2009 November / December


November/December, 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 59

COMMENTARY Respect and Renewal

Home for the holidays takes on special meaning for us this year. For two weeks we have been traveling in India, which feels very far from home. A series of lectures offered moments of adventure, intense involvement, and also reflection. At a conference of Asian psychologists in Delhi, we were gratified to observe the mutual involvement of young scholars from Japan, China, India, Philippines, Malaysia, and other Asian countries. Despite their national and political differences, they treated each other with utmost respect. Conversations became animated, positive, and creative. As we asked ourselves, could such exchanges be expanded, would it be  possible to ease pervasive conflicts around the world today? Such reflection was deepened as we entered the surrounding Indian culture, and particularly as we explored their traditions of aging. Here we were struck with the strong value placed on “filial piety,” that is, a deep respect for elders. We met a young professional, for example, who traveled two hours each way from home to his place of work. We asked why he and his wife did not move closer to his institution. He responded that they lived with his parents, and he did not wish to be away from them. Should he ever move, he would ensure they came with him. Or, as a young bride told us, “It is comforting to live together with my in-laws. They are older and wiser than we are, and they give us advice and support when we are trying to decide about things.” Supported by government policies, the family is the central unit of care and throughout one’s life, it is a principle source of meaning. Children must care for their parents and adhere to their teachings. Yet, this tenet is under stress in India, especially as the young leave home to expand their horizons abroad.

Upon returning home our thoughts began to focus on the sources of respect for the aging population in our culture. Filial piety is scarcely a major value in American’s society today. Further, the fast-paced changes in the technologies of daily living (e.g. television, internet, mobile phones) generate a growing knowledge gap between the young and the old. Yet there remain many resources  through which respect for older people can be found. For one, we all carry with us repositories of respect stretching back to childhood – we recall the respect we received from our parents, teachers, friends, colleagues, and so on –  all readied for our revisiting whenever required. And there is the surrounding cohort of family and friends, whose respect and regard may be staples of everyday life. We also carry repositories of wisdom and insight that stand as vital resources for the younger generations. And, by sustaining our creative and caring activities – within our families, our friendship and civic groups, through voluntary commitments and political activity, in our philanthropy, and so on – we kindle the fires of respect, and provide models for future generations. On this note, we respectfully send you – our readers – warm good wishes for the New Year.
Mary and Ken Gergen

RESEARCH: Respect, Generativity and Well-being

Famed psychologist, Eric Erikson, who theorized about the eight stages of human development, described generativity in midlife as a very significant foundation for the last stage of life. For Erikson, generativity meant creative and productive work, and especially activity that contributes to the betterment of the society. Being generative has also been associated with feelings of well-being. The more one gives (up to a point), the better one feels about life. For example, a study of 520 people aged 55-84 found that generativity accounted for approximately 80% of their feelings of well-being, more important, even, than intimacy. Yet, generativity is not exclusively an activity characteristic of mid-life adults. Rather it can be a continuous way of life. Indeed, according to research by McAdams, de St. Aubin, & Logan (1993) and Sheldon & Kasser, (2001), commitment to nurturing younger people increases over the age span. Generative activities among older people are often focused on those who are beyond the family circle, as well as within it, through forms of volunteer work, civic engagement and interpersonal relations involving caring for non-family members.  

In this context, research from Hong Kong makes a contribution. In Hong Kong, many older people are not formally educated, in contrast to the young. Because of this, members of younger generation often express  a disrespect and disregard of their older relatives. This tendency reduces the seniors’ ability to engage with them and thus express their generativity. This has repercussions for their sense of well-being. To verify these trends, researchers studies 190 people, average age of 73, at two time periods, one year apart. They were evaluated as to their sense of being respected, their  generative activities, concern with passing on their knowledge to the next generation, and their psychological well-being. The findings indicated that generative action and well-being depend importantly on the degree to which one’s actions are valued and respected by others. If one feels respected, it increases one’s generativity, and enhances one’s feelings of well-being. Interestingly, in this study, engaging in civic activities seemed to generate more respect than that found from children and grandchildren. At the same time, however, the younger generation would be well-served by giving respect to their elders; it has positive potential for their own well-being, as well as for their seniors.

