THE POSITIVE AGING NEWSLETTER
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.
“THE BEST IN…INSIGHTS IN AGING”
Wall Street Journal
Issue No 62
A common maxim, offered by sages from many times and places, is to live in the moment, one day at a time. There is much to
be said for this advice, but in our view it is far too limited. There are also riches to be derived from immersing oneself in times past, as well
as engaging energetically in future time. In effect, engaging in all three dimensions of time – present, past, future – offers the greatest
riches. Consider for a moment the upward limits of “living in the present.” We were both struck by a poem entitled “A Maxim” by Carl
Dennis in the June 7 issue of The New Yorker. Dennis notes that it was Marcus Aurelius who first gets credit for the injunction to “live
each day as if it might be the last.” However, as the poem wryly suggests, this might entail working on one’s will in the morning, and
saying goodbye to dear ones the rest of the day. After awhile, the poet notes, most people would try desperately to avoid you. Rather, he
suggests that we take an hour each day to pay our bills, forgive someone, or write a letter of thanks or apology. He ends by suggesting
that one think of the future:
“No shame in a ticket to a concert seven months off,
Or, better yet, two tickets, as if you were hoping
To meet by then someone who’d love to join you,
Two seats near the front so you catch each note.”
This last suggestion has a serious side as well. As research reported in earlier Newsletters indicates, by investing in the future we become
more active, engaged, and alert. Life is both lengthened and animated.
Yet, there are untold riches to be derived from looking backward as well. As theologian Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Life
can only be understood backwards.” It is in the process of reminiscing that we come to understand our lives. Indeed, in the
current “life review” movement, much is made of sharing stories from the past with others, of bringing back into public focus not only the
many selves one has lived, and the many adventures and mishaps, but as well the many loved ones who have helped us to find meaning to
our lives. In sum, the best advice seems to be: move within all registers of time – present, past, and future - and from them draw
rich resources for living.
Mary and Ken Gergen
We have reported a number of studies over the years that emphasize the importance to one’s well-being of having a network of
supportive people. The present research gives a new twist to this work, in its focus on those who give support to others. There is great
joy to be had in furnishing warm, helpful, and uplifting support to others. Granted this is also a good thing to do in general. However,
the present research suggests that one may also be doing good things for oneself. Giving support enhances one’s feelings of being active and
ethically involved in the world.
This study used data from the Social Networks in Adult Life survey, a national sample of over 600 older adults. Questions were
first asked about how much support they gave to others (e.g. caring for them if ill, reassuring them in times of trouble, talking with them
about their health). Further questions dealt with their own general sense of well-being (e.g. whether they were bored, depressed, proud,
excited). As the results indicated, there was a robust relationship between amount of support given to others, and one’s own sense of
well-being. Especially significant to well-being was the amount of support given to friends and family. Of course, these findings are
correlational, and it is also quite possible that those who feel on top of the world about themselves are more likely to support others.
The research went on to explore the relationship between wellbeing and how much support one received. Receiving support in
general proved less important to well-being than giving, except when received from a spouse or sibling. (Interestingly, receiving support
from children was negatively related to well-being). Finally, it is important to note that giving too much support to too many others
also had its limits. People often felt frustrated and fatigued. It is important to avoid “burn out” in giving support to others.
From: Is it better to give or to receive? Social support and the wellbeing of older adults by Patricia A. Thomas. Journal of Gerontology,
Social Sciences, 2010, 65B(3), 351-357.
In the past few years cognitive intervention has become a popular topic for the public and for researchers. The central question
is whether specialized training can minimize or erase cognitive deficits that are often found. This report concerns the ACTIVE study
(Advanced Cognitive Training in Independent and Vital Elders), supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National
Institute of Nursing Research, in which elders undertook training programs related to enhancing cognitive abilities. The question was
whether the program would help people lead better lives beyond the learning sessions.
The study included people ages 65 and older from multiple backgrounds. The participants lived independently in a community,
and not in an institution. Altogether 2,800 adults, with a mean age of 74, in six sites, were included in the study. There were two different
kinds of training groups, along with a no-contact control group. Each training group met for 10 sessions of 60-90 minutes, twice a week.
