2010 January / February

January/February, 2010




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 60

COMMENTARY: The Newsletter: A Small Birthday

This represents the 60th issue of the Newsletter, a birthday of sorts, and we parents have great pleasure in seeing this child now reaching maturity. It is also an appropriate moment to re-introduce the central mission of the newsletter and to clarify how you may participate as readers. Since its inception some eight years ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate – now reaching thousands of subscribers in five languages. Subscribers include gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons.

Our primary aim is to bring to light resources – from research, professional 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 the life-span 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 effectively emerge. By focusing on the positive developments of aging, along with the availability of relevant resources, skills, and resiliencies – researchers not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice, but create hope and empower 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. As we have also found, our lay audience adds significant and creative dimension to such professional work.
This is also to say that we appreciate contributions from our audiences, both professional and lay. If you have writings or practices that you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, please share them with us. We also review selected books, films, and websites, as well as carry announcements of relevant conferences and workshops. Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu. We would also like to use this moment to express our appreciation to the translators of the newsletter. These include Alain Robiolio (French), Mario Ravazzola (Spanish), Thomas Friedrich-Hett (German), Angelo Mussoni (Italian), and Su-fen Liu (Chinese). Virtually all the efforts to publish and translate the Newsletter are voluntary. 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 at Penn State University, Brandywine. Ken and Mary both serve 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 issues in gerontology, scientific research, and therapeutic practice.

Finally, please do share the Newsletter with anyone you wish. New readers keep our fires glowing.

Ken and Mary

RESEARCH: Rough Spots and Resilience

A reader of this Newsletter, Bobbie Rouge, recently wrote to us that, “it is sometimes difficult to fathom that ‘losing is the lesson to winning’.” Or, one might say, dealing with adversity may have long-term benefits. This possibility was on our mind as we read a recent report on resilience. The topic is an important one: As we age, we are ordinarily exposed to a variety of adverse circumstances, whether they be health-related deficits, losses of close relations, financial declines, or other threats to personal equilibrium. It is not how we avoid these adversities that is important, but how we deal with them.
These researchers examined the lives of 174 people between 68 and 82 years of age. Using a questionnaire, they assessed the level of adversity the person had suffered (defined as a circumstance that produced a significant decrease in quality of life) and on their resilience level (high or low). Resilience is basically the capacity to bounce back from negative events. Among the sample, 55 were described as resilient; 79 were vulnerable, and the remaining 40 were intermediate. The goal of the study was to understand what factors helped to mitigate the impact of the adverse circumstances, that is, what made people resilient.

Most important, those judged as resilient had coping styles in which they said they learned from their problems, such that they eventually gained something from their negative experience. Resilient people also were able to accept and live with the new reality and integrating it into their lives. A coping style not contributing to resilience was called “avoidance coping,” in which the problems were not addressed, but rather the focus was on negativefeelings — a “poor me” syndrome, characterized by depression, hopelessness, and being overwhelmed.

Also interesting, resilient people had more relationships that they defined as good; they were more integrated into their communities, and thus were less likely to feel isolated or alone. They were more likely to say they had “friendly neighbors,” and they lived in places where people looked out for one another. Women also turned out to be more resilient than men on the measures used in this study. The researchers suggested social policies that could facilitate resilience in older people, including facilitating transportation access and opportunities for social engagement.

From: Examining Resilience of Quality of Life in the Face of Health-Related and Psychosocial Adversity at Older Ages: What is ‘Right” About the Way We Age?” by Zoe Hildon, Scott M. Montgomery, David Blane, Richard D. Wiggins, and Gopalakrishnan Netuveli. The Gerontologist, 2009, 50, 36-47.

RESEARCH: On-Line Match Making among Older Adults

Since February is the month of Valentines, and thoughts may turn to romance, it is interesting to know trends in online dating among older people. What are people seeking, and how do their choices compare with the younger generations who are also online looking for a match?

In this research, 600 personal emails from four groups of people, divided by age (20-34; 40-54; 60-74 and 75+) were studied. All were seeking someone of the opposite sex; 84% were Caucasian; 38% had college degrees, and with increasing age, people were more likely to be widowed and/or retired from active employment. All participants were recruited from Yahoo!Personals ads, and agreed to fill out a questionnaire. In the first section of the questionnaire, people described themselves and their ideal match, using multiple choice answers to questions about looks, ethnicity, religion, income, etc. In the second part, they wrote a small essay “In My Own Words” in which they described themselves and their desired other.

