2010 July / August

July/August, 2010

The Positive Aging Newsletter

The Positive Aging Newsletter by Kenneth and Mary Gergen,
dedicated to productive dialogue between research and practice.
Sponsored by the Taos Institute (www.taosinstitute.net)
Wall Street Journal

Issue No 63

COMMENTARY Resilience in Aging

A most welcome addition to our library is a new book edited by Prem Fry and Corey Keyes called New Frontiers in Resilient Aging. These well-known authorities in gerontology brought together major gerontology researchers to discuss the nature of resilience, and how this capacity influences our lives as we age. Resilience may be described in many ways, but we would define it as the ability to overcome challenging circumstances. Like the proverbial rubber ball, resilience is the capacity to bounce back. The authors in this book believe that older people are able to capitalize on their long experience of living to continue to grow, learn, and enjoy life, in spite of the difficult challenges confronted along the way. Helpful assets for being resilient include being socially connected, highly involved and committed to projects and causes, being open to new experiences, having people who care about you and intellectual stimulation. Older adults, while coping with a diversity of challenges and losses, can be helped to develop the qualities necessary for a resilient response.

This is where caring and motivated professionals in a variety of fields can be useful. To engage older people with respect and the belief that they can harbor certain strengths, emotional maturity, and regenerative capacities will help them continue to grow and thrive in later years. In the final chapter in this volume, we had the opportunity to explore the idea that a major contribution to resilience lies in our capacity to reconstruct or reframe events in our lives. For example, it is common to view what we call “decline in physical and mental abilities,” “physical handicaps, “or “reduced physical attractiveness” in a negative way. All are considered deficits. However, in our workshops, we have challenged our participants to reconsider ways in which each of these deficits could also be a contribution to their lives. From the lively conversations that follow, participants are able to generate new and far more promising ways of seeing such events. In effect, they move toward a positive state of resilience.

Mary and Ken Gergen
Reference: Fry, P S. and C. L. M. Keyes (Eds.) New Frontiers in Resilient Aging:Life-Strenghts and Well-Being in Late Life. (2010). New York: Cambridge University Press.

RESEARCH: Keeping Each Other Sharp

Often we think of mental ability as a personal attribute, somehow built into the genes. A fruitful alternative to this view holds that mental ability is nurtured and sustained within relationships. We need each other to thrive. Research on 304 older married couples supports this view. Each participant was evaluated in terms of two key abilities: perceptual speed and incidental memory. These two traits are considered important indicators of cognitive abilities over the lifespan. The study looked at the relationship between husband and wife in their abilities over time. Are there signs that the ability of one may affect the ability of the other member of the couple? The couples were studied over an 11 -year period. At the start of the study, the mean age of the couples was 76. The major finding of this report was that the husband’s level of functioning, especially his perceptual speed, predicted the subsequent performance of his wife the following year. The reverse was not true. Researchers speculated that one reason for this relationship had to do with the impact of a husband’s state of mind on a wife’s role. If a husband had a robust, active and interesting life, then so would his wife; if he had a limited lifestyle, and, especially, if he needed care, the wife’s life was also diminished, and she lost challenging inputs to her thinking. However, it is also important to consider sex-role functioning in this case. In traditional families, often built around the senior male, the wife may be more influenced by the liveliness of her husband than vice versa. In more democratic families, where husband and wife may have more outside relationships, cognitive stimulation may move more easily in both directions, and have major inputs from outside the marriage.

From: Dynamic links of cognitive functioning among married couples: Longitudinal evidence from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing by Denis Gerstof, Christiane A. Hoppmann, Kaarin J. Anstey, & Mary A. Luszcz. Psychology and Aging, 2010, 24. 296-309.

RESEARCH: Shattering Myths About Older Employees

In 2008 Gary Charness, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Marie Claire Villeval of the University of Lyon compared how “seniors” over age 50 and “juniors” under 30 behaved during experimental games and tasks. After multiple tests conducted on-site with employees of two large firms and in a conventional laboratory environment, the study concluded, “We show that seniors are no more risk averse than juniors and are typically more cooperative; both juniors and working seniors respond strongly to competition.”
Among the study’s specific findings:

Seniors are more cooperative even where there is a strong incentive to free ride on the contribution of others. When they know they are teamed with juniors, working seniors cooperate more than in all-senior teams. Seniors who choose to compete in a tournament perform as well as juniors. “These results are at variance with the widespread stereotypes about seniors,” the study concludes. “Seniors are perceived to be less adaptable, overly cautious and less willing to learn. These views undoubtedly contribute to age discrimination against seniors in the workplace. We show, however, that working seniors are as reactive and productive as juniors when competing against an opponent.”Because mixed-age groups outperformed homogeneous groups in the study, Charness told The Times that an optimum workforce at an office would have a range of ages.

