2010 March / April

March/April, 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 61


COMMENTARY Alzheimer’s: A More Promising Look

We commonly believe there is a disease called Alzheimer’s and treat those who are ill as patients. In effect, we think of Alzheimer’s as just another medical illness, like cancer or polio. Yet, there is growing opinion that such beliefs are both unwarranted and unhelpful. Consider, for example, the work of Peter Whitehouse, a doctor who has spent 30 years of professional life carrying out research, (including drug studies), reviewing medical journals, and treating those diagnosed with the disease. His conclusion is that the disease model is not only wrong, but inhumane and even immoral. In their new book, The Myth of Alzheimer’s, he and Daniel George suggest that we reconsider the aging process, particularly the normal ways in which the brain changes under various living conditions. Depending on such factor as physical and mental exercise, smoking, and diet, for example, these changes may be more or less debilitating. The dominant medical view is that this disease can be treated with drugs and that, with enough money, the pharmaceutical industry will provide the cure. Rather, Whitehouse and George propose we would do better to focus on what we can do to improve our brain’s health, accept that our bodies have limitations, and resist our biggest enemy as we age, fear!

As they write, “Reframing Alzheimer’s disease as brain aging and thus fundamentally altering the story we tell about cognitive loss can have profound effects on ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, our government policy, and our commerce. By placing ourselves on the continuum of brain aging and seeing it as a lifelong undertaking rather than an end-of-life ‘disease’ we’ll find solidarity with all the vulnerable members in our society – from our children to our elders.”

Other professionals support and extend this view. Anthea Inne’s Dementia Studies, also stresses the importance of challenging assumptions. She looks especially at the political, economic, social and cultural issues that influence the perspectives on patients and their caregivers. She sees a stereotypic degradation of people with dementia, one that affects how they are cared for, and how their caregivers perceive themselves. This concern with stereotyping is extended in Lisa Snyder’s Speaking our Minds: What it’s like to have Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis, in her view, invites an insensitivity to the patient’s capacities for awareness and for their needs and desires. Those people interviewed by Snyder speak of their fear, challenges, social support systems, feelings of loneliness, means for overcoming their limits, and the joy they experience in their lives, despite their diagnosis. Perhaps the last feeling is the most surprising to those of us who take a “poor you” stance when it comes to thinking of those who labeled as having dementia. Snyder says of her interviewees, that they, “reminded me of how quickly we measure disability, deficits and differences at the risk of overlooking ability, strengths and commonality” (pg. 34). Among the strengths she notes, is the ability to find humor in a situation, even if you need someone to help you eat. Snyder suggests that in framing stories of loss, the public reinforces a malignant stereotype. Rather than this, we should understand that all people have capacities for reflection, self-awareness, and they should have a voice that is heard.

As an interesting addition, Anne Basting’s Forget Memory, challenges the centrality of “remembering” in our culture. She suggests that the stress on memory and its loss omits a focus on the imagination, which is a capacity that often can be found with people who have lost some of their other cognitive abilities. Various programs can help people improve their imaginations. She suggested that these programs emphasize the value of being in the present, something patients are often good at. She also emphasizes the relational nature of memory, as something existing between people, not within them. Favored programs include StoryCorps, Memory Bridge, TimeSlips, Meet Me at MOMA, Elders Share the Arts, as well as songwriting and visual arts groups.

Mary and Ken Gergen

Anthea Innes (2009). Dementia Studies: A social science perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Anne Davis Basting (2009). Forget memory: Creating better live for people with dementia. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lisa Snyder (2009). Speaking our minds: What it’s like to have Alzheimer’s. Baltimore, MD: Health Professions Press.

Peter Whitehouse and Daniel George (2008) The Myth of Alzheimer’s: What you aren’t being told about today’s most dreaded diagnosis. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

RESEARCH: Emotional Wisdom with Age

Seasoned researcher Laura Carstensen has long been identified with research on emotion and aging. In this review, she and her colleague Susanne Scheibe synthesize the research on emotional processing and regulation, that is, how people deal with experiences that have a high emotional significance.

Stereotypically, older people are often thought to be sad, depressed and lonely. However, this assumption is deeply flawed. Despite challenges from cognitive, physical and social sources, most older people for most of their remaining years, are well-adjusted and emotionally well-balanced. Older people tend to be happier and more emotionally stable than their younger counterparts.