People were tested immediately after training, and one, two, thee, and five years after training.
Results indicated that the training successfully produced longterm effects. Even after 10 hours of skill training, participants showed
a significant advantage when compared to people who had no training. The same pattern held for all of the training groups. The
researchers wondered, however, if the training mattered outside the research setting. Did it make a difference in everyday life? Although
it was difficult to answer this question for the overall sample, about a half of the participants received booster training of 4 sessions in the
first and third year of the study. These people were most likely to have a transfer effect into their daily lives. Those with only the
introductory training were not as likely to carry what they learned over to everyday life over the years.
The researchers concluded that “the more the better” in terms of transferring skills from training to everyday life. Complex leisure
pursuits, including video games and vigorous sports, are also helpful in preventing cognitive decline in aging. The ultimate hope is to
develop training programs that can rehabilitate or counteract various forms of dementia.
From: Intervening with Late-Life Cognition: Lessons from the ACTIVE study by Michael Marsiske. Sponsored by MindAlert, a joint
program of American Society on Aging and the MetLife Foundation. 2009.
It is becoming old news to readers of this newsletter that emotional stability and happiness generally improve in the later
years. This review article punctuates the point: “As people age, they are less troubled by stress and anger, and although worry persists,
without increasing until middle age, it too fades after the age of 50.” These findings are part of a 2008 telephone survey by Gallop of a
representative sample of almost 350,000 people, ages 18-85. Among the questions was a query about how they felt during the preceding
day. Those most stressed out were between 22-25; anger tapered off after 18; and sadness wavered, up in the forties, down in the fifties
and sixties, and rising up again in the mid-70’s. Happiness was highest at 20 and the early 70’s. Men and women had similar
patterns, although women reported somewhat more stress, worry and sadness over-all. Again it was noted that older people are more
effective at regulating their emotions than younger people, and they recall fewer negative memories.
“It’s getting better all the time: Happiness, well- being increase after 50 by Katherine Harmon. Scientific American, May 17, 2010.
Music is the pathway to the heart, the poets say, and an important pathway to the brain, according to researchers studying
people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Among the benefits of playing music are the relaxing and motivating properties, but even more of
interest is the way in which music can open up the past for people who normally have difficulties in remembering things.
Researchers at the University of California-Davis have noticed that the areas of the brain that support memories also process
familiar music and emotions. This area of the brain remains intact despite disruptions in other parts of it. According to Petre Janata,
Ph.D., playing familiar tunes can bring back memories of times associated with it.
On a more personal level, the wife of a colleague who suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years was still capable of singing her
favorite hymns from her youth when a church volunteer would come and play music on a tape recorder. They would sing along with the
recordings for an hour at a time. Despite being very handicapped in terms of her daily conversations, her memories for songs did not
diminish. It also gave her great joy to have this companionship and to be able to relate through music.
Recent research on recall suggests that people who have difficulties with short-term memory are able to retain the emotional
experience that accompanied an event. If you have a happy encounter with someone who is labeled as demented, that person
may forget that you visited, but retain a happy feeling for the rest of the day.
From: Your Health, The Erickson Tribute, April 2010, pg. 8. Also see, Janata, P. (2009). The neural architecture of music-evoked autobiographical memories. Cerebral Cortex, 19, 2579-2594.
There is currently is a “silver surge” of baby boomers moving to Mexico to retire. Most North Americans who retire there are living in
coastal areas, and getting by comfortably on less than $1,000 a month. The major reasons for going: affordability, quality of life,
weather and proximity to the U. S. One retiree, Doug Gray, 60, a retired fire captain from California, reacted to fears that crime would
threaten the tranquility of their lives. “I’m really saddened to see coverage of Mexican crime in the media.” However, when they
moved to a condominium in Manzanillo, a port city near Puerto Vallarta, they said they felt even safer than they did in California. Cyndi Gray said, “We really love the pace. It’s slower and you can sit down there and get into the groove. I can unplug.” That’s appealing
to many people, retirees or not.
Others we have met describe colonies of Americans who enjoy the pleasures of Mexico’s vibrant and friendly culture, and who
appreciate their medical system, which is more holistic and caring than what they found up North. If there is something very troubling,
they may go back across the border to be treated, but most were very confident of their local doctors and facilities.