As the research showed, at all ages, men desired women who were younger than themselves. In addition, the older the man, the greater the discrepancy between his age and the desired partner’s. Thus, for example, a 20 year old man may prefer a woman who is no older than 19, a 30 year old man prefers a woman who is no more than 25, and a 60 year old man prefers a woman who is no older than 45. For women, they consistently preferred a man who was older than themselves, until age 75; at that time, women sought men who were younger than they were. The researchers were surprised that women who were younger than 75 still preferred an older man, given that in other research women declare that they do not want to be caretakers or be widowed another time. Overall, however, women were found to be desirable by at least some men, regardless of age.

Further, women of all age wanted a man who had a fairly high status. The researchers suggested that women were “pickier” when it came to selecting a partner than men were. More often than men, women had specific requirements in mind in terms of describing their ideal mate. Men, it seemed, were more eager to re-partner than women were. This, of course, is very wise, given that marriage is advantageous for living longer and better than being alone, especially for men.

From: Partner preferences across the life span: Online dating by older adults bu Sheyna Sears-Roberts Alterovitz & Gerald A. Mendelsohn. Psychology and Aging, 2009, 24,513-517.

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://www.wellbeingstudy.com/
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


The small Minnesota town, Albert Lea, has hit the news, and it is good news for the future of longevity. This town was chosen to be an experimental site for making changes in people’s health and longevity by engaging most of the population in activities that would be beneficial to them. The general principles of the project included helping people to eat better, become more active, connect socially more often with one another, and find a greater sense of purpose. To help educate the people in the town, experts in nutrition, exercise, eating and motivation came to the community and offered courses in their specialty. Most importantly, the people themselves got together and pursued the programs with enthusiasm.

The restaurants and businesses of the town also cooperated by adding healthy choices to their menus, and “walking groups” became a favorite form of recreation for those who had been sedentary. Social support from others helped people to join in exercise, to become more involved with their neighbors and to resist junk food temptations. When the project ended in October, 2009, a total of 3,464 residents had participated. The life expectancy of the 786 people who were evaluated rose by almost 3 years, and all of them said they felt healthier than before they had entered the project.

The project was conducted with support from the AARP’s Blue Zones Vitality Project, sponsored by the United Health Foundation. It would be interesting to return to Albert Lea next year to see how many of their healthy living practices are continuing.

From: The Minnesota Miracle by Dan Buettner. AARP. Jan/Feb, 2010, 32-37,51.

Recently, researchers have found more positive news about the brain. For some time the idea of a naturally declining brain has been challenged by research showing continued plasticity and cellular regeneration. However, more recently researchers suggest that if kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that can enable some problems to be solved even faster than when younger. For example, the brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. The trick, however, is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them. “The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California.

Educators say that one way to nudge the neural pathways of adults in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate over the years. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to those they customarily have, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66. Continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different from the one’s you currently know. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

“ If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections…. We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well,” according to Dr. Taylor.

Along these lines, Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, proposes that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.” Thirty years ago, Dr. Mezirow studied women who had gone back to school. The women took this bold step only after having many conversations that helped them challenge their own ingrained perceptions that women could not do what men could do.”

New York Times by Barbara Strauch, Jan. 3, 2010, Education, 10.


Autumn Romance: Stories and Portraits of Love After 50
This is a late Valentine’s treat: A book about lovers and loves, with intimate portraits of the principal characters, a truly delicious confection that warms the heart and stimulates the imagination. I opened the book to a note from author, Carol Denker, who asked me to read a few stories, at least. Thumbing through the book, I was delighted by the diversity of stories of lovers from various places and vocations, who shared one basic similarity, the thrill and contentment wrought by their relationship. As the book flap says: “Autumn Romance offers significant hope to those who have not yet encountered love. Past romantic disappointments do not spell lack of love for the future.” A heartening message made visible. MG

The book can be purchased though Carol Denker’s website, or through Amazon. For more information see Caroldenker@comcast.net, or www.autumnlove.org



Check here for a variety of websites that offer free opportunities at the university level. Among them are ITunesU, from Apple, Academic Earth, which has lectures from various university courses; ResearchChannel, which houses over 3,500 videos from professors in many fields, and Vidolectures.net, which comes out of Slovenia.

Employment site for job seekers. Free to post your resume, set up a job agent, or browse through current positions in the field of Aging. Employers may discover a new channel for finding valuable employees.


The following “remarks” on aging and exercise were emailed to us by a good friend of ours,
who will herself soon be 65.

The only reason I would take up walking
is so that I could hear heavy breathing again.

I have to walk early in the morning,
before my brain figures out what I’m doing.

