2010 November / December

Click here for the PDF- Printable version of Issue #65 – Nov/Dec 2010. 


November/December, 2010


The Positive Aging Newsletter by Kenneth and Mary Gergen,
dedicated to productive dialogue between research and practice.
Sponsored by the Taos Institute http://www.taosinstitute.net

Wall Street Journal

Issue No 65


COMMENTARY – Creating Positive Memories

In the last issue of the Newsletter we discussed positive aging as a skill. As we reasoned, if aging is to be a positive period of growth, new and important skills are required. One of these skills is that of creating positive memories. On the face of it, this may sound odd. After all, we traditionally believe, memory is memory. It simply functions to record what has happened to us. If we have positive experiences we will have positive memories; if we have suffered on many occasions, our memories will reflect this fact. Recent decades of research on memory refutes such a view. Rather, we find, memory is highly elastic. What we recall about past events can shift dramatically from one context to another. How often do siblings recall something that happened to them in childhood, only to find out that it happened to a brother or sister? If the conditions are right, people can be induced to recall a crime they have committed, even though they never did so. In effect, memory is not simply a child of the past; we have some control over what we carry with us in the way of personal history.

As we move into the later years of life, issues of memory are particularly acute. Increasingly we come to understand ourselves in terms of our past lives, for example, what we have accomplished, contributed to, overcome, or experienced as joy or pleasure. Conversely, we confront our failures, missed opportunities, sorrows, and pain. Whether we are comforted and inspired, on the one hand, or suffer guilt, remorse, or a sense of emptiness on the other, depends on our capacity to cultivate our memories. Are we sufficiently skillful to maximize the former, and minimize the latter. If we “do it right,” our memories of the past can buoy our spirits, kindle our enthusiasms, and furnish a supportive sense of purpose. If we simply let “the past be the past,” we may well find ourselves uninspired, alienated, and depressed.

We do not have a convenient check-list for cultivating positive memories. Much like painting in oils, people find many different ways of reaching desired ends. Ideally, there should be ways of drawing widely from each others’ experiences. Perhaps the internet will ultimately provide a means of exchanging our grass-roots knacks for living well. In the meantime, we offer several suggestions from our own collective experiences:

  • Telling stories. Our understanding of our pasts is largely generated through the way we talk about it – both to others and ourselves. These narratives will highlight certain details and obliterate others; they will emphasize certain outcomes and suppress others; they will create the value that we place on the past. Thus, to tell good stories to others about what has happened to us is to generate a positive resource for living. We often do this together after we have been on trips. We review the journey specifically in terms of what we enjoyed or learned or felt good about; we simply don’t talk about the frustrations and failures. At the same time, it is also possible to take a calamity or failure and turn it into amusement for family or friends. Sometimes when we confront troubles, we say to each other, “What a great story this will make.” Calamity is reconstructed as a social resource.
  • Sorting images. Often our records of the past are sustained with images – photographs and films. Such images vary enormously in the feelings they elicit. On the one hand, we may shudder to see how we looked on a given occasion, or recall how badly the pictured event turned out. Other images generate a sense of happiness, love, pride, and so on. All image archives are necessarily selective. The challenge is to select out for the long-term those images that sustain a positive or meaningful register of living. (When our children were young, we discarded photographs in which one or more of them looked particularly unsightly or miserable. We didn’t want to encourage any sad stories of how they grew up.)
  • Displaying artifacts. In the same way that narratives and images create a particular sense of the past, so do various artifacts –art objects, souvenirs, medals, books, fabrics, and so on. A room with bare walls and nothing in the way of curious objects is a room that destroys history. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung once reasoned that the objects and images about us can be extremely important in their capacity to evoke the past and enrich the present. In effect, they can generate a sense of the past that is supportive and sustaining.
  • We invite our readers to share in their insights.