McAdams, D. P., de St. Aubin, E., & Logan, R. L. (1993).   Generativity among young, mid-life, and older adults. Psychology & Aging, 8, 221-230.

Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (2001). Getting older, getting better?  Personal strivings and psychological maturity across the life span. Developmental Psychology, 37, 491-501.

From: Generativity in later life: Perceived respect from younger generations as a determinant of goal disengagement and psychological well-being by Sheun—Tak Cheng.  Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 64B, 45-54.

RESEARCH: Narratives of Generativity

The just described Erik Erikson characterized the mature years in a person’s life in terms of their generative potential, that is, their potential for creative and productive work. Especially important for Erikson was the potential of one’s work in contributing to social well-being, and particularly the fate of the next generation. These Argentine researchers interviewed fifteen older women concerning their generative potential across the life span. These women worked as volunteers in a community organization dedicated to the social welfare of the elderly.  Based on their interviews, the  researchers concluded that there was a continuity of generativity throughout their lives, from their early childhoods until the present.

Four significant moments related to this development were established:

  1. As girls, these women recalled early expressions of empathy, solidarity and helpfulness toward others.  As one interviewee, Mrs. Y., aged 76, said, “I had a childhood, in which I could help others. I did this because of the values my parents taught me;”  “Another member of the sample recalled that in her childhood, “I always sided with the poorest;…. I was involved in everything….; maybe I was hyperkinetic!”
  2. A second theme found among these women was the expansion of generativity and productivity in adulthood. This period was described as an “especially productive and expansive stage,” devoted to the central tasks of caring for the family and being  strongly committed to their professions, both of which were  associated with expressions of happiness and satisfaction. As one divorced women said, “I did everything for my daughters, to make sure they had what they needed. I had to move forward, so I went on with my daughters, and with my job.”
  3. As they reached middle age, these women experienced a consolidation of generative achievements;  the researchers asked them to think about a culminating point of their life story (making reference to the moment in which they have experienced positive emotions more intensely, such  as joy, happiness, peace, etc.). The women tended to group their several generative efforts in a single type of memory: the births of children and grandchildren.
  4. The last characteristic is what the researchers called “generative continuity.” The interviewees still showed important levels of commitment to concrete activities that linked them with the improvement of younger generations and the care of the family circle and wider community. Examples of this generative continuity during old age were found in the interviewees’ expressions. Mrs. Y. tells us about her present day activities. “I do what I do responsibly at the crisis telephone answering service as well as tutoring school children, and volunteering at the ‘Casa de la Bondad’ too (House of Kindness). I try to comply with everything and to be useful everyday I go and all the time I’m with them. … At ‘Casa de la Bondad’ people who have nothing, who are very poor or who have nobody to stay with, go to this house. So we spoon feed them, or touch them, caress them or rub them where it hurts. How good we feel about it is perhaps more than what we give to them, it is very nice.”

As the researchers concluded, generative activities may continue throughout the life span to become a permanent expansion and growth of the self. In later life, highly generative people integrate into their narratives a deep sense of well-being that combines both the personal and social

From: The Culminating Point of Generativity in Older Women:
Main Aspects of Their Life Narrative by Andrés Urrutia, María A. Cornachione, Gastón Moisset de Espanés, Lilian Ferragut & Elena Guzmán. Website for Forum for Qualitative Studies, Volume 10, No. 3, Art. 1, September 2009.