From Retirees find that in Mexico their money goes further by Kathleen Kirkwood, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 6,2010, E8.
Each day is an opportunity for the two of us to search for materials for the Positive Aging Newsletter. One compelling choice
for us is the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens from the U.S. Supreme Court. He was the oldest member of the Supreme Court, and
only one Justice in the history of the court has ever served longer.
Stevens, who celebrated his 90th birthday this April, is still very active and involved in all facets of life, including his morning ritual of
playing tennis. Stevens is famous for his fast and prolific writing. “I write the first draft…. One of the tests I had for myself as to when I would retire was that if I ever got to the point that I stopped writing the first draft that would be a sign that I was no longer up to the job the way I think it should be done.” That day never came, and a final contribution to the court – challenging the majority decision - was lengthy, eloquent,
Speaking of his long tenure as a justice, Stevens said, “It’s a wonderful job… I wouldn’t have hung around so long if I didn’t like
the job and if I didn’t think I was able to continue to do it. “ He has started to feel his age, however, “I have to notice that I get arthritis in
my left knee now and then… My game isn’t quite as good as it used to be, I have to confess.”
From all corners of the judicial world, compliments and good wishes have come to him. His voice on the court will be missed.
From: At 89, Stevens contemplates the law, and how to leave it by Adam Liptak, New York Times, April 4, 2010, 1, 4.
Creative Aging: Rethinking Retirement and Non-Retirement in a Changing World by Marjory Zoet Bankson. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishers.
Author Marjory Zoet Bankson outlines a path for leaving the world of career and embarking on the “encore” period of life.
Drawing from psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of late life generativity, Carl Jung’s views of inner life enrichment, along with
various religious traditions - including Quaker ways of listening through silence - Bankson provides guideposts for finding a new,
creative, and joyful form of living. For her such living involves introspection, but simultaneously interaction with one’s circle of
relations, and the larger community and world. The flavor of the work is best expressed in her own words:
“The gift hidden in physical aging is discovering that life is more than accomplishment, more than doing and success.”
“As you rethink retirement … in this changing world, … out of new beginnings, hope is reborn. Gladness returns, and you can find a
measure of peace and challenge in this new season of life.”
“You must choose to let some things go in order to make space for new loves, new learnings, new life.”
“Although it is important not to romanticize pain or loss, a new call can sometimes arise out of suffering, our own or our response to
someone else’s pain.”
“Vision comes from knowing what we want. At this stage of life we do not have to wait for someone else to approve.”
“We need to look carefully at the points where our energy seems fully engaged, where and with whom we feel fully supported and
encouraged, and where the environment seems to suck energy out of us.”
“To be generative rather than despairing about the aging process requires that we see our lives … as part of a greater story that
will last beyond our particular time and place.”
The author’s wisdom is inspiring. 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
From Mike Milstein:
I’m a subscriber to your wonderful Positive Aging newsletter. I'd like to tell your readers about a book I recently
wrote: Resilient Aging: Making the Most of Your Older Years (2010), Universe. It was wonderful to read your review from the
Gerontologist focusing on resiliency and quality of life in older age. Sure fits my biases! For interested readers, my book on
resilient aging is available with Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.
Judy Worrell writes:
I am finding many ways to experience joy in my later life. After two years of widowhood and loss of my dearest dog, I
adopted a new dog. She is an older dog, so we two older ladies trot at 7 AM every morning for a 45 minute walk around my
beautiful rural neighborhood. We admire the green yards and budding flowers, and she (not I) sniffs at everything sniffable.
That slows us down somewhat, but gives me time to appreciate that I am still mobile, and that every moment is to be
appreciated and enjoyed. Joy is not hard to find. I also have a few good friends left: the clue to this is to choose friends who
are younger than oneself, since those of my age have mainly gone on. And I wish all of your readers much joy in their lives,
it exists all around them.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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-
November 19-23, 2010: The Gerontological Society of America. 63rdAnnual Scientific Meeting, Across the Aging Continuum, New
Orleans, LA www.geron.org/2010
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