2011 September/October

PDF version to download - Issue 70 2011 September/October Positive Aging Newsletter


September/October, 2011

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 70

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.

Pericles, 495 – 429 BC


The Upside of Failure
We so often hear the expression, “I’m too old to do that.” Each time people say this, they have closed the door on an opportunity that could be expanding, enriching, and enlivening. People restrict themselves when it comes to travel, athletics, education, volunteer activities, cultural events, and more. It even happens when it is about relationships. A friend at a class reunion exclaimed that she was too old to consider a romantic relationship, “not at my age,” she said. For many, aging seems to bring about a sense that the world is riskier. There is the impending sense of fear and failure. I recently read about a series of interviews in which highly successful entrepreneurs were asked to account for their success. Among the most prominent answers was the willingness to take risks, which also lead to the obvious corollary that failing was also crucial to their success. As it was reasoned, one learns from failure, gains new insights, and acquires valuable experience. I started thinking about my family’s opinions of my birthday cake baking skills. My birthday cakes have long been the butt of jokes among our kids. There was the plastic-like chocolate frosting that cracked off in pieces, and the angel food cake that had to be scraped out of the pan, the one the ants found first, and so on. But, interestingly no one failure was repeated! Over the years I have learned a lot about cake baking. Today, I can make a passable birthday cake. Failure provided the means for growth and learning, and along the way, I gave the family a lot of laughs. Had I given up and searched for the nearest bakery, life would have been less rewarding.

So, as the fall season brings about its appointed changes – and we send out the 70th edition of this Newsletter - perhaps it is a good time to consider some new risks. Bronco busting may not be at the top of my list, but the challenges of new technologies, educational opportunities, arts and dance, exotic travel, and political involvement are almost always at hand. My husband, Ken, is asking me to join him in Tango lessons, and pestering me about Bhutan. Now in the midst of this little essay, I will certainly be more attentive to these “opportunities”. I don’t know about the outcomes, but I do know that life will become that much richer for taking a risk or two.

Mary Gergen


Happy Days in Holland
What makes people happy? Does it have to do with the amount of activity in which people engage? Does it have to do with relaxation? Does it all depend on the type of personality someone has? In this study, 438 retired adults, ages 55-88, living in The Netherlands reviewed their daily activities for two years, jotting down in a diary what they did each day, and how happy they felt. Previous research has shown that certain activities are closely related to good feelings about life, for example, social activities, physical activities such as bicycling, and learning activities, including solving puzzles. Activities that do not typically increase one’s happiness include housework, grocery shopping, doing the bills, and laundry.

In this study, these previous findings were examined, using the happiness recall recorded on a daily basis. In addition these researchers were interested in examining the relationship of restful activities - such as watching TV, napping and rocking on the porch - to more demanding engagements. Previous research showed that activity is generally related to happiness: in general, the “doer” is happier than the couch potato. However, as they reasoned, the constant need for activity causes problems; periodic laziness may be helpful. Does some combination increase feelings of happiness? Another factor that has been shown to be important in studies of happiness is the trait of extraversion. People who have a higher score on this personality measure are more likely to feel happy. This is often explained as the outcome of extraverted people enjoying social activities more than introverted people. For them, engaging in social activities is related to feeling happy about life.

The men (276) and women (162) in the study gave reports on their activities and their feelings of happiness. In addition, the researchers eliminated the effects of anxiety, health, gender, and age, so that these variables would not figure in the results. Once the analysis was completed, the researchers found much support for earlier findings. Spending more time on social, physical and cognitive activities related positively to happiness, and household activities did not. Interestingly, the combination of restful activity after more active engagement was highly correlated with happiness. True to other findings, extraverts enjoyed more social activities than introverts, and evaluated their world more positively.
From: Finding the Key to Happy Aging: A Day Reconstruction Study of Happiness by W. G. M. Odrlemans, A. B. Bakker, & R. Veenhoven. The Journal of Gerontology, Series B, 66, 665-674.

