2011 January / February

Click here for the PDF- Printable version of Issue No. 66 – Jan/Feb 2011

January/February, 2011


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 66

COMMENTARY – Positive Aging: Renewing the Vision

Periodically we like to review again the central mission of this newsletter, thus clarifying what you may anticipate and how you may participate as readers. Since its inception less than eight years ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate – now reaching thousands of subscribers in five languages. Our readers include, among others, gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons. Many new readers of the newsletter may be curious about the orientation guiding the selection of content.

Our primary aim is to bring to light resources – from research, practice and daily life – that contribute to an appreciation of the aging process. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline, we strive to create a vision of life in which aging is an unprecedented period of human enrichment. Such a revolution vitally depends on the communities of research and professional practices that focus on adult populations, especially people over 50. It is within these communities that new ideas, insights, factual support, and practices of growth enhancement can congenially emerge. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging, and the availability of relevant resources, skills, and resiliencies, research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice but creates hope and empowers action among older people. By moving beyond practices of repair and prevention, to emphasize growth-enhancing activities, practitioners also contribute to the societal reconstruction of aging.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If you have writings, insights, or practices that you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, you are invited to share them in future issues. We also review selected books and films, and carry announcements of relevant conferences and workshops. Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at gv4@psu.edu. Past issues of the Newsletter – both English and non-English versions – are archived at: www.positiveaging.net

To reintroduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is a Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor Emerita of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Penn State University, Brandywine. Ken and Mary are both on the Executive Board of the Taos Institute, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of social constructionist theory and societal practice. Each has a long history of engagement with gerontological inquiry and therapeutic practice.

We hope you will join us in the present endeavor,
Ken and Mary Gergen

ANNOUNCEMENT: New Board of Advisors

We are proud to announce the formation of a stellar Board of Advisors for the Newsletter. Their wisdom and insights will guide the future development of the publication and the associated web resources. Our Board consists of therapists, authors, translators, and other scholars who have a strong interest in gerontology. We wish to thank them publicly for their generous and willing support. They are:

  • Bob and Sharon Cottor, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
  • Thomas Friedrich, Marburg, Germany
  • Glenda Fredman, London, England, UK
  • Lorraine Hedke, Redlands, California, USA
  • Su-fen Liu, Pingtung,Taiwan
  • Angelica Moretti, Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • Susan Perlstein, Brooklyn, NY, USA
  • William Randall, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
  • Alain Robiolio, Frieburg, Switzerland
  • Margaret Stroebe, Utrecht, The Netherlands
  • Peter Whitehouse, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

RESEARCH: What Does it Take to be a Centenarian?

The simple answer is that they have lived to be at least 100. In 1990 there were 37,000 who did just that. In 2000 there were 50,000, and by 2030 it is projected that there will be over 300,000. It is presumed that those who reach 100 have the quality of resilience. They have suffered losses, met challenges and experienced difficult times, just by virtue of having lived so long. And because they have lived so long, they have proven that they have some special qualities that are helpful in the aging process. Peter Martin and his colleagues have tried to answer the question of what these qualities might be.

One assumption is that the personality of a centenarian is an important aspect of being able to live a long time. Research does indicate that, most importantly, very old people tend not to be neurotic. They are not overly nervous, easily upset, or festering with a lot of grudges and unpleasant feelings. Another general tendency is for them to be extroverted, outgoing and enjoying of social contact. Other studies suggest that they are quite confident in their competence to do things well, are agreeable and open to experience, and are trusting of others. One might say that the resilient personality is more likely to be a “people person.”

Research on a second domain of resilience – namely one’s social resources – is quite congenial with this picture of the resilient personality. In a meta-analysis of 286 studies of well-being, having a supportive social network was one of the most important contributors to longevity. Further, the traits of calm and self-confidence may be important in helping these people to sustain their social networks. For centenarians, to maintain their social resources requires a constant re-knitting, as death and decline tear it apart, as they outlive most people that they have known.

