2010 September / October

September/October, 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 64

COMMENTARY – The Skills of Positive Aging

It is common to view the first two decades of life as the critical phase of development – when we learn the basic skills of speaking, relating, and self control, and all the secondary skills that formal education provides. The so-called middle years are those in which one uses these skills and sharpens those particularly relevant to one’s life pursuits. Then, as the story goes, people just retire and grow older. No new skills are required, and in fact, few demands are made on those they have acquired; slowly they slip away. This is not only a depressing picture of aging, it is wholly misleading. Older life is a major period of development, and its rewards may eclipse any previous period of life. If aging is to be a positive period of growth, new and important skills are required. It is to the skills of positive aging that we wish to dedicate discussion for the next two issues of the Newsletter. At the outset, it is useful to make a rough distinction between two general kinds of skills, those which expand the potentials of living and those which enable us to live with loss. In terms of expansion, think here of the child’s learning to walk, ride a bicycle, read, or save money. Each of these skills opens new vistas of possibility; life is enriched. In the case of loss, consider the way in which children must learn to give up their mother’s breast, the freedom of defecating at will, emotional outbursts, or the leisure of those years before school. And so it is with the elder years. Although rarely in the limelight, there are skills that can open new spaces of meaningful engagement, and those essential in confronting that which must be left to the past. In this issue we focus briefly on a skill of expansion. Especially relevant to those living with a long-term spouse or partner is the skill of rediscovery. We recently spoke with an acquaintance who was complaining that his wife had become a boring and indifferent woman. Why, he wondered, must he spend the rest of his life with someone who was not at all like the girl to whom he made his vows some decades earlier? Such complaints bode a gloomy future, and suggest why the divorce rates of people over 60 have been increasing of late. Obviously his spouse is not the same person, nor is he, nor are their children or friends, nor are many other things the same as the day they were married. Particularly in families with a strong division of labor or with two careers, spouses or partners may scarcely notice changes in each other until retirement. With no one else around, and time to be together, suddenly one may confront a seeming stranger. The challenge then is rediscovery. What are the possibly hidden potentials of the other, the self, and the relational dance that can now blossom? There is no easy answer to this question, but promisingly, there may be many possible answers. Here are a few that have emerged from our conversations with each other and our friends:

  • Seek out new contexts of relating: travel, sports, hiking, theater
  • Explore new relational activities: massage, cooking, gardening,
  • Expand personal hobbies to include the other: golf, bridge, fishing
  • Re-explore the past together, with particular sensitivity to possible re-ignitions of old feelings of joy and togetherness
  • Explore the activities you once liked to do together, but which were abandoned for lack of time
  • Allow one’s partner time and space for individual development and exploration, the results of which can later be shared
  • Be on the lookout for contexts in which you can pleasantly surprise the other. If readers would like to share their own skills of re-discovery we would be happy to pass them on in future issues of the newsletter.

Ken and Mary Gergen

RESEARCH: Lifting the Burden of Limitations

Many people dread the possibility that age will bring significant physical limitations. Is such fear justified? To explore, Washington DC investigators followed a random sample of approximately 5,000 adults, over 64. What, they asked, is the relationship of one’s limitations in terms of everyday living to one’s psychological state? To what extent are such limitations related to depressive feelings in individuals? Importantly, these investigators also realized that depression is seldom an individual affair. Much depends on the social world in which one lives. Additional measures were thus added to explore the effects of social support.Participants answered questions related to their abilities to care for themselves in their own homes, including bathing, dressing, toileting, and walking and climbing stairs. They also answered questions about their feelings of well-being, and about social support. An example of a social support question was: Do you have “people around who do things they know will please you?” The results showed that the older the participant, the less depressing their physical limitations. Only the younger participants found their limitations significantly depressing. The researchers attributed this finding to the possibility that being limited at a younger age is not the norm, and an “early” decline as opposed to a normal or late decline is more distressing. Thus, the older one was, the less these limitations influenced one’s emotional state. Further, social support proved to be highly important. The greater the availability of supportive friends and family, the less the limitations made a difference to feelings of well-being. Friends and family may be the most important strands in our safety networks.

From: Timing social support and the effects of physical limitations on psychological distress in late life by Alex Bierman & Denise Statland. Journal of Gerontology, Social Sciences, 65B, 631-639.

