2011 March / April

Click here for the PDF- Printable version of Issue No. 67 – March/April 2011

March/April, 2011


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

Wall Street Journal

Issue No 67

COMMENTARY: Skills in Reconstructing and Relinquishing

In previous issues we have explored some of the “skills of aging.” As we proposed, during every phase of life one must grapple with two important challenges: mastering the new and dealing with the loss of the valued. Required in both cases are skills: reconstructing and relinquishing. In this issue of the Newsletter we want to focus on a particular case, one very close to us: the death of John, a dear friend. For us, he provided a stellar example of both these skills in action, and his life serves as an inspiration.

John was a retired insurance broker, who had lived in the suburbs, fathered three children, and had been married for many years before a divorce. He was a Gary Cooper kind of guy — quiet, unassuming, friendly and conservative. John did have an interest in the arts, and it was during a gallery opening in Philadelphia that he met our longstanding artist friend, Deborah. In contrast to John, Deborah was animated, creative, and a Bohemian at heart. She lived in an artists’ community with a lively group of colleagues. We were thus a little surprised when they took a liking to each other, and wondered how they would click as a couple. But click they did, and soon enough, John left the suburbs to take up residence with his new bride in her studio-home in the city.

The reconstruction began. John had a longstanding interest in collecting old tools and cameras. Soon enough he began to take photography lessons, and with Deborah, to seek out interesting sites for his photo shoots. Within a few years he was exhibiting his work in various shows. He also took courses in welding, and began to find ways of using his old tools and cameras to create innovative statues. One that he kept outside his studio door was made entirely of old cameras. As he developed these talents the public also began to take notice, and soon he was selling his pieces at various exhibits. The community of artists also accepted him into their midst, pleased to have his creative presence, as well as his managerial skills.

Life was expanding in all directions when John was diagnosed with cancer. After several years of valiant resistance and times of recovery, his body began to lose the battle. The challenge now was that of relinquishing. John faced the inevitable with dignity, love for those about him, and an unstinting devotion to his art. For example, on his 80th birthday Deborah invited a dozen friends to a restaurant to celebrate. John had been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, and his energies were low. However, his devotion to his friends was everywhere evident. As usual, he kept conversation about his illness to a minimum. It was treated as a rather minor sideline to the celebration of his birth. Deborah had asked that there be no gifts, but if we had an interesting metal piece to bring to John, that would be appreciated. There was more sculpting to do! Indeed, John continued to work in his studio until the week he died.

The challenge of relinquishing was now Deborah’s. We were moved by what she shared with us at John’s funeral:
“There was nothing that we had not discovered in our relationship…it was complete.” We dedicate this issue to John and Deborah, in hopes that their examples will inspire others.

Mary and Ken Gergen

RESEARCH: Conflict Mellows in Aging Marriages

Disagreement is common in relationships; the challenge is preventing the conflict from becoming corrosive. In this interesting study, aging couples proved most successful. In this case researchers observed couples as they engaged in conflict. The couples – numbering 300, and predominantly white, middle and upper middle-class heterosexuals – were either middle-aged or older. Each couple discussed a current conflict and was then challenged to collaborate on the planning of errands. (The act of discussing a current conflict was designed to create an argument between the couples.)

As the researchers found, overall the older couples reported less negative emotion during disagreements than did middle-aged couples. They also rated their spouses as warmer than did younger couples, and their marriages as more satisfying than the younger ones did.

When it came to actually disagreeing, observers noted that among older couples, the women, in particular, were more disagreeable to their husbands. The older men showed the highest degree of warmth as they tried to control their partners’ responses. There was evidence from the self-evaluations, that among older couples, “bad” actions were discounted in the evaluation of their spouse’s behaviors.

In general, for both age groups, women were the most emotionally unsettled by relationship stressors, and reported more anger during disagreement than did men. Also women were more likely to display hostile control over their partners, while men were more likely to engage in hostile separation, including ignoring their partners rather than trying to control their behaviors.

When the couples collaborated, older couples displayed a unique blend of warmth and control, suggesting a greater focus on emotional and social concerns during problem solving than the younger ones.
One of the limits of studies such as these is that as people age, their marriages age as well. Among the middle-aged couples, some were probably headed for separation and divorce. This was less likely among the older couples, and thus, there is a strong likelihood that older marriages will be, on average, happier. As a result of this tendency, it is extremely difficult to separate out the effects of aging vs. that of having longer and happier marriages.

From: Conflict and Collaboration in Middle-Aged and Older Couples: Age Differences in Agency and Communion During Marital Interaction by T. W. Smith, C. A. Berg, P. Florsheim, B. N. Uchino, G. Pearce, et al. Psychology and Aging, 2009, 24, 259-273.