Basic economic security is also a significant contributor to a long and peaceful life. Although relatively few centenarians have much money they often have what they consider enough to live comfortably. Most of them are not spendthrifts, however, and a little goes a long way with them. As research suggests, to sustain oneself it is important to be glad for what you have and not to worry too much about the future.

Whether cognitive abilities contribute to resilience is less clear. In general the centenarians were able to maintain adequate levels of cognitive functioning throughout very late life, despite adversity and risk. In one study, researchers found that the oldest old had a robust ability to solve everyday life problems. They were able to adapt to changing conditions and stay afloat. At the same time many of the centenarians (about 50%) had some form of dementia. Educational level seemed to be a helpful predictor of higher cognitive abilities, but there were also many cases where people without much education also were still “sharp as a tack.”

Resilience and longevity: Expert survivorship of entenarians by Peter Martin, Maurice MacDonald, Jennifer Margrett, and Leonard W. Poon. In New Frontiers in Resilient Aging: Life Strengths and Well-being in late life, edited by Prem S. Fry and Corey L. M. Keyes. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

RESEARCH: Happiness through Savoring

Most of us tend to think that if we just had a bit more money we’d get more satisfaction out of life, but on the whole, this turns out not to be true. So why doesn’t money make us happier? New research by Jordi Quoidbach and colleagues suggests that the answer lies, at least in part, in how wealthier people lose touch with their ability to savor life’s pleasures.

Savoring is a way of increasing and prolonging our positive experiences. Taking time to experience the subtle flavors in a piece of dark chocolate, imaging the fun you’ll have on an upcoming vacation (and leafing through your trip photos afterward), telling your friends on Facebook about the hilarious movie you saw over the weekend, basking in a glorious sunset – these are all acts of savoring, and they help us to squeeze every bit of joy out of the good things that happen to us. Why, then, don’t wealthier people savor, if it feels so good? It’s obviously not for a lack of things to savor. The basic idea is that when you have the money to eat at fancy restaurants every night and buy designer clothes from chic boutiques, those experiences diminish the enjoyment you get out of the simpler, more everyday pleasures, like the smell of a steak sizzling on your backyard grill, or the bargain you got on the sweet little sundress from Target. Life’s little pleasures are belittled. And, rather than living a simpler life, with special events scattered over longer periods, having wealth invites one into seeking continuous high points. Not only are there few intervening moments of savoring, but there are no low points against which the experiences count as high or special.

The research suggests that we contribute to happiness and well-being each day, not through getting and spending, but through savoring the small joys of each day.

J. Quoidbach, E. Dunn, K. Petrides, & M. Mikolajczak (2010) Money giveth, money taketh away: The dual effect of wealth on happiness. Psychological Science, 21, 759-763.


We were very interested to learn that in the US today, baby-boomers prove to be more entrepreneurial than younger generations. Generally we believe that the risky economic behavior associated with starting one’s own business is the province of the young. Yet, over the past decade, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to those from 55-64 years old.

Factors that seem to encourage this behavior are: A lower sense of commitment to a single career or one company; longer years of productive activity allowed by better health and energy; a desire to be one’s own boss; and being a victim of downsizing. As a result the Kauffman Foundation predicts that the U.S. is on the cusp of an entrepreneurship boom, and this is very good for the country because start-ups are presumed to be engines of productivity, new job creation, and expanding economic wealth.

Jan Wassel reviewed two books related to this trend. The first, The Second Chance Revolution: Becoming Your Own Boss After 50 by Edward Rogoff and David Carroll is an excellent source for those considering entrepreneurship. After assessing the risks of this high-wire activity, they help the reader understand critical areas such as financing, tax and legal issues, family business issues, hiring, structuring boards, and team building. They also include worksheets to help readers assess their own situation.

A second book, Elderly Entrepreneurship in an Aging US Economy, by Ting Zhang, lauds older workers for contributing significantly to economic growth. Developed from his dissertation, Zhang has created a highly sophisticated discussion of the incentives and disincentives for adults over 61 to continue to work. He believes that older adults’ positive economic influence on the US economy has not been fully recognized, and argues for tax incentives for older adults. Fostering entrepreneurship in an environment of “cultural openness, social tolerance, and diversity, together with low-income tax rates encourages older adults’ business growth” (pg.865).