RESEARCH: Aging in Community

A truism in American gerontological literature is that most Americans want to remain in their homes for as long as possible. They do not want to move to a retirement community or old age residence. Many projects related to aging are now designed to fulfill this dream. The authors of this article take another perspective. They chide people who hold living in place as the ultimate social good, and suggest instead that for many people, this goal is a mirage or a fantasy. “The bitter truth is that an older person can succeed at remaining in her or his own home and still live a life as empty and difficult as that experienced by nursing home residents. Feeling compelled to stay in one’s home, no matter what, can result in dwindling choices and mounting levels of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom.” The authors suggest that what is important is the actual quality of life one experiences, and not where it is lived. They suggest that the challenge is to find another way to maximize the diversity of facets that a good life includes. The first step is to debunk the old American virtue of idealized independence and rugged individualism, which supports the notion that living alone at home is the ideal choice. Instead they suggest a third option they call, Aging in Community. This approach involves the creation of “intentional communities.” These living arrangements may be quite varied, but the idea is to create custom communities that combine private living quarters with shared communal spaces, such as dining room, library, laundry, and other communal spaces, such as lawns, pools, porches, and studios. Such communities are usually founded on similar spiritual, social or political beliefs or other shared values or commitments. They include co-housing, communes, eco-villages, ashrams, kibbutzim, and cooperative housing. The co-housing arrangement is usually composed of 30 homes, with shared facilities, and shared responsibilities and resources. Today there are about 113 of these in the U. S. There are also spontaneous communities, such as the well-known Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston, in which neighbors came together to form a non-profit organization that helps support people living in their own homes. Included are systems for collaborating and helping one another to live almost independently. (Certainly the spirit of individualism is alive and well in Boston, if somewhat modified by current conditions and goals.) As the authors point out, such collaborative living arrangements are highly effective and much less costly than nursing home care, which depends on public finances to operate. Multigenerational living is also encouraged because each generation has something of value to offer the others, and living together may solve many problems that living segregated cannot. With the expanded numbers of the elderly, it is indeed time for such innovation. Elders today are forging a new future.

From: Moving beyond Place: Aging in Community by William H. Thomas and Janice M. Blanchard. Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. Summer 2009, 12-17.

Care for Nature: Care for Self

A 20-year long study of over 6,000 Americans asked the question: How does working as a volunteer on environmental issues affect one’s health, physical activity and feelings of well-being? In 1974 these middle-aged participants described their involvement in volunteer activities such as participating in ecological restoration projects, environmental stewardship programs, and environmental policy-making activities. Twenty years later, they were evaluated as to their levels of physical activity, self-reported health and depressive symptoms. After controlling for a number of factors, the researchers found that people who were involved in these volunteer activities were more active, healthier and more upbeat than those who were not. Nature benefitted, and so did the volunteers. Researchers speculated that in addition to the oft-demonstrated advantages of volunteer work, there is a special advantage to working in nature. It is physically engaging and simultaneously restful. Related research supports this idea by showing that being in nature reduces stress and enhances feelings of well-being. Other research compared volunteers for environmental work with those volunteering for other kinds of activities (e.g. hospitals, churches, shelters). Volunteers in general were almost 2 times more likely to meet the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for physical activity, than non-volunteers. However environmental volunteers were 2.6 times more likely to do so. Other researchers across the globe have also found that various health-related benefits accrue to people of all ages who are exposed to nature. So clearly, it’s good for your health to get away from the computer, the cell phone and the fax, and go take a walk. Even better, find ways of contributing to environmental care.

From: Environmental Volunteering and Health Outcomes Over a 20-Year Period by Karl Pillemer, Thomas E. Fuller-Rowell, M.C. Reid, and Nancy M. Wells, The Gerontologist, 50, 594-60


A colleague’s wife suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for 12 years before she died. During the later stages of her disease, when she could no longer recognize her husband or her children, and when most of her other intellectual faculties had greatly diminished, her love of music persisted. An hour a week, a friend from church came with a CD player, and together they sang her favorite hymns from her youth. She remembered the words and the tunes, despite all of her other losses. Because we knew this story, we took particular interest in an article by Sara Davidson in the New York Times. As Davidson reported, researchers and clinicians are finding that when all other means of communication have shut down, people remember and respond to music. Familiar songs can help people with dementia relate to others, move more easily, be more relaxed, and experience positive emotions. Kate Gfeller, who directs the graduate music therapy program at the University of Iowa, published a study in the Journal of Music Therapy indicating that activities like moving to music, playing rhythm instruments, and singing led to more group involvement and less wandering and disruptive behavior among 51 patients with dementia in five nursing facilities. Other studies demonstrate that music therapy can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s, relieve pain and create emotional intimacy. Music is also helpful with other bodily limitations. In a study published by the American Society of Neuro-rehabilitation, music therapy and conventional physical therapy were given to two groups of stroke victims who could barely walk. The group who received music therapy showed greater improvement in walking in a shorter period of time than those getting physical therapy. People especially respond to music that had special meaning for them earlier in their lives. Sara Davidson, from whom we are drawing this material, recalled visiting her grandfather when he was hospitalized with dementia, lying in bed, unable to talk. “I started singing a Hungarian song he’d learned as a youth and later taught to me, ‘Territch-ka.’ I sang the verse and when I stopped, he opened his mouth and sang the chorus: ‘Yoy, Territch-ka!’ Right on key.” She also commented that her daughter, a music therapist, was looking ahead with optimism. ‘Boomers will be the next generation in the nursing facilities. … Your generation will be awesome — we’ll get to play the Beatles.’