Research suggests that on average, older people tend to pay more attention to positive news and less to negative information. This finding has been found for attention, memory and decision-making tasks. The exception to this positivity bias is when older people are exposed to an immediately threatening situation; then the bias is not found. In terms of emotional regulation, older people score higher than young adults on three of four aspects of the emotional intelligence test. These factors are facilitating, understanding, and managing emotions.

Much of the elder advantage lies in the manner in which they select their environments and prepare for emotionally intense experiences before they occur. Possibly this imaginative rehearsal is a reason why older people are less responsive to many emotionally arousing events than younger people. (They are not less affected, for example, when confronted with the loss of a loved one. Here, older people express more sadness and are as physiologically aroused as younger people). Older people tend to prefer social situations with familiar others, and to spend less time with strangers, avoid confrontations and situations that are hostile, and they seem to take more complex views of troubling situations than younger people. This helps them to reduce conflicting emotions. One might say they are more likely see the world through rose-colored glasses, which may impair their ability to detect deception and fraud.

One possible explanation for this positivity is that because of their long experience at emotional regulation, older people become increasingly skilled at dealing with intense situations. They may also become increasingly motivated to use these skills as they sense that “time is running out.” Given that the future trajectory is shorter, it becomes more important to enjoy every day, and not suffer the day for some longer term goal, as younger people often do when they are working toward some future reward, such as an advanced degree. Only when confronted with immanent death does this upbeat attitude tend to decline.

Overall, the emotional life of older people has much to recommend it, and it is something that younger people might envy and look forward to as they age.

From: Emotional aging: Recent findings and future trends by Susanne Scheibe and Laura L. Carstensen. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2010, 65B, 135-144.

RESEARCH: On-Line Match Making among Older Adults

Since February was the celebration of Valentines, spring brings themes of fertility, and June is the month of weddings, many thoughts turn to love and romance; now, given our new practices of internet social networking, it is interesting to ask what the trends in online dating are 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 regarding romantic partnering 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 appearance, 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.

According to the research findings, 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. Women consistently preferred a man who was older than themselves, until age 75; at that time, women turned the tables and 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 other research has indicated that women say they do not want to be caretakers or be widowed another time.

Further, women of all ages 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 by Sheyna Sears-Roberts Alterovitz & Gerald A. Mendelsohn. Psychology and Aging, 2009, 24,513-517.



Al Chagan, 67, describes himself as a serial entrepreneur who has spent his recent years in turning used “stuff” into profit. His stores, called “Impact Thrift Stores, Inc.”, which are located in three towns in the Philadelphia area, sell “gently used” clothing and household goods. Profits from the sales are then given out to charitable organizations in the area. In 2009, Impact donated $173,000 to 20 local charities, and by the end of 2010, the amount will exceed $1,000,000.

The stores are staffed by 95 full and part-time workers. Some of those who work in the store have been sentenced by the courts to community service. At the stores they learn good work habits and make contributions to the community. Jon Walsh, 18, was sent to Impact three years ago to perform 20 hours of community service for skipping school. He enjoyed his experience enough that he continues to work there after school, unloading trucks and sorting goods. For Walsh, “It is like a second family.” Throughout the year about 35 students participate in an education program generated at Impact. An additional 200 students contribute their time to Impact as volunteers. Their work allows the business to thrive with moderate prices, and they help generate the profits that go to charity.

Al Chagan, who has a degree in economics from Colgate University and an MBA from American University, has no interest in retirement from active employment. He is not envious of his former classmates who are more occupied by the golf course than a business. “I would hate being retired. To be able to be involved in something like this, something that counts and that I enjoy, is a real blessing at my age, the icing on the cake.”

From: At 67, Mixing business and charity by Art Carey, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 2010, B1, B6.


Diabetes 2 is no stranger to the senior set. Yet, there are some “fun” ways to eat and drink that seem to reduce the risk of getting it. According the “Healthy Eating for Type 2 Diabetes,” a publication of the Harvard Medical School, drinking coffee cuts diabetes risk by up to 42% and drinking alcohol drops diabetes risk by up to 43%. Dr. David Nathan, Director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Diabetes Center, advises people to eat in ways that they can live with. Ideally, this would mean lots of produce, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats, with a minimal amount of refined sugars, refined starches, red meat and salt.

From: Preventing diabetes- the fun way by John Briley, AARP The Magazine, November, 2009, 34.