Benefits of Arts Participation
Researchers were interested in the effects of intensive training in theater on the cognitive and emotional well-being of older people. Helga and Tony Noice conducted a study in which they gave a group of older adults seven, ninety minute sessions in acting. Each session involved scenes that mimicked real-life situations, and the exercises became increasingly demanding. For most, the experience was deeply engrossing. Control groups, one, a class in visual arts, and another with no classes, were measured for their cognitive abilities and feelings of well-being, along with the acting class. Results indicated that the theater participants improved significantly from pre-test to post-test over the no treatment controls in recall and problem solving. They also improved significantly on assessments of psychological well-being. The theater group also did better than the arts class group on all measures, although both were higher than the other control group in their outcomes. In another study, the team tried out their drama course with at-risk, older adults living in subsidized, low-income housing. Participants here were older and less well-educated than the previous groups; more than half had mobility challenges and used wheelchairs and other aids in order to get around. Here the theater group was compared to a voice training choral group and no training control groups. The results were similar to the previous study. The acting group experienced significant cognitive and affective gains over the other two groups, although both the acting and singing groups had gained in feelings of well-being over the other control group. In explaining why they believe acting classes helped improve the participants’ lives, the researchers stressed the importance of physical activity, developing a sense of mastery and control, having fun, facing mental challenges, and social engagement. Also acting skills could lead to improved life skills. Unfortunately, the summary of these studies did not indicate how many people were involved in each study, but one would assume there were sufficient numbers of them to justify the results.
From: Good for the Heart, Good for the Soul: The Creative Arts and Health in Later Life by Michael C. Patterson and Susan Perlstein. Neuroscience of the Aging Brain: Perspectives on Brain Health and Lifestyle. 2011, 35, 27-36.


In the Loop with the Hearing Loop
Our colleague and friend, David G. Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, sent us some wonderful news about a technology that allows the partially deaf to hear crystal clear sounds . As David writes, “I used to detest my hearing aids, but now ... I love the way they’ve enriched my life.” Dr. Myers is writing about hearing loops, copper wires radiating electromagnetic signals. When placed around the periphery of a space (large or small) they interact with a tiny device in hearing aids to provide for perfect sound fidelity. Myers first encountered a hearing loop at an abbey in Scotland, where he was shocked to suddenly understand every word of a service. He then discovered that it was a hearing loop that allowed him to have this experience. Later he installed a loop in his own home (for about $250) and successfully campaigned to have loops installed at hundreds of locations in Michigan, including the Grand Rapids airport and the basketball arena at Michigan State University. As he wrote, “One of the beauties of this simple technology is that it serves me everywhere from my office to my home TV room to nearly all the worship places and public auditoriums of my community.” The technology, which has been widely adopted in Northern Europe, has the potential to transform the lives of tens of millions of Americans, according to national advocacy groups. As loops are installed in stores, banks, museums, subway stations and other public spaces, people who have felt excluded are suddenly back in the conversation. For more information check out: www.hearingloop.org

Violinist on Wheels
Philadelphia Orchestra violist, Herold Klein, who is 66, recently finished a bicycle ride called the MS Great 8, an eight-day ride that raises awareness and money for multiple sclerosis. Klein is a recent convert to biking. This sporting activity has been the source of incredible changes in Klein’s life. “It has been my savior, and made me fit to live with,” he has said. Before he became a rider, Klein was totally devoted to music. Between practicing, performing, and doing strenuous administrative duties as chair of the orchestra members committee, he never had time to exercise. He didn’t sleep well, and along with smoking, he drank 20 cups of coffee a day. Over time he became aware that his body was complaining about the lifestyle he had acquired, and he found that the stress he carried daily was damaging his physical health. Eventually, he stopped smoking and cut down on coffee, but his anxiety level remained very high. His doctor prescribed exercise. He put it off for four years, but one day became intrigued with the notion that he might be able to ride a bike. That summer, when the orchestra was performing in Saratoga Springs, NY, he began training. He cycled every day, pushing himself harder and harder. Today he is an expert cyclist, has lost 20 pounds and is a much calmer guy. Its a win-win for Harry: “Cycling has made me more relaxed and given me so much more energy that I can put directly into the music.” MS is muse for violinist on 513-mile bicycle ride. Philadelphia Inquirer, October 17, 2011, C1, C3