From: Older Entrepreneurs as the New Economic Frontier by Jan Wassel, The Gerontologist, 2011, 50, 863-865.

Everyone knows that age may bring about challenges to memory – possibly owing to the greater storehouse of what one has learned. Yet, this does not mean that they have more trouble with other mental tasks. Research conducted at North Carolina State University in Raleigh compared older adults with those under 30 in terms of making intuitive decisions, such as choosing a competent home repair contractor or quickly deciding about a chess move or playing a bridge hand. In general, the older people did as well or better than the younger ones. Thomas Hess, one of the researchers, suggested that “Seniors have a knowledge base they can fall back on…. That information can be automatically accessed. It’s not something they have to think too much about.” The life experiences of older people create a set of heuristics that younger people have yet to acquire. More of the world is novel to them and they have to access it, starting from scratch. (The reverse is probably true if the task involved installing a DVD player.)

From: Decision Making: Go with your gut by Beth Howard. AARP The Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2010, pg. 18.

A faithful reader and friend from San Francisco sent us a newspaper article about one of our favorite scholars, Professor Marian Diamond of U. C. Berkeley. Dr. Diamond has been teaching students about the brain and its amazing capacities for many decades. She, herself, was a student there in the mid-40’s, and after teaching positions at Cornell and Harvard, she became a revered “fixture” at Berkeley. After producing controversial research on Albert Einstein’s brain, she began to study ways of enhancing brain development. As she found, rats raised in a highly stimulating and challenging environment developed much thicker cerebral cortices than those raised in a boring environment. It is thanks to her that today’s infants find their cribs decorated in colorful, twisting, whistling, flashing or chiming toys and mobiles. (One wonders if this trend has been taken too far!)

Related to positive aging, Diamond also demonstrated a link between playing a mentally challenging game and the strength of the immune system. She brought a bridge club composed of older women to her lab, where they played cards as she measured the white cells in their blood. She also engaged a control group of women to sit quietly listening to music as the others played. The players experienced a surge in their white blood count, (which was good), and the others did not. This study suggests that having a mental challenge is a very healthy way to avoid sicknesses.

Almost the only woman in her field of anatomy, she did not conform to the ways of the “old boy” network. Her goal was to be both an excellent scholar and a successful woman, with a commitment to her family. She raised four children with her first husband, Richard Diamond, and today she engages in a commuter marriage with UCLA neuroscience professor, Arnold Scheibel. He describes her style of working as, “very creative, outside the box. That has not always been appreciated.” Diamond plans to continue teaching as long as she continues to be healthy. She enjoys the challenge, the connection to students, and being a part of the scientific community. She especially appreciates the affection and regard of her former students, now highly skilled professionals in various scientific fields. One said he enjoyed spending time with her because he always leaves her feeling more positive about life. “She makes me want to be a better doctor.” Marian Diamond is a role model for leading a joyful, productive, and loving life at any age.

From: Pioneering brainstormer packs students in by Debra Levi Hotz, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 10, 2010, A1-A19.


Positively Ninety: Interviews with Lively Nonagenarians by Connie Springer


Connie Springer, a free-lance photographer, has created a charming book filled with the words and photographs of 28 people who had reached the age of 90 plus. Each page is filled with quotable phrases and descriptions of the lives of these people, and each has sat for a portrait. The overall impression is of people who have given much to the world, and are still involved in their projects. They each share a sense of enthusiasm and involvement in the world. Here are some exemplary cases: Gordon Maham, who has dedicated his life to peace activism, actually had to give up some of his work; at the request of his children he agreed not to get arrested again once he turned 90. Helen Licht became blind as she aged from macular degeneration and glaucoma. She approached this ailment with a positive attitude, and began a support group in her retirement community, so that people could help each other out in their difficulties with seeing. Russ White took up competitive swimming at 65, after he retired, and in 1988 competed in the World Masters’ Meet in Australia. He came in third in three breast-stroke events, and swam a leg of a medley relay that set a new world record. White’s ambition is “to die young as late in life as possible.”