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Correlates of Successful Aging

What are the factors that help us age “successfully”? Is there anything we can do right now to help us age more successfully? These questions are at the heart of a large study of over 5,000 people from New Jersey, ages 50-74, who were able to engage in a one hour telephone interview between 2006 and 2008. The sample included about 3,000 women and 2,000 men; their average age was 60; their educational attainment averaged 2 years of college. Participants were asked three questions regarding successful aging. How successfully have they aged? How well are they aging? And how they would rate their life these days? In each case they could rate themselves from 0 to 10.

Interestingly, on all three questions their average score was 7.8. Not bad in terms of how well they were doing in terms of their own sense of aging. However, researchers found that both early life and contemporary influences affected how successfully they were. Of the early influences, the most important factors were level of formal education, and whether or not one had been incarcerated. Greater formal education correlated with more successful aging; having been to prison decreased this likelihood. Whether or not one had children did not influence one’s aging success.

Current life influences were also highly significant in predicting successful aging. For example, never marrying is not a deficit if the person has adequate social support. Among the most successful were those who were married, working for pay and/or volunteering, and moderate consumers of alcohol. They also tended to do more cardiovascular exercise and had better social support. People who were religious rated themselves as more successful at aging.

The researchers cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from self-reports of successful aging. Some members of the sample did not measure well on other measures used in the study, and yet they described themselves as doing well.

From: Successful Aging: Early Influences and Contemporary Characteristics by Rachel Pruchno, Maureen Wilson-Genderson, Miriam Rose, and Francine Cartwright. The Gerontologist, 2010, 50, 821-833.

RESEARCH: Aging and Relationship Satisfaction

In earlier issues of the Newsletter we have reported several studies reporting greater relational satisfaction among the elderly than their younger counterparts. The present research extends and expands understanding of this pattern. In this case researchers asked a sample of 1,675 couples, middle aged and older, on two occasions (4 years apart) to evaluate their relationships. All were married or had partners.

Most interestingly, older adults, particularly older men, were more likely to rate their relationship as supportive, and less likely to rate their relationship as aversive, in comparison to middle aged adults. Older women were somewhat less likely to rate their relationships this way, although they were still quite positive about their relationships. Researchers note that women tend to be more involved in friendship and family relationships and are somewhat less dependent upon their partners for emotional support than men are. The younger people were more likely to provide ambivalent or indifferent assessments of their relationships.

As the researchers also concluded, the older people tended to avoid negative emotional experiences and focus on positive ones. This encourages positive evaluations of their intimate relationships. Middle-aged people are less likely to focus positively on their spouses.

From: Supportive, aversive, ambivalent, and indifferent partner evaluations in midlife and young-old adulthood by Tim D. Windsonor and Peter Butterworth. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. 2010, 65B, 287-295



For those who love gardening it will come as little surprise to learn that such activity is now being used for therapeutic purposes. Why did it take so long, one might ask. In any case, people being trained to work with the elderly, and particularly those diagnosed with dementia, emotional problems, autism and other diseases, are learning to give them opportunities to grow things. As therapists see it, working with plants can be healing, not just physically, but psychologically. Roger S. Ulrich, a director of the Center for Health Systems & Design at Texas A&M University has found that simply looking out a hospital window at greenery, water, or flowers, or even images of these things, can lower stress and hasten recovery from surgery. For dementia patients, horticultural therapy improves concentration, cognitive functioning and a sense of well-being. Peg Schofied, who works with people with dementia, believes that “we are reducing stress, they’re peaceful and calm, they feel they’ve accomplished something. I know this has meaning for these folks, and that is the point.”

Kansas State University was the first to offer a bachelor’s degree in horticultural therapy, and Rutgers University does now as well. Certification programs are also available at various schools. Jack Carman, a faculty member of Temple University’s “hort therapy” certificate program and landscape architect, specializes in designing therapeutic gardens for senior communities and health-care facilities. He believes that gardens should be enclosed for safety; filled with nontoxic, colorful plants, and have paths and furniture that accommodates walkers and wheelchairs. Bird feeders, fountains, and benches, should all be sensually engaging and appropriate for the region. For more information on horticultural therapy, go to the American Horticultural Therapy Association website at http://www.ahta.org

From: Horticultural Therapy: In the Gardening Moment by Virginia A. Smith. Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 2010, E1,E8.

