. People may benefit from having the “right” amounts of activity for them. Consistent with this suggestion,  doing paid work (especially for those who worked to meet basic needs) was associated with higher levels of depression,  

In summary, “This research lends support to practitioners committing time and resources to facilitating older adults’ participation in a broad range of personally meaningful activities, thus promoting well-being and likely protecting them against depression.”  (pg. 9).  

From: “Structural relationships between social activities and longitudinal trajectories of depression among older adults”  by Song-Iee Hong, Leslie Hasche, & Sharon Bowland, The Gerontologist, 49, 1-11.

Also:  “Who benefits from volunteering? Variations  in perceived benefits” by Nancy Morrow-Howell, Song-Iee Hong, & Fengyan Tang, The Gerontologist, 2009, 49, 91-102.

RESEARCH: Comic Relief: Humor and Stress in Retirement

For many, retirement is a stressful transition. How one copes with it may be crucial to both physical and mental well-being. As this research indicates, humor can be a highly effective coping device. One hundred thirty-eight retired individuals completed a humor measure, which tapped both  self-enhancing  and  aggressive forms of humor. They also completed surveys regarding retirement stress and daily life frustrations. Results supported the hypothesis that increased use of self enhancing humor (e.g., “I intend to live forever. So far, so good”) was related to less intense daily frustration ratings and lower levels of stress. These effects were especially prominent in navigating daily frustrations, such as waiting in line, listening to noisy neighbors, and being stuck in traffic.  Humor seemed less effective in dealing with sustained stress, for example, failing health or financial troubles. Aggressive humor  (e.g., “Stupidity is not a handicap. Park somewhere else”) was also useful in reducing daily stresses, but not as effective as self-enhancing humor. Gender differences were also examined. Unlike men, aggressive humor was not helpful for women in reducing stress.  These findings imply that self enhancing humor, in particular, may be the best medicine for  alleviate stress for retirees. Of course, it may also be that individuals who report less stress tend to use more positive humor styles. Here is a question for future research.

From: Freeman, G. P., & Ventis, W. L. (2008, July). Humor styles and retirement: The impact of humor on retirement stress and life hassles. Paper presented at the 20th Annual International Society of Humor Studies Conference, Alcala de Henares, Spain

RESEARCH: Laughter and the Good Life

Next time you laugh, really laugh – perhaps a “belly laugh” –and then congratulate yourself on improving your health.  Laughing is not only fun, but as the preceding research indicates, it is a good way to relieve stress. Others report that it improves your immune system. Laughing relaxes us, improves our moods and eases anxieties.   Aristotle called laughter a “bodily exercise precious to health.” In physiological terms, laughing produces short-term changes in cardiovascular function and respiration.  It can also reduce a drop in the blood’s concentration of cortisol, a hormone related to stress.  

A sense of humor, which many believe is an acquired skill, is a allows people to distance themselves from  difficult situations and helps to diminish emotional outbursts.  I  (Mary Gergen) vividly recall that as my mother lay dying in  the hospital,  I decided to take her winter coat back to Philadelphia with me. My sister was driving me to the airport, and as we got in the car, I said to my sister, “If Mom gets well, she’s going to wonder who took her coat.”  And we both burst into  laughter.  Humor helped to sooth our  feelings of grief in that difficult moment.  Laughter can also shield us from disappointment and ease physical pain.  Research indicates that patients who watch funny movies need fewer pain-killers after surgery than those who don’t see them.  And we all know the story of Norman Cousins, who believed he cured his cancer with the help of cartoons.  

Being cheerful and funny can also be helpful in cultivating friendships.  A lighthearted interaction style facilitates bonding and building social support, which can come in handy when things get tough.  Research indicates that both men and women value a “sense of humor” in a partner.  In one study, the amount of laughing by a woman during a chat with a man was positively related to his interest in her and how sexually appealing he found her.  

One should not despair if they don’t feel particularly funny or lighthearted in their interaction styles.  According to psychologist, Paul McGhee, president of Laughter Remedy in Wilmington, Delaware, one can develop a sense of humor.  Among the tasks he recommends is to find humor in daily life, learn to laugh at yourself, become less serious and more playful about life, and develop your own spontaneous humor.   Humor can also lighten the burden of depression and anxiety.   At the University of Basel, psychiatrist Marc Walter reported that 10 older, depressed patients who received humor training in addition to medication were more satisfied with their lives than were patients who only received medication.  The experimental group opened up more easily and were livelier in their interactions after their therapy.   According to philosopher, Immanual Kant, laughter is one of  three ways of counterbalancing life’s troubles.  The other two are hope and sleep.  