Springer summarized her interviews by creating a list of the 20 personality traits that she found most prevalent among her interviewees. The top five included: Flexibility, sense of humor, living simply, taking one day at a time, and never turning down an invitation. A significant last item was just “being lucky”.

The book inspires readers to raise the ceiling of possibilities for life in the nineties. It makes the eighties seem relatively young, not to mention the sixties and seventies. Perhaps the most elegant aspects of the book are its photographs; it did not come as a surprise to discover on the author’s page her dedication to photography. MMG


Sue Ronnenkamp writes:
I saw in the Sept/Oct Positive Aging Newsletter that the Gergen’s mentioned the article titled “Moving Beyond Place: Aging in Community” by Dr. Bill Thomas and Janice Blanchard. I was able to locate the full article and found it very interesting. I, too, believe strongly in the value of “aging in community” but in contrast to what was written in this article, I don’t believe that community is defined as, or needs to be limited to, only a small group of people. I grew up in small town of 550 people so believe a community can be any size that works for those who choose it. This also applies to older adults, many of whom are living in the good retirement communities in existence all over the country.

I’m interested in this topic because I put my own ideas for aging in community and living interdependently into a white paper last fall called “Re-Shaping the Senior Living Community.” It was aimed at the senior living industry but I have also been sharing the paper with individuals from my age (53) on up because I believe many of the issues I raise can have an impact on all of us. My older friends (from early 80’s to 90’s) have especially cheered on my efforts since they are living these issues right now.

To find her paper, please go to her website. www.AgeFullLiving.com or email her at sue@agefullliving.com

Bruce Elkin writes:
Satchel Paige had a good take on age. He asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
I like that. And I think most people would choose to be younger, at least in spirit and action.

I’m also a fan of the books Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond, and Younger Next Year for Women: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond.

Both are practical ways to get fitter, generate more energy and do the things that give you joy. They’re not about denying your age, just pushing back the myths of what people of a certain age are capable of doing. Yes! Info on both at: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=Younger+Next+Year&class=
Good stuff!

Every so often we have the pleasure of hearing from Georgie Bright Kunkel.
Here we share her latest update:

At age 90 I am continuing my life with a purpose of living each day to the fullest. I recently produced and presented a 70 minute show on stage at our local theater which included standup comedy, readings from my newspaper column, and a skit with a young improv comic on the Harold and Maud theme. I sing and play jazz, do public speaking throughout my area, dance whenever I have a chance and go on the local comedy stage. I have applied to Americas Got Talent to see if I can get into the audition in my area of Seattle/Tacoma. Time will tell if I am accepted. I am open to dating but as I say on the comedy stage, dating is a dilemma since women my age outnumber men and most men my age are either dead, impotent or taking Viagra and looking for younger women. But I do have male companionship even though many single women my age do not.


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.


Facebook page with photos and stories of grandparents, and responses of their children and grandchildren. Begun as a way of having a conversation with her grandmother, this storytelling project is being carried out by Benita Cooper.

A blog where women are invited to tell stories about their lives, reflections on their lives at a certain age. Begun this month by two women, Ellen and Jane, who have been friends since they were 13.

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/

March 26-27, 2011 Say Yes to Life: Changing the Paradigm from Aging to Sage-ing, Albuquerque, NM. Gary Carlson, PhD and Charlotte Carlson, PhD, Jungian Analyst. A highly interactive workshop focused on the conscious aging/sage-ing model for living one’s elder years more consciously, more joyfully and more compassionately. An Intensive workshop sponsored by the Sage-ing Guild. For more information, visit http://www.sage-ingguild.org/calendar/workshops.php.

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

May 1-7, 2011: Choosing Conscious Elderhood, 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: http://www.centerforconsciouseldering.com

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.

October 16-17, 2011: Aging with Passion & Purpose: A Biennial Conference on Aging. University of Nebraska at Omaha. For registration, info www.champsonline.info or call 402-895-2224.

Information for Readers

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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: www.positiveaging.net

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March 14, 2011 12:00 am