RESEARCH: Invitation to Participate in Wellbeing Research

Researchers have devoted decades to understanding what leads some people to be healthier than others. However, most people have only studied disease and disorder and failed to also address strengths and wellbeing. In this study, we want to look at what is going wrong and what is going right in different people from around the world, and in all age groups. We want to capture the entire picture of what it means to be healthy and most importantly, track people to understand how they change over time. This is the first study of its kind to look in depth at people’s wellbeing from around the world. If you chose to participate, you’ll be helping us to answer some of the most tantalizing questions that our society faces today!
If you are interested, please sign up through the study web address: http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9xbbomI2sjsmcvI1 The study is open every third month (the next intake period is the month of March etc). Participation requires completing around 30 minutes of questions every three months for a year (five times in total).

Many thanks in advance! Aaron
Aaron Jarden,  Head of Department – Psychology
School of Information and Social Sciences
The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand
Email: aaron.jarden@openpolytechnic.ac.nz  


We were deeply saddened to learn on November 9th of the death of Dr. Gene Cohen, one of the key leaders in the field of positive aging. To mark Cohen’s significant contribution, we quote here from two of our favorite sources:

From Harry Moody’s Human Values in Aging newsletter Gene was a prolific scholar and writer.
His book, THE CREATIVE AGE: Awakening the Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, and
later THE MATURE MIND: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, have become classics expounding a vision of “positive aging” based on solid empirical inquiry. While at Harvard, Gene was a student of Erik Erikson and he carried on Erikson’s legacy of adult development. Unlike Erikson, Gene lived only until age 65, and, as with Moses, he  glimpsed the “Promised Land” of old age, but did not himself  live to enter it. For those who knew him personally, Gene was, truly, a giant in his field, but a gentle giant– humble, funny, endlessly creative and accessible…. He will not be forgotten.

From The National Center for Creative Aging
We were blessed to have been closely associated with Dr. Cohen not only as one of the founding members of the Board of Directors but as our faculty host at George Washington University, where both NCCA and his Center on Aging, Health and Humanities are housed within the Health Sciences Department. NCCA came into this partnership to bring Dr. Cohen’s and other outstanding researchers work into practice. It has been a great honor to work closely with Dr. Cohen.  On the behalf of the National Center for Creative Aging, we look forward to building upon Dr. Cohen’s legacy with you to move the paradigm of aging from problem to potential. In association with the Gerontological Society of America, where Dr. Cohen served as President in1997, NCCA will announce next week the formation of the Gene D. Cohen Research Award in Creative Aging at the GSA Annual conference in Atlanta… Gene touched so many lives and leaves us with such a rich legacy on which to continue his work to improve the quality of life for older people.


A new Pew Research Center Survey: Growing Old in America asked people 65 and older what they most liked about growing older. Here are the topics and the % that named them as among their top choices.

More time with family   70%
Not working   65%
More time for hobbies/interests   65%
More financial security   64%
Less stress   59%
More respect   59%
Volunteer   52%

From: The Good Life, AARP, The Magazine, November-December, 2009, 15.

Imagine being married 80 years!  It is not a fantasy for Bill and Mari DeCaro, who were married in a Roman Catholic church in South Philadelphia in 1929. This year, Bill and Marie turn 100. The two of them live together at a senior community in a suburb of Philadelphia. As Bill described their union, “They’ve been beautiful, beautiful years.” They met at Madam Duvall’s Dance School when they were teenagers  and soon fell in love. After they were married    they traveled the vaudeville circuit, with Bill’s brother, doing dancing and clowning. When that era ended, they settled down, raised a family, and now have an extended network of grandchildren, most of whom live on the west coast.

The secrets to a long and happy marriage, they say:
Laugh a lot
Don’t take life seriously
Never go to bed angry  or
Tell the other person what to do.
Holding hands and cuddling have their place as well.
From: All the right steps in 80-year marriage by Kathy Boccella. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 22, 2009, B1, B7.


Various forms of research have indicated that older people are less emotionally labile than younger people. Added support for this idea comes from a survey  showing the % of American adults who reported suicide attempts within one year of a major depressive episode.

Among 18-20 year olds, 20% said they had tried suicide; 21-24 year olds, 15%;  25-34, 11%; 35-54, 10%;  and, 4% of those 55 and older agreed. Of course, it is possible that some people were successful suicides, and weren’t  around to answer the survey. Could that also explain the lower numbers of older people??  We think it is more likely that older people have learned to cope better with depressing events. They’ve had more experience.