The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas roundup published December 13, 2009 in The New York Times Magazine . From a Blog by Terry Nagel, 2009

Hearing Loss: The Vanishing Stigma

Research does show that many people still view hearing loss a sign of old age decline. As one woman said, “It’s just sort of the image of these doddering old fogies wandering around with a horn sticking out of their ear, that projects the image of age…” This same view functions as a barrier to treating hearing loss through wearing hearing aids. The media and hearing professionals also carries the message of stigma in that most hearing ads are advertised as being “invisible.” This adjective may be appealing to customers, but it also continues the myth that hearing aids are something to hide. They are indicators of decline. At the same time, there are numerous indicators of a disappearing stigma. This is partly so, as vast numbers of the young are experiencing hearing loss resulting from exposure to loud music. Further, as the population ages, many more people are recognizing the important advantages of hearing aids in terms of an active and satisfying social life. Hearing aids are becoming as commonplace as eye glasses, the latter which are now regarded as fashion statements. Another element in the de-stigmatization is the advent of mobile communication devices in which ear clips are commonly used. And more generally, there is increasing acceptance in society of reliance on mechanical devices (e.g. teeth and breast implants, pace makers, back braces, artificial joints, spell checkers) in order to accomplish our goals.

We also recommend the pioneering work of David Myers, well-known social psychologist and hearing advocate. David’s latest essay in the Hearing Review explains his advocacy for transforming assistive listening for people with hearing loss (see also hearingloop.org).

From: The Stigma of Hearing Loss by Margaret I. Wallhagen, The Gerontologist, 2010, 50, 66-75.


Drugs for what ails you, from depression to diabetes, seem to be the American way. But it is not necessarily an optimal way or even a good way to feel better. These are some common alternatives to the drug route to health that avoid the usual drug induced side-effects, dependencies, and costs: – Arthritis: Aerobic and strength-training exercises can help people with arthritis feel better. Younger and well as older people experience a significant reduction in pain through exercising. Go to www.arthritis.org for more information on this program. – Bodily Pain: Again, exercise is an answer. A 2007 review of 31 studies on nondrug treatments for fibromyalgia concluded that low to moderate intensity aerobics, including water aerobics, reduced symptoms. Exercise was also helpful to back pain sufferers. Other treatments, including acupuncture and meditation have also worked for many people with pain. – Tummy Troubles: Peppermint oil is an excellent choice for 3 of 4 people who have tummy problems, including irritable bowel syndrome. . Yogurt also helps. Heartburn is lessened if certain “dangerous” foods are resisted, such as caffeine and chocolate. It also helps to lose excess weight, quite smoking, eating smaller meals more often, and avoid lying down after eating. Wearing comfortable clothing also helps. – Urinary Problems: Doing Kegel exercises that strengthen the pelvic floor helps with controlling those giggle-induced wet spells. Google Kegel exercises to find out more. Also check out some behavioral measures to stop the rush to the toilet. One way is to reflect on your “go” signal, tighten your pelvic muscles 3 times, and walk, not run to the bathroom. – Depressed Mood: Its exercise again. In two clinical trials comparing exercise with anti-depressant drugs for major depression, researchers found that after about four months, both approaches worked equally well. Drugs alone are no substitute for talk therapy, and in the long run, finding ways of living better through therapy is more successful than popping the pill. – Sleeplessness: Good sleep habits can work as well as taking a sleeping pill, and over a six month period those without the pill slept better than those who sometimes used one. Good sleep habits include having a regular sleep schedule, a dark and cool bedroom reserved for sex and sleep, and no coffee, alcohol, smoke or exercise near bedtime. (People who love to read in bed or watch tv will want some re-evaluation of this.) – Impotence: A six month British trial found that 75% of men who did Kegel exercises regained improved erectile functioning (40% to normal) without a pill. It is also helpful to lose excess weight, quit smoking, exercise more, drink less alcohol, and avoid pressure from bicycle seats.

From: Feel Better without Drugs. Consumer Reports on Health, 2010, 22, 1, 4.