From: Laughing Matters by Steve Ayan,  Scientific American Mind,  April/May, 2009, 24-31.

Aging Residents Unite

Alice Randall’s kids are grown and gone. At age 69, she still works part time. But she misses the “connectiveness” she felt when her kids were in Edina schools, and she was busy with their activities and parent groups. “At this point in life, I’m too old for what I’ve been doing, and I have to move on,” she said. “But I’m not ready for people to do things for me. I still want to be proactive. I still want to give.”

Randall is among the more than 20 percent of Edina, Minnesota residents who are 65 or older, making the suburb one of the oldest in the Twin Cities area. Now the city has begun an unusual community conversation about aging positively and productively. They are working with consultant Richard Leider, whose executive education and coaching firm is located in Edina. Leider and Mayor Jim Hovland hope that eventually the community conversation — which is staging its third event this month — will lead to development of a “center on positive aging.”

“The real purpose here is to inspire seasoned citizens to lead engaged lives, to stay learners,” Leider said. By connecting those residents with one another, he said, Edina can better face the challenge of having an aging community. “Community is much more than a place. It’s a state of mind. It’s a shared vision, a common fate. It’s not only where we live, but how we act toward each other through the life span,” Leider said.

As one of the metro area’s more affluent suburbs, Edina has many active seniors and an array of adult education and volunteer programs. But it also has a tradition of self-sufficiency. Residents arrange for their own garbage collection. When streets in front of their homes are repaved, homeowners pay the entire bill.  The positive aging initiative was Hovland’s idea. He said there’s a difference between residing in a city and belonging to a community. “I see a lot of folks around town that are older, and some of them express the opinion that everybody needs a reason to get up in the morning,” Hovland said. “I suspect most have that reason. But it did make me think: What are we doing for citizens in the second half of life?”

What Edina is doing could become a model for other cities, he said. “This whole positive aging movement knows no boundaries,” he said. “It’s a worldwide societal issue. … Increasingly, people are looking at what makes a community a community. You can have a lot of people in a place like Edina [who are] very isolated.” Last fall, Leider’s first speech in Edina on what was called “the adult community initiative” was expected to draw about 50 people. An overflow crowd of 200 attended.  …Leider points to a recent MetLife Mature Market Institute Study that interviewed 1,001 people between the ages of 45 and 75 about what defines “the good life.” The survey found that those who said their lives had purpose were far more likely to say they were happy and contented than those who did not.  Older people put less emphasis on wealth accumulation than younger people and were most likely to say what matters to them is “meaning-related” activities like spending time with family and enjoying personal pursuits. “Meaning trumps money at all ages for those seeking ‘the good life,'” Leider said.

From: “Aging Residents Strive to Connect in Retirement” by Mary Jane Smetanka, from the Minneapolis Star & Tribune, sent by Richard Leider to the Positive Aging newsletter.  Thank you, Richard!

Playing Bridge: Bidding for Lucidity

Researchers from the University of Southern California have been studying the health and mental acuity of older people since 1981.  The study is based on more than 14,000 people over age 65, including more than 1,000 people who are over 90.  The results of the study suggest that “people who spend long stretches of their days, three hours and more, engrossed in some mental activities like cards may be at reduced risk of developing dementia.”   The researchers caution, however, that it is hard to tease apart the nature of this correlation: Do sharp people stay more active in mental games, or do mental gamers get sharper?  

Researchers also believe that social connections, including interactions with friends,  fellow bridge players, and strangers may also encourage mental alertness.  In isolation, a healthy human mind can quickly become disoriented.  For this reason, it is injurious for people to spend too much time alone, (a condition that may happen when  people  lose their families and friends,  are incapacitated due to illness, or moving from one residence to another). These views reinforce findings already published in this newsletter.  We aren’t surprised, but we are gratified that new research supports the older idea that its “use it or lose it.”  

From: At the Bridge Table, Clues to a Lucid Old Age by Benedict Carey, New York Times, May 22, 2009, A1, A17.

Biking Information for the 50 plus

If one follows the  advice to “stay active,”  biking may be just the thing. Here are some places where one can discover information on biking in Europe or the U. S.