From: Darkness Invisible by Daphne Merkin. New York Times, Sept. 16, 2007. Pg. 17


Facing Age, Finding Answers: Stories for Positive Aging by Ardis Stevenson,
(2008). Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing.

How easy it is to learn from stories. Most of us seem to have a great appetite for “finding out what comes next.”  We can also identify with the characters in a story, and we can imagine how we might act in similar circumstances. We can also share a story with  others. This book is composed of columns written by the author during her time of great involvement in assessing the vision of aging in her community. The stories are inspired by a project called the Lake Oswego 50+ Community Dialogues, in which over 300 community members gathered to talk about their views. The epigram that begins the book is prophetic: “What are the four signs of aging? They are Wisdom, Confidence, Character and Strength. Look for them not with dismay, but with hope.”  (Valerie Monroe)

The stories herein demonstrate this statement. Written from a first person perspective, short, and reader friendly print, they cover a range of topics familiar to adult concerns: retirement, regrets, relocations, and the rut. From the glass is half full orientation, Ms. Stevenson tells about her involvements, challenges, and ways of dealing with most things, from curing a bad mood to fighting city hall. Often they are personal, but sometimes they are related to others’ issues, such as adult abuse, dementia, and dependence.  The mood of the stories, overall, is   upbeat, creative and caring. It helps us see the way to a positive old age.  Perhaps, as Pablo Picasso once said, “It takes a long time to become young.”  This little book helps one to do that.


From Dr. David Myers
Thanks so much for your continuing good with the positive aging newsletter.
For your information, my efforts to support the spreading of hearing aid compatible assistive listening (and of doubling hearing aid functionality) continues to gain momentum, with a recent article in Scientific American  <http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9xbbomI2sjsmcvI2 online and with more publicity when NYC Transit announces, likely in late January, the installation of hearing loops at its 642 subway information booths.

In the meantime, www.hearingloop.org <http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9xbbomI2sjsmcvI3  is the site for public information.

From Ed Menaker, Terra Nova Films, Inc.

I wanted to know if you carry a note for The Positive Aging Newsletter on our new all-video caregiving site at www.videocaregiving.org <http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9xbbomI2sjsmcvI4 . We have been working on the site for the past two years with funding from the Retirement Research Foundation. Our hope is that it can become a powerful new resource for the at- home family caregiver.   The site features videos in two different areas– Alzheimer’s and General Caregiving. All our  stories focusing on real people faced with real challenges. Award-winning journalist and documentary producer Bill Kurtis introduces the user to the site and speaks to the importance of the storytelling power of these documentary videos. We’re very proud of our work to this point, but hope that we are only at the beginning of what can be one of the most unique and important caregiving sites on the web.
 Terra Nova Films, Inc. ed@terranova.org
www.terranova.org <http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9xbbomI2sjsmcvI5

From Richard Matzkin
My wife, Alice, and I are a sculptor and portrait artist in our mid and late 60s. For the last 15 years, we have created projects almost exclusively related to aging. We have used our art to our fear and curiosity about growing old.

Alice painted portraits of women up to the age of 105 years old who are living their lives in a creative. zestful and positive way. She also did a series of nudes of women age 58 to 87 that celebrates aged beauty and the acceptance of changes of the body through aging. And, she painted a series of sequential portraits of my aunt from age 89 to 97 showing the progressive effects of age.

I have sculpted a group of figures of old men and a series of elderly couples in tender embrace — signifying the beauty of enduring love.

An art/inspiration book that we wrote about our work titled THE ART OF AGING, Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self is being published in March by Sentient Publications.  Our website, matzkinstudio.com <http://newsletter.trustly.net/re?l=9xbbomI2sjsmcvI6  contains all of the work, as well as our biographies.


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.

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December 29, 2009 12:00 am