Dr. OZ, a tv personality and noted heart surgeon, devotes most of his career now to trying to prevent people from needing heart surgery. He has been inspired by many people, including his wife, Lisa, who has brought a respect for non-western medicine into his world. Among his various recommendations is his list of activities that people should do everyday:

  • Walk 30 minutes.
  • Drink two cups of green tea
  • Take vitamin D and calcium
  • Sleep 7-8 hours a night
  • Meditate for 5 minutes

Although this isn’t everything Dr. Oz recommends, it certainly provides a good start.

From: Dr. Oz’s 6 –month plan for getting healthy. AARP Magazine, May-June, 2010, pg. 34.


We have all heard about the aging of the population and the fears this causes, among younger people, especially. “How are we, younger, and fewer, going to pay for these growing numbers of older folks,” they ask. “They are going to ‘break the bank.’” Part of this problem results from a flawed model of aging and health. The traditional measure divides the proportion of the population 65 and older, by the number of working age people under 64. This indicator assumes that people over 65 become societal burdens, who need the care and resources of those who work, in order to survive. However, the good news is that as life expectancy has increased, the number of years spent in good health has been increasing as well. For example, in the United States, the proportion of disabled people 65-74 declined from 14% in 1982 to 9% in 2004. This shift has implications for health care costs, because most of these costs occur in the last few years of life. Thus it remains an optimistic secret that as the retirement age increases, and as people become increasingly healthy and mobile, the costs to the society will be far less than the worriers predict. It is time to share the secret.

From: Remeasuring Aging by Warren C. Sanderson & Sergei Scherbov.
Science, 10 September, 2010, 329, 1287-1288.


We wish to thank John Tamiazzo for creating a book review for our newsletter, and hope that his book will find many readers among us.

Returning to the Land of Oz: Finding Hope, Love, and Courage on Your Yellow Brick Road
Following in the footsteps of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, Returning to the Land of Oz takes a fresh psychological look at the important lessons we can learn from this marvelous tale written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W.W. Denslow in 1900. The 1939 film has been viewed by over 2 billion people world-wide and has been voted the favorite family film of all time.

L. Frank Baum, Sigmund Freud, and W.W. Denslow were born just 10 days apart in the month May, 1856. In the 1890’s, Freud was writing about free association, analytical psychology and dream interpretation. During this same time, L. Frank Baum was engaged in successfully writing children’s books. His most famous were Mother Goose in Prose, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. For the latter, his protagonist was a delightful little girl who courageously found her way to the Wizard of Oz, won her freedom from bondage from the Wicked Witch, and returned safely home with the help of the friends she met along the way.
Through an exploration of symbolism and metaphor, John A.

Tamiazzo’s Returning to the Land of Oz shows readers how to masterfully use the power of the mind and wisdom of imagination to age graciously and to live life to the fullest. It illustrates the healthiness of play, the fulfillment of moving through life with an open heart, and the empowerment we experience by drawing upon our inner courage and resourcefulness. Returning to the Land of Oz helps readers to see that our all of us are on our own Yellow Brick Roads, on our magical way to see the Wizard, and to claim what is rightfully ours.

Returning to the Land of Oz is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com You can visit Dr. Tamiazzo’s blog site at www.landofozworkshops.blogspot.com

Celebrating Poets Over 70,

edited by Marianne Forsyth Vespry and Ellen B. Ryan. Reviewed by Mary Gergen
A splendid collection of poetry, chosen from a large number of entries by a panel of reviewers, this volume includes over 200 poets over the age of 70. Their talents, however, are not age-bound, nor are their topics, which range widely. Despite frequent concerns with the process of loss and death, the poetry offers new insights for acceptance or resistance to the taken-for-granted aspects of the elder years. There are many lines to choose from to illustrate the character of the volume. Here are a few stanzas of “I Don’t Do Old” by Sterling Haynes.

“I don’t do old.
god’s creativity,
and ideas light
my spirit.
art, literature
can fill me
with awe.
life is sweet,
never, I will
never age out,
I don’t do old.