Elderhostel: foreign and domestic bike tours, accompanied by  talks to orient you to your surroundings. Includes airfare, accommodations, bicycles, and meals.  www.elderhostel.org

International Bicycle Tours: European tours covering about 30 miles a day.   Includes lodging, a guide, the bike, a van, and most meals.  www.internationalbicycletours.com

Senior Cycling: 1-7 day trips, from various U. S. locations.  Small groups have a guide, van, accommodations and most meals.  www.seniorcycling.com

50plus Expeditions: 8 day self-guided trips, with accommodations, two meals, and support van in Europe.


Over the Hill Gang International: primarily for skiing, but they arrange some bike tours every year.  www.othgi.com

From: Bike Trips for 50-Plus, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 2009, N2


As authors of the Newsletter we often write reviews of books related to positive aging.
For this issue we are letting two readers provide a glimpse into their own work:

John Zeisel writes (after attending one of our workshops on positive aging):

A great many positive effects came from that meeting, not the least of which has been an annual positive aging conference.  During the meeting each of us introduced ourselves and said a few words about why we were there. At the time I introduced myself and said that because I worked with people living with Alzheimer’s I was not sure why I was there—although even then I know that I looked at the positive side of the illness.  Since then I have been writing a book (published this January by Penguin/Avery Press) in answer to the question: “Why was I at the Positive Aging Workshop?”

The book — I’M STILL HERE: A BREAKTHROUGH APPROACH TO UNDERSTANDING SOMEONE LIVING WITH ALZHEIMER’S — is my answer to that question.  It is the only book that looks positively at Alzheimer’s, essentially making the point that since we do live with the disease we must make it as positive as possible for those living with it — including care partners.  It’s not a question of “half full” versus “half empty”; it’s a question of creating a positive life and positive relationships.  It builds on all of our abilities to connect with our culture — art of all sorts — and to use that skill to form new relationships.  That’s not all the book says, but it’s the part that answers the question:  “Why was I at the Positive Aging Workshop?”

From Nancy Schlossberg:
I have just published a new book, 
(published by the American Psychological Association).

The following tips for those at both ends of the financial spectrum can help your psychological survival.

Tip 1: Take “For Now Jobs” Today; Dream About Tomorrow’s Career.

This is the time to think about short-term goals like eating and survival and long-term goals like positioning yourself for a productive future. Jan Alston, career advisor at the Women’s Resource Center of Sarasota County, advises clients to take “For Now Jobs” in order to survive these bad times at the same time planning for a future dream job. This might be the time to return to school and get training for the future. 

Tip 2: Maintain A Strong Psychological Portfolio.
I know Jim, a policeman, whose life after retirement provides clues to what leads to happiness. Deflated when he retired from his demanding but rewarding career, he told me, “I turned in my gun and badge and that was that.” In other words, his Psychological Portfolio – his Identity, Relationships with colleagues, and Purpose – were diminished. To replace these, he moved into hotel management and once again regained his Identity and Purpose as he formed new Relationships.

 Tip 3. Change Your Perspective From Money to Mattering.
 The economic downturn provides the opportunity to rethink how much money you need to live and be happy. Assuming you are not at the poverty level, the biggest challenge is realizing that money isn’t necessarily the answer to happiness. In fact, it is about everyone’s need to feel appreciated, noticed, depended upon – that you count in others’ lives.


From: Judith Zausner, Caring Crafts, Inc.: http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9x9tzcI2sjsmcvI5

I would like to contribute information about the positive impact of creativity on aging. It facilitates the mental, physical, and social functioning of adults and builds self esteem thereby encouraging independence and promoting wellness. I write about this in a blog on www.eldr.com (http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9x9tzcI2sjsmcvI1 and it is also featured by the National Center for Creative Aging (http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9x9tzcI2sjsmcvI2 In my own workshops, I have seen the remarkable value that are experienced by adults who create attractive products using crafts.


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.

GENERATIONS UNITED Conference (July 27-31, 2009, Washington, DC). Generations United’s 15th International Conference, “Because We’re Stronger Together” is held at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.  For details visit:

POSITIVE AGING: (July 13-17, 2009, Cape Cod, MA).  The Cape Cod Institute and Robert Hill present “Positive Aging:  A 21st Century Approach for Transforming the Challenges of Old Age.” For details visit:

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: http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9x9tzcI2sjsmcvI6

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

Go to: http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9x9tzcI2sjsmcvI7
See also the further activities of the Taos Institute: http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9x9tzcI2sjsmcvI8

July 1, 2009 12:00 am