I joined a health club last year, spent about 400 bucks.
Haven’t lost a pound.
Apparently you have to go there.

Every time I hear the dirty word ‘exercise’,
I wash my mouth out with chocolate.

If you are going to try cross-country skiing,
start with a small country.

My grandpa started walking five miles a day when he was 60.
Now he’s 97 years old, and we don’t know where the heck he is.

We all get heavier as we get older,
because there’s a lot more information in our heads.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Anthony Bolton writes:
You might want a look at the book Second Journey published late last year — our second foray into publishing after the online publication and private book publication of The Making of an Elder Culture by Theodore Roszak (now published by New Society Publishers). The new book is The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life by emeritus philosophy professor John G. Sullivan.

Kay Van Norman (kayvn100@yahoo.com) writes:

I would like to share an article I recently wrote for the Journal on Active Aging titled: Creating Purpose-Driven Senior Living Communities. I’ve believed for a long time that meaning and purpose are a primary key to living well, regardless of age. I look forward to the time when older adults with functional challenges are given the same resources, opportunities, and encouragement to continue growing and contributing to the community as young people with disabilities are given.

Readers who would like to have a copy of this article are welcome to email Kay; she has indicated that she will be happy to send you one.

Dr Rick Swindell, Adjunct Senior Lecturer at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, writes:
Universities of the Third Age (U3As) are like Lifelong Learning Institutes or OLLIs in the USA. They are predominantly about later life cognitive stimulation in a social environment. Everything is run by volunteers. There are no awards, no exams, no entry requirements.

In 1998 two colleagues and I started U3A Online, the world first virtual U3A, open to all older people and younger disabled people from any country. We now have more than 35 excellent courses, each of which runs for about 8 weeks, all written and taught online by retired experts from around the world. Because U3A Online is an all-volunteer organisation with free hosting and course delivery from Griffith University in Queensland, our overheads are negligible. Annual membership costs $25 (less than the cost of 2 movie tickets) and for this members have free, 365 day access to all courses and resources for individual study. A few times a year the courses are led for 8-9 weeks by course leaders from the comfort of their homes. Nothing takes place in real time because this would be a barrier for participants from different time zones around the world. Interaction is mainly by electronic forum on the course delivery site. These tutor-led courses cost an extra A$5.

Few Americans are aware of U3A Online yet I’m certain many would be interested in the courses and the opportunities to volunteer online in different ways…. I also attach a condensed information page about U3A Online if you don’t want to ferret out the detail from www.u3aonline.org.au

I hope this idea strikes a chord with your Positive Ageing philosophy. Volunteering, keeping the mind involved with novel things, and forming new social networks are attributes of Positive Ageing which continue to receive strong evidence-based support in the literature. Quite simply, a world-wide cadre of expert volunteers working for the greater good makes undeniable sense. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

Joyce Kornblatt writes with an invitation to a retreat:
LIVING THE QUESTIONS, Writing as a Practice of Contemplative Inquiry
In this five-day retreat, August 14-19, 2010,at at the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Center on 600 acres near Santa Fe (http://www.sangredecristo.org/ ), we’ll count on surprise, trust silence and cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. Working together in the spirit of spacious curiosity, we’ll create a community in which we feel safe to live the questions that are most alive for each of us. The days and evenings will include a balance of guided writing practice, silent meditation, group reflection, movement, free time for writing, and one-on-one meetings with the teacher

Joyce is a novelist (Nothing to Do with Love, White Water, Breaking Bread and The Reason for Wings). For twenty years, she was Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Maryland. She now lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia. More information is available at www.joycekornblatt.net.


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.


There will be a Positive Aging Conference in Chicago, Mar. 14-15, 2010, prior to the national meeting of the American Society on Aging and National Council on Aging at that time. This event, sponsored by National-Louis University, will include discussions and activities pertaining to positive aging collaborating professionals from the local and national community. The Conference will feature best practices of positive aging through workshops, presentations, and active engagement activities.

The 6th World Ageing & Generations Congress in 2010 will take place between the 25th and 28th of August 2010 in St. Gallen, Switzerland. As in the past years the congress will be a platform where Academia, Business, Policy makers and Practitioners from different fields come together to share their experience and expertise to cope with the challenges of demographic change. Topics be addressed in 2010 in cooperation with our partners include, Product Development and Design, Using the Experience of the Older Worker, Quality of Life and Health, Healthcare Reform, Dementia, and Geopolitics.

For more information, csutter@wdaforum.org

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:

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, e-mail Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

For general information:


See also the further activities of the Taos Institute:


April 25, 2010 12:00 am