A final disclosure is that the poems I wrote in celebration of my 50th High School Reunion at St. Louis Park, Minnesota are published here.

Support for the project is the McMaster University Centre for Gerontological Studies in Hamilton, Ontario.
To find out more or to order a book, check out their website at www.celebratingpoetsover70.ca


Two readers respond to our commentary on the skill of aging positively.

Marvin Shaub, from Princeton, New Jersey, writes:

When I was younger and advising those older than me how to prepare for retirement I developed a perspective that admittedly doesn’t work for everyone but does for some. That is to take retirement as a time to make a fairly major change in the main activity (or activities) one has traditionally been involved with. In my own case I got my Ph.D., something I had always wanted but never did because other uses of available resources took priority. With retirement came the gift of time and other things that gave me freedom to grow, not wither away from ennui. Now I am a college professor rather than a businessman and am enjoying adjusting to the different challenges of a different life. The reasoning behind this viewpoint is that it gives one the chance to view the main activity of life as the beginning of something rather than as an ending. One’s mental framework is no longer so completely dominated by questions of whether or not my health is declining, too bad I can’t do such and such a thing anymore or even how long I have left. Rather I find that looking ahead to actively seeking horizons that were just scenery in a play before is stimulating. I believe this idea is related to what I read in your Newsletter all the time, that activity is good for you if you are getting older.

Franklin Olson also shares this:

Several years ago my wife Gail and I began playing golf together. Prior to playing golf together we had done a lot of hiking. But because of the side effects of prostate cancer I was unable to be out on the trail for more than about an hour without complications, so those long walks were pretty much a thing of the past. I had played some after sixty but I was terrible. I invited her to play with me and it’s been a great joy to us both. We had heard other couples talking about how they couldn’t play together, particularly because the husband was always trying to instruct his wife on the finer points of playing. This was not a problem with us. However, we made an agreement that I would not try to instruct her and she would not laugh at me when I dinked the ball. This has worked very well and since we neither one keep score we have a wonderful time being out of doors together on some very pretty courses but most of all we’ve found something that fifty years ago we’d never have thought about doing whether alone or together.


Online survey of working women with retired partners.
Are you a working woman with a partner who retired voluntarily from full-time work? If so, please complete an on-line survey and earn $20! You must be working at least 30 hours/week with a spouse or partner (with whom you live) who has voluntarily retired from full-time work and now works less than 20 hours/week. This study is approved by the Agnes Scott College review board and takes approximately 45 minutes. You will be asked to complete rating scales and open-ended questions about your relationship and home life before and after your partner’s retirement. Contact Dr. Eileen Cooley in Psychology at ecooley@agnesscott.edu for a research number and the link to the study.


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.


Changing Aging.
Bill Thomas, creator of the Eden Alternative, now hosts a blog on the Picker Report, dedicated to promoting person-centered care by building a social network of elders, their advocates, care givers and families. Learn more at: http://changingaging.org/2010/09/28/3690/

February 5-10, 2011, Play with Purpose: Relational and Performative Practices in Everyday Life.
SEMINAR AT SEA – 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: www.taosinstitute.net/seminar-at-sea-overview
April 26-30, 2011: 2011 Aging in America Conference, San Francisco.
www.agingconference.org for more information

Choosing Conscious Elderhood (May 1-7, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico).

A retreat-center based rite of passage for people who seek to deepen
their experience of purpose, passion and call to service. Retreat
includes a day of solitude in a powerful landscape setting made
famous by artist Georgia O’Keefe, as well as ceremony, council
and conscious eldering practices. This retreat, offered since 2002,
is co-sponsored by the Sage-ing Guild and the Center for Conscious Eldering.
For more information, visit:

July 9-15, 2011, 2001 Summer Institute on Aging Research Annual Workshop.
Queenstown, MD. Weeklong workshop for investigators new to aging research. Support available.
Applications due March 4, 2011.
http://ww.nia.nih.gov Or email Taylor_Harden@nih.gov


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Questions & Feedback:
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please e-mail Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu

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December 29, 2010 12:00 am