Betty White’s performance career has spanned over 70 years. Once a star in the early days of television, and in May, a guest host on Saturday Night Live, Betty has signed a contract to write two books about her life. The first one, “Listen up,” will be released in 2011. Perhaps her best known roles were in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls. Currently she is playing in the sitcom, Hot in Cleveland. She is not only “hot” in Cleveland, but from coast to coast. Ernest Borgnine, Oscar winner for his role in the movie, Marty, will be honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Screen Actors Guild. He has acted in more than 200 films, and has boundless energy, “which, at 93, is still a hall mark of his remarkably busy life and career,” according to Ken Howard, the Guild’s president. Brett Favre, 40, returned to the Minnesota Vikings, to resume his quarterback career. After two retirements, he is eager to lead his team to the Super Bowl, he believes.

In a big change of heart, television moguls are rethinking their old idea that old is bad in terms of audience appeal and advertisers’ dollars. Until recently, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox were only interested in viewers who were under 50. Today, the median age of viewers is 51. Their audiences have aged twice as fast as the general population. The TV execs and advertisers are learning to care about those over 50. Dancing with the Stars, with a median audience age of 60, is ABC’s most popular series. The median age of American Idol audiences has jumped from 36 to 44 over the last seven seasons. New advertising sectors are opening up with the older audiences in mind, including prescription drugs, financial services, and travel, for example. “Don’t discount people who are in their 50’s and 60’s. … The reality is these are the people who have the money,” according to Alan Wurtzel, research chief at NBC.

All the items are from the Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 2010.

Often neglected in the studies of financial wellbeing is the wealth of various households. Wealth, unlike income, is related to the accumulation of valuable assets over a lifetime. It is not surprising that one may accumulate possessions, especially houses, as one ages. In this study, a first of its kind, researchers evaluated older women’s wealth holdings in six countries: U. S., U.K., Germany, Italy, Finland, and Sweden. Surprisingly, they discovered that older women’s wealth holdings surpass the national averages in all countries. “Older women’s households in the United States report the highest level of median net worth across these six countries” (pg. 411). Their net worth is 4 times the average of all households in the U. S. The home ownership rate of older women’s households in America is 82%, and this is the basis for their wealth in most cases. Despite this foundation of wealth, it is not adequate for maintaining a satisfactory standard of living. “The surest way to prevent economic hardship among older women, and men, is to provide a floor under older households’ incomes through government transfers. As our results suggest, self-protection through wealth accumulation alone is not sufficient”(pg. 412).

From: The Income and Wealth Packages of Older Women in Cross-National Prespective by Janet C. Gornick, Eva Sjerminska, & Timothy M. Smeeding. The Journals of Gerontology, 2009, 64B, 402-414.


Being with Older People; A Systemic Approach
edited by Glenda Fredman, Eleanor Anderson, and Joshua Stott. 2010. London: Karnac.

First, a disclosure: We wrote a brief after-words to this powerful and helpful book; we did so because we think it is an excellent resource for therapists who work in the gerontology field, as well as those who are caretakers, counselors, therapists, and friends involved with people of all ages. The editors are also among the chapter writers, and the therapists about whom it is written. Their clients are multi-faceted Londoners; they diverge in terms of ethnicity, social class, race, and well-being. Some live in nursing homes and others on their own. The group of authors worked together, telling stories to each other about important topics related to their systemic therapy practices. From their memory work they developed various themes that seemed important for their work as therapists. They also began to describe the practices they found useful for particular themes, e.g. loneliness or dementia. One of the strengths of their approach is that they strive to create the potentials for positive aging. “An ongoing challenge we face is how to move away from talk that is problem saturated or hopeless to creating space for valuing the older person’s skills and abilities and inviting hopes for the future” (pg. 161). Through their various examples, they illustrate how this transition might be possible. Another strength of the approach is that these therapists try to find alliances with many other health care workers and family members, even those that are less hopeful or involved in the older person’s well-being. They try to remain open to others’ theoretical and medical vocabularies, even if they are not the most useful from their perspectives. It is an energizing and optimistic vision of how therapeutic care of older people could be realized. MG

The Successful Retirement Guide: From Acting to Zen
By R. Kevin Price. 2009.
Rainbow Books. www.SuccessfulRetirementGuide.com

Retired executive and recent retiree, R. Kevin Price, made as one of his retirement goals writing a book about successful retirement. He has now succeeded. His major point of view, which is broadly shared, is that the most important factor in successful retirement is remaining intellectually, socially, and physically engaged with life. To do this, especially when the rhythms of the workaday world are terminated, is to figure out new things with which to be involved. To entice the reader into considering either old and forgotten interests or to stimulate new ones, he has listed over two hundred potentially fascinating activities. Although the title suggested two of them, acting and zen, others that might be more exotic include gold panning, yodeling, marquetry, and pilgrimages. Each choice has a brief description, sometimes a bit of history, and a couple of books that might help one on one’s way to becoming engaged with this particular item. Appendices also help the reader to become involved in various organizations or activities. This is a clear-cut, easily read book that sparks the imagination and stimulates the mind. MG

The Spiral of the Seasons: Welcoming the Gifts of Later Life

by John G. Sullivan,
Second Journey Publications, 2009. www.secondjourney.org.