Research: Happiness Increases after 50

Closely related to the topic of marital conflict is a recent study of happiness over the life-span. In 2008 a phone survey was performed by the Gallup Organization with over 340,000 randomly selected adults aged 18-85 in the U. S. The respondents were average folks, with 29% holding a college degree and a median monthly household income between $3,000 and $4,000. The participants were asked to rate how they currently felt their life stood on a scale of 0 (“the worst possible life for you”) to 10 (“The best possible life for you”). They were also asked if they had felt various different emotions, such as happiness, enjoyment, stress, sadness, anger, and worry, a lot on the previous day.

Lead researcher Dr. Arthur Stone, of Stony Brook University, reports that stress peaked between the ages of 22-25, and decreased drastically after age 50. Worry was relatively constant from 20-40, then declined in the mid-50’s. Anger began tapering off after 18; Sadness increased for those in their 40’s, and then declined for those in their mid- to late 50’s. It increased slightly for those in their mid-70’s. (One might well imagine that sadness at those times could be attributed to the loss of parents and partners through death.) The best news was that both happiness and enjoyment peaked at two points in the life-cycle, when people were 20 and again when they were 70.

These findings support the frequently found difference between younger and older people, that older people are more able to regulate negative emotions, and recall fewer of them in their lives. Interestingly, between the genders, women throughout the life-span tend to report more stress, sadness and worry than men. Here is a topic worthy of further investigation.

From: Its getting better all the time: Happiness, well-being increase after 50 by Katherine Harmon, Scientific American, May 17, 2010. From their website.

Research: Benefits of Internet Use

The common stereotype is that older people have no interest in computers and the internet. Surveys do show that the younger population is more involved with the internet, and social networks, in particular. But the trend is shifting, and each year, increasing numbers of older people are becoming wired. What are the benefits of this involvement?

In this study, Galit Nimrod from the Center for Multidisciplinary Research in Aging, Ben-Gurion University, Israel, examined the contents and characteristics of messages exchanged by seniors’ online communities. Data from 14 leading online communities, was examined, including over 700,000 messages. During this one year period, the level of activity constantly increased. The major points of discussion included, from highest to lowest:

  • fun on line
  • retirement
  • family health
  • work and study
  • recreation
  • finance
  • religion and spirituality
  • technology
  • aging
  • civic and social relations
  • shopping
  • travel

Participation in an online community is a leisure pursuit involving social interactions, intellectual challenges, and creativity. The benefits from being on-line were many, and especially for those physically unable to be out in the world with ease. As the researcher concluded, on-line communities can provide social support and self-preservation; they can serve as an opportunity for self-discovery and growth.

From: Seniors’ Online Communities: A Quantitative Content Analysis by Galit Nimrod, The Gerontologist, 2010, 50, 382-392.



Job hunting is an age-free opportunity these days. Some of us are looking for work after being laid off, or looking for work to supplement our incomes, and some of us are looking for some enrichment in our lives. Working serves many purposes, economically, socially and physically. Yet, getting a job after 50 provides special challenges, not the least of which is age discrimination.

Mark Miller, author of The Hard Times: Guide to Retirement Security, has these suggestions for older job seekers:

  • In discussing your work history, do not emphasize the years of experience you have had. Emphasize skills and successes, not years on the job.
  • Be the solution to company problems: Stress how you can do something that will help the organization be more productive or profitable.
  • Network: Having an inside track to a job opportunity is enhanced if you know someone who works in the same organization or is connected somehow to the place you are interested in. Alumni groups, interest groups, and LinkedIn are all ways to network.
  • Keep skills current: Often older workers do not keep their technical skills current, and this can become a disadvantage when job seeking. It is helpful to have a tech-savvy mentor to show you the ropes. (Grandchildren might be the key here.)
  • Look the part: First impressions can be deal makers or breakers. Check your wardrobe, glasses and hairstyle to see how in synch they are with current fashions in the organization you aspire to. Looking sharp helps to sell future employers on your mental capacities and your social skills.

From: How to find a job after 50 by Richard Eisenberg, USA Weekend, May 21-23, 2010.

How does retirement affect one’s sex life? According to a recent survey by AARP, 78% of couples enjoy at least as much sex after retirement as they did before, and 12% say they are even more romantically inclined. That’s good news for many who are wondering what life post-career will be like. For those who would like to prepare for a sexy retirement or to improve on what’s already happening, Dr. Gail Saltz has these suggestions.