From: The Songs They Can’t Forget by Sara Davidson New York Times, April 23, 2010, blog.

Most health experts these days are counseling older people to lift weights to maintain their muscular strength and energy. Given that most of us thought that weight lifting was for Bulgarian men and teenage boys, it is hard to know what to do and how. Today weights are sold in sporting goods stores, and it is possible to get weights that weigh one pound or 50. Most people might think that they should take the heaviest weights that they can lift, but this is not necessarily so, and that is good news for most of us. A recent study done at McMaster University in Canada found that it is not the amount of weight lifted that matters for building larger muscles, but the muscular fatigue that occurs. Growing bigger muscles means stimulating them to produce more muscle fiber. The bad news is that you must exercise until you can’t do another repetition; that is what builds muscle. Overall, people who used lighter weights gained more muscle mass than those who used heavier ones.

From: Secrets to Pumping Iron by Dr. Mitchell Hecht. Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 2010, E2

“After one has lived a life of meaning, death may lose much of its terror, for what we fear most is not really death, but a meaningless and absurd life.”

Known widely and with great affection, Robert N. Butler, a diplomat and scientist who promoted the interests of older people, died recently. Among his contributions to gerontology was his invention of the term, “Ageism” to describe elder discrimination, and he encouraged the development of “life review” as a means to honor the tendency of older people to enjoy discussing their personal stories of living. He was the founding director of the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Aging, and was an advocate before the Congress, the United Nations, and various psychiatric organizations. He wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, as well as The Longevity Revolution and The Longevity Prescription, which encouraged people to live vigorous lives. This Newsletter lives in the shadow of his words: “The social construct of old age, even the inner life and activities of older persons, is now subject to a positive revision.” As well as being a change-agent who greatly benefited our conceptions of aging, he has been lauded by colleagues, students, and others for his brilliance and kindness, and his willingness to share himself with others.

From: In Memoriam: Gerontologist, Psychiatrist Robert N. Butler, 1927-2010 by Alison Hood, Aging Today, July-August, 2010, 8.


Women and Therapy in the Last Third of Life
edited by Valorie Mitchell, New York: Routledge

In this edited volume, women involved with gerontology, most of whom are therapists, write about their experiences, personal and professional, as they enter and inhabit the last third of life. Many are also engaged in university teaching and have written numerous books on psychological topics.

Throughout the book, authors describe case studies with clients, emphasizing how age plays a role in the therapeutic process. The therapists come from diverse orientations – Zen Buddhism, psychoanalysis, religion, feminism, and Jungian analysis, among others. A recognition of the social and cultural factors in the psychotherapeutic relationship is a significant aspect of the message of these chapters as well. A central theme of the book is that as one ages, a greater sense of freedom and personal authority is discovered along the way. This perspective influences the ways in which aging ripens the therapist, giving her a sense of potential to create with her clients new ways of going forward that are not bound by the edicts of their professional discipline. This freedom to become is also encouraged for clients who are confronting issues of aging. For therapist and client there is a new sense of possibility emerging as they co-create the future together. As a personal disclosure, I have contributed a chapter “Framing lives: Therapy with women of a ‘certain age,’ which describes the powerful and negative stereotypes of aging women prevalent in our society, and encourages therapists to be wary of these stereotypes, to resist them with their clients, and to help them build more positive alternatives. This book is especially relevant to therapists seeking guidance and illumination about their work in the later years. MMG


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/

November 19-23, 2010: The Gerontological Society of America. Annual Scientific Meeting, Across the Aging Continuum, New Orleans, LA www.geron.org/2010

Dec. 7-10, 2010: The Fourth Annual Positive Aging Conference will be held in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Fielding Graduate University, with Marc Freedman and George Vaillant as speakers. 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: http://www.positiveaging.fielding.edu

February 5-10, 2011:
Play with Purpose: Relational and Performative Practices in Everyday Life. Come join us for a 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 (Deadline for registration is November 15, as the ship is almost sold out.)

April 26-30, 2011: 2011 Aging in America Conference, San Francisco. www.agingconference.org for more information

Information for Readers

To read back issues, visit:

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.

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 of the newsletter are archived at: www.positiveaging.net
How to subscribe, unsubscribe or change your e-mail address. We hope that you enjoy The Positive Aging Newsletter.

New subscribers can join by clicking on this link: http://www.taosinstitute.net/positive-aging-newsletter-sign-up

At this webpage, on the right side you will see a sign up box – enter your email.

Or you may sign up by sending an e-mail to aging-join@swarthmore.edu, and can unsubscribe by sending an e-mail to

November 17, 2010 12:00 am

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 60 MB. You can upload: image, audio, video, document, spreadsheet, interactive, text, archive, code, other. Links to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other services inserted in the comment text will be automatically embedded.