This is a lovely book, written by an Emeritus philosophy professor from Elon University in North Carolina. Divided into the seasons, we read of Spring’s Stirrings, Summer’s Fullness, Autumn’s Way, and Winter’s Gifts. In a diversity of modes, Dr. Sullivan involves the reader in an appreciation of the virtues of aging. Story telling, Zen koans, and a gathering of wisdom from poets, sages, and friends enlarge the interpretations of important aspects of life, including forgiveness, openness, serenity, and happiness. MG


Howard Stone writes:
I took up the violin a few months ago to celebrate my 75th year and test the effects of brain neuroplasticity in honor of the recent passing of Dr. Gene Cohen. Biggest surprise; I’m now playing jazz piano better than ever and my memory has improved across the board. Just don’t ask about my level of fiddling at this early stage. Keep up the good work.

Nan Phifer asked that we share this announcement:
Write Spiritual Memoirs in the Rocky Mountains, at Way-Points Highlands Retreat Center, near Allenspark, CO, Sept. 27-30. Nan Phifer, author of Memoirs of the Soul: A Writing Guide, will lead you in identifying your most significant experiences and make easy the writing of spontaneous drafts. You’ll write about several landmarks in your spiritual journey, gain ideas for more chapters to write later, and experience a writing process you can continue to use. Cost: $375/person double occupancy; $500/person single occupancy. See website www.memoirworkshops.com ; telephone Holly at 1-303-747-2888.

Vikki Hilton, from the Appreciative Inquiry listserv, writes:
I am doing some work in Scotland around Active Communities and I just thought I would share some wonderful stories I have heard. My colleague and I refer to these as Inspirational stories.

A 92 year old woman living in a flat accessed by stairs who uses a cane:

“When I come downstairs to get my mail I go down, up, down and up again. I am 92; I need to make sure I keep fit.”

The 80+ year old, ex heavy truck driver:

“I had a stoke some time ago so can’t be so active. I measured my corridor, it’s 9 yards long. I make sure I walk that several times a day to keep fit, and I used to have my own band so I still compose music using a keyboard linked to my computer.”

Another couple – 80 and 74:

“We both swim, play bowls and I do sequence dancing 3 times a week, and I do tapestry work and make cards. I’m demonstrating card making next month. And of course I belong to the Guilds. We don’t have a car so we walk. One needs to keep active. I’ve had 2 heart attacks, a brain haemorrhage, I’m diabetic •••••…”

As they tell their stories they light up, laugh, smile • I laugh and smile …


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.


September 30-October 2, 2010 AARP presents Orlando@50+, Speakers, exhibits, concerts, all designed to enhance the health and happiness of mature adults. Orange County Convention Center, Orlando, Florida. Information at www.aarp.org/events or 1-800-883-2784.
November 19-23, 2010: The Gerontological Society of America. 63rdAnnual Scientific Meeting, Across the Aging Continuum, New Orleans, LA www.geron.org/2010

The Fourth Annual Positive Aging Conference will be held in Los Angeles, Dec. 7-10, 2010,
sponsored by the Fielding Graduate University, with Marc Freedman (Civic Ventures) as Keynote Speaker. Submissions are invited for presentations on themes including later life creativity, civic engagement, community, spirituality, lifelong learning, and work in the second half of life. For more information about the Conference, visit:

February 5-10, 2011, Play with Purpose: Relational and Performative Practices in Everyday Life.
Event Takes Place on a Cruise Ship Leaving from Galveston, TX. Play – Learn – Improv – Perform…key themes for this upcoming event. In all our relations we must improvise. When we do it well, there is joy, harmony, and vitality. Rational planning is replaced by skills akin to creative play. Developing and enhancing these resources is the aim of this event. For information visit:

Information for Readers

We are sending our newsletter from a new distribution point, and we hope you are able to receive it without difficulty. Please email me, Mary Gergen gv4@psu.edu if you have any trouble opening or reading it. We are sorry that our summer issue is now appearing in the fall. Next time, we will be more on target.

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September 27, 2010 12:00 am