Invest in yourself: Do this by injecting some thrills into your life, things that will be interesting to you and to your partner. A stimulating life out of the bedroom stimulates people within it.

Remember Where It All Started: What was the original appeal that attracted you to the other person? Remembering what those qualities were is a step toward increasing desire. Couples who pretend to be strangers on a first date often find it exciting, according to a recent study at the University of British Columbia.

Make Allowances: Our bodies are not in the same shape as they were decades ago. The goal is to find ways of making love that are comfortable as well as exciting. Some changes, such as softer erections, (which are commonplace as one ages), can be readily addressed, with the help of a medical prescription. Also there is more to sex than intercourse, so definitions may need revision.

Embrace the Differences: Celebrate what improves with age. Less inhibitions, more comfort with the other person, and less chance of premature ejaculation. (No fears of unintended pregnancy either!)

Stoke the Flame: Unlike one’s youth, when it was pretty easy to get “turned on”, this may no longer be the case. Give your desire a push by talking about your fantasies, watching a sexy movie together, or touching or complimenting your partner in a warm and tender way. Make plans to have sex, just as you would other engagements. It can jump start the flames to imagine what will happen later in the day. These recommendations assume that everyone has a regular sexual partner; many people do not. Still sexual activity need not be out of the question. Being open to relationships that include sex is important if one is interested; being open to oneself is always an option. For some, sex is a hobby; for others, it is a hobby for others, but not of interest to oneself. That’s OK too.

From: Rekindling the flame by Gail Saltz, M. D. AARP The Magazine, 2011, March/April, pg. 54-55. (plus some editorial commentary)

If you ever told a group of friends about a particular malady, one you think is rather unusual, you will often find out from stories others tell, that indeed what you have is quite common. Some people find it annoying to hear others tell of their ailments, but researchers have recently discovered that hearing others’ stories of their ailments may be just what the doctor ordered. The Annals of Internal Medicine, (January, 18, 154, 77-84) has published the results of a provocative new study examining the effects of storytelling on patients with high blood pressure.

Monitoring the blood pressure of nearly 300 African-American patients who lived in urban areas and had known hypertension, the researchers at three-month intervals gave half the patients videos of similar patients telling stories about their own experiences. The rest of the patients received videos of more generic and impersonal health announcements on topics like dealing with stress. As the results showed, patients who received the storytelling DVD had better blood pressure control on average than the control group. In fact, in the storytelling group, those who started out with uncontrolled hypertension were able to achieve and maintain a drop as significant as it had been for patients on drug regimens.

There are many possible explanations for these findings. For some patients, hearing others talk about their illness may help them to accept their diagnosis and learn ways to get better. The illness may also become less frightening and more a normal event in life. Stories may also help patients feel they are part of a larger community. “The magic of stories lies in the relatedness they foster,” said Dr. Houston, the major researcher on the project.

From: NYTImes, by Pauline Chen, Feb. 10, 2011.


Healing Conversations Now: Enhance Relationships with Elders and Dying Loved Ones, by Joan W. Chadbourne & Tony Silbert. Taos Institute Publications, 2011.
Written by two authors involved in therapy and social work, and who have experienced the death of loved ones, this book is a guide for having the highly significant and often difficult conversations with older relatives and those approaching death. Most of us have wished that we could start a conversation with someone who may not be with us much longer, but we just don’t know how to get from “How are you today?” to “Tell me what is most important to you as you approach death.” Often the moment passes when we can connect significantly with people who have been important in our lives, or those with whom we have had difficult and distant relations.

The book is filled with stories in which people have been successful in engaging in warm and meaningful conversations with those confronting their death. It also contains specific questions and ways of entering into such conversations and in sustaining them. For those who are tongue-tied at expressing emotions and curiosity about others’ feelings, it is an especially helpful guide. Encouragement is also offered to those on the cusp of entering such conversations.

The book is highly readable and can be read in any order that is helpful. It offers abundant suggestions that can sharpen one’s sensitivities and sense of appropriateness in engaging in such difficult conversations. The book can also be read “backwards” in the sense that although the authors position themselves as younger people offering conversational possibilities for engaging with older partners, it can be very easily interpreted as ways that older people might engage younger ones in these conversations. One might say that older people are more in need of reaching out to their younger family members and are probably more skilled at it than vice versa. We recommend the book for our generation, as well as for younger folks.


Georgie Bright Kunkel writes:
I have been going on the comedy stage to assuage first my stress during the four years that my husband needed full care before he died, then grieving, and then being lonesome and thinking about dating and now I am actually dating. Attached is my column called Love the Second Time Around. Thought readers might be interested.