As we age, we encounter more and more situations when someone has lost a loved one. What are the best things to say when we meet a friend or colleague in this situation? Joel D. Feldman writes from his personal experience, having lost a child. These are his views on what are good things to say to someone who is grieving:

While “How are you doing?” is a familiar comment, he found it difficult to answer, and suggests that “How are you doing today?” is a more helpful question to ask.

“What can I say” doesn’t do much, but “I was thinking of you and your family” does feel helpful.
Just listening the other person when they feel like talking is a great help. It is not so important to always have something to say.

While some people are afraid to mention the loss, Feldman finds that he appreciates people speaking about his daughter. It is a way of keeping her alive in memories.

He also suggests that people do not judge how others grieve. Sometimes it is possible to laugh and live normally despite a loss.

Some people believe that the grieving person wants to be left alone. For him, having others come around and connect with him was very helpful. He never felt intruded upon.

When is it too late to send a card? Never, he feels. Right after a loss, there are many messages of condolences, but as they taper off, the world seems an even lonelier place to be.

From: Simple acts ease great pain by Joel D. Feldman, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 2010, A11


Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, 59, the pilot who landed on the Hudson River in New York, after geese were sucked into the engines of his US AIR plane, January 15, 2009, has completed the final flight in his career. Prior to the emergency landing, he had never planned to retire. He isn’t stepping away from flying because he has lost his desire to fly, but, as he said, “I’m retiring from the airline so I can use my time on other issues of great importance of this moment.” His major focus is related to making flying safer. Being a pilot is more difficult today, he believes, than when he started 30 years ago. At the same time, “There is so much pressure to hire people with less experience. [Pilot] salaries are so low that people with greater experience will not take those jobs….There’s simply no substitute for experience in terms of aviation safety.” Besides spending more time with family and writing another book, Sullenberger plans to lobby lawmakers about raising minimum qualifications for pilots and lowering the number of hours pilots can fly on a single day. Retirement for “Sully” does not mean being less involved with the world, but, rather, working in a new capacity to save more lives than the 150 that accompanied him that fateful day last January.

From: ‘Hudson Miracle’ pilot makes his final flight by Mitch Weiss and Samantha Bomkamp. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 4, 2010, A2.


Gourmet Aging: How to Find Sugar and Spice in Retirement, by Martin Kimeldorf (2003). (Search the internet for Martin Kimeldorf for this and other books he has written on positive aging)

Gourmet Aging is about developing a new plan for entering a new stage of life, one that might be called Elderhood. The hope is that this period of life will help you flavor an emerging identity with jubilation rather than angst. To stimulate your memories and imaginations, each chapter contains “sunrise” exercises, which help you to find new ways to pursue your second career in life. Some of the questions that author Martin Kimeldorf asks readers to ponder are: Where do I fit into the world now? How can I rediscover the passionate feelings I had when I was younger? Is it OK to play? What is expected of me? What it is all about?

Kimeldorf describes his book as a cookbook, with no set recipe for a graceful, grateful and gratifying old age. Rather, he offers opportunities for readers to design their own menu for a positive future, with helpful hints for exploring their own particular history of dreams and deeds. The text combines information about various historical accounts and demographic facts with cleverly written stories and creative activities for the reader to use to stimulate thoughts. As the Germans might say, “Guten Appetit”!


Mike Sands writes: “I have led a program called Winning Words — at the start we ask people to ask each other, “Tell me about an experience you loved”. The best breakthroughs that have occurred were when people found that expressing their answers to the question lifted their own spirits – over and over and over again; and it seems that feeling that response helped them ask the question of others (and that felt good too)”

Georgie Bright Kunkel writes: “At age 89 I just received my first pay for standup comedy. I also got my first chance to be the headliner at a comedy night at Seattle Comedy Underground. My secret to remaining involved in the greater world is to take on a new challenge every so often. As a result of being the Oldest Standup Comic in the Northwest I was featured on our local Television Station , Channel 5, on their Evening Magazine. What a thrill.”

Jim Henry writes, “Greetings. FYI, my article, ‘The Androgynous Spirituality of Seasoned Humans,’ has been published by the Canadian Gerontological Nurses Association at:

http://www.cgna.net/newsletters/Volume26_4.pdf (See pp.19-27)
It is available to the general public.


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 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:

How to unsubscribe or change your e-mail address:
We hope that you enjoy The Positive Aging Newsletter.
If you wish, for any reason, to stop receiving it, please click Here

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

For general information: http://www.healthandage.com/

See also the further activities of the Taos Institute:

June 21, 2010 12:00 am