It is a whole new adventure for a formerly married woman of 62 1/2 years until my husband died two years ago. There are so many decisions that older singles need to consider when venturing into dating. I am writing a mini-book about it all when I have learned enough to share.

Not much is written about a second chance at love in one’s so-called senior years. After all, people with children, grandchildren and maybe even great grandchildren aren’t expected to enter the dating scene in their advanced years. But everyone needs affection and caring. Remember my article about Senior Dating? In that article I mentioned that I was single again but not dating. I said I didn’t think that any man could keep up with me.

Interestingly enough someone who reads my column thought to himself, “I think I could keep up.” And we are now spending time together getting to know each other. But “getting to know you” as the song says takes some doing in one’s elder years. What a long history one builds up over years of marrying, taking care of a spouse, then losing a spouse and meeting up with a companion who has a completely different history. My close friends kept reminding me that I would never find another partner just like the one I spent 62 and a half years with. Of course that is true. You cannot repeat the past. But one can find a whole new pattern of living with new experiences that are warm and exciting.

Marrying at an advanced age may bring up issues of the children’s inheritance. I once joked on the comedy stage about not having a date and saying, “Even if I did have a date I would never marry again. So if any of my children are in the audience you know that your inheritance is safe.” Some people feel they marry for life and even if a spouse dies, the living partner never seeks to bond again. After my husband died a friend once asked me if I ever talked to my dying husband about my dating after his death. I just laughed and said,” If you knew how independent I am you wouldn’t ask that question.”

People who believe they will be reunited with a spouse in heaven may have difficulty if they have had more than one partner. Can’t you just visualize dying and having to choose which spouse you would prefer to be reunited with in the hereafter? I didn’t have that problem but loneliness after being widowed is often a concern. It can be tempered by continuing with an active life including family contacts, making new friends as older friends die, or having a pet cat or dog. Add to this the closeness of a loving human companion and life can be rich and rewarding. But there are compromises to be made when one is interacting with another human being with a different past than you yourself have experienced. “You mean you like your eggs over and well done?” or “You don’t care for Earl Grey tea?” These differences can be easily overlooked if the electricity is exciting in a dating relationship. With more independence for women in our time there can be more choices other than marriage only. Older women don’t have to worry about having children so that is not an issue. But it does mean that each partner needs to respect the other’s lifestyle that was built before starting the new relationship.

Yes, whenever two people come together for friendship, companionship and love, there is always give and take so that each gains without giving up one’s core values. An exciting journey into companionship is a lesson in caring about another human being who has entered one’s life. If I figure out how it is all done I may write a How To book about it. But I’m not quite ready for that yet.

Georgie Bright Kunkel is a freelance writer to be reached at gnkunkel@comcast.net or 206-935-8663.

Jeanne Kelly writes:
Encore Creativity for Older Adults would love for our older adult population to know about 2011 Encore Institutes at Chautauqua, NY. Encore will be offering three performing arts institutes August 29 to Sept. 2, 2011:

  • Encore Chorale Institute, conducted by Jeanne Kelly – Founder of Encore Chorale, the largest and fastest growing choral program for older adults in the country, and Dr. Barry Talley, retired musical director of United States Naval Academy
  • Encore Dance Institute, partnering with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
  • Encore Theatre Institute, partnering with Stagebridge Theatre

The goal of Encore’s Chautauqua Institution is to become the premiere summer location in the U.S. where older actors, singers, and dancers can explore the performing arts. The institutes attract adult students from around the country who want to learn a new art or perfect lifelong skills.

Please visit http://encorecreativity.org or email jeanne.kelly@encorecreativy.org or call 301-261-5747

Judith Zausner writes:
I would like to offer my Creativity Matters blog link (agingandcreativity.blogspot.com) for your newsletter readers. Best regards,
Caring Crafts, Inc.
tel 215-476-1340 & 1-888-246-1104
CREATIVITY MATTERS blog: http://agingandcreativity.blogspot.com/

Charles Macknee, MAIS, writes:
So glad to read that Peter Whitehouse is now on your board of advisors! I tell all those folks engaged in Positive Aging (including a new organization here in Portland, Oregon… the “Positive Aging Network” (- PAN – closely allied with AgingArtfully.org and Wellarts.org) and also Alan DeLatorre at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging (who is finishing his PhD, so very busy right now!) about TAOS and “The Myth of Alzheimer’s.” – I look forward to assisting with possible future collaborations of any creative kind!


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.


In our last newsletter we announced our new advisory board. Among the members is Su-fen Liu, our Chinese translator. Su-fen Liu is from Pingtung, Taiwan, not from Hong Kong, as announced.

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.

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May 23, 2011 12:00 am