Future Prospects for Baby Boomers

What does the future hold for the Baby Boomers and beyond? In a recent article, Harry Moody, Director of Academic Affairs at AARP, outlined a number of distinct possibilities. Among the most promising outlooks for Americans are two of his predictions: Social Security: Trustees of this fund estimate that there is enough money to pay full benefits through the year 2037 without changing any aspect of the program. The notion that social security is broke is wrong! With some tweaking of the system, Social Security’s solvency can be extended through 2067. This is good news for us and our children, and also our grandchildren, if we make some small moves that guarantee this valuable social program. Medicare: This program is in less good shape than Social Security. Its condition was substantially improved by the Health Care Reform Law of 2010. Instead of running out of money in 2017, it will now be secure until 2029. However, health care costs must be contained. How to do this is open to many points of view, including allowing older people to have more say in how their lives are lived and ended. From: Reflecting on the 21st Century by H. R. Moody, Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging. 2010, 34, 23-27.

Couch Potato Alarm
We all know that television is addictive, but we didn’t realize that it can seriously shorten our life span. At least this research reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and a lifestyle study of ten years suggests. The study controlled for other variables that could shorten the life span -- age, weight, smoking, education, hypertension and cholesterol levels. They found that people who watched a lifetime average of six hours of TV a day could expect to live almost five years less than people who spent no time in front of the tube. On average, every single hour of TV viewed after age 25 reduced the viewer’s life expectancy by 22 minutes. Of course, this figure is a mathematical calculation of averages, but it is worth noting. There are many factors that could contribute to this finding beyond watching the TV. Perhaps it is related to the lack of other things, such as exercise beyond going to the refrigerator for another Fosters. From: Study: Each hour of television shortens life by 22 minutes, Personal Health, Philadelphia Inquirer, C2. Research was originally published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.


Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship & Flourishing Communities, by Susan H. McFadden & John T. McFadden, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. A major theme of this engaging book is that people diagnosed with forms of dementia can be appreciated in new ways, for their potentials as well as their cognitive deficits. In addition, patients, themselves, are becoming organized in support of their needs and willing to stand up for their rights to be treated as full citizens and worthy members of their communities. This sea change has significant implications for the growing population of people over the age of 65, who are closest to the time when this diagnosis may be applied to them, as well as for their families, their friends, and their neighbors.

Authors Susan H. McFadden and John T. McFadden, she, a psychologist, and he, a chaplain, have written a serious, scholarly and sensitive book designed to facilitate this shift in perspective. At its heart is the notion that along the dementia road, true friends should accompany you. Why they will do so, how they will do so and what the changing relationship will become are central topics of the book. The McFaddens argue that people are fearful of accepting the call to keep in connection with family members and friends who have begun the trip to oblivion. They address ways of overcoming these feelings and finding ways for continuing a warm and caring relationship with those who may no longer reciprocate fully. The book should attract a variety of professional readers, as well as people in relation with those who are becoming progressively forgetful. It is heartening to read how new appreciations, new skills, and new forms of understanding can enrich a friendship- or kindle one - with those losing their cognitive skills. Suggestions are given as to how to relate caringly to these friends along their way. The authors also discuss how to appreciate the positive changes that people with dementia often acquire, such as becoming more playful and loving than they were before.

In terms of community development, the nature of the environment is significant in how people with dementia sustain their identities, and adapt to and experience their new worlds. For many people who are diagnosed, group living is more socially satisfying and upbeat than being left alone at home. This view runs counter to the now prevailing notion that living in one’s own home is the ideal. Also, rather than being the target of aid, those diagnosed may well become providers for others. Although the tasks may be simple, helping others continues to be a value, regardless of one’s cognitive state.


With pleasure, we share an invitation to our readers from Mark Freedman, CEO of Civic Ventures:

Dear Mary,
Retirements that promise 30 or 40 years of leisure are no longer sustainable – for individuals or society. Instead, it’s time we recognize that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s are in a new stage of life and work, an encore stage that provides the chance to make a real difference in the world. I see signs that the encore stage is starting to catch on. The New York Times ran an article entitled “Teaching as a Second, or Even Third, Career,” which cites our work with community colleges. Brad Jupp, a senior program aide to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, says: “There is an incredible opportunity here for those who are pursuing encore careers.” ABC News cited Purpose Prize winner Wilma Melville as its Person-of-the-Week on Friday. After retiring from teaching, Melville launched an encore career training rescue dogs to rescue disaster victims. And Washington University in St. Louis made news by conducting a survey of MSW students over 40 to determine if they got what they came for – mainly, an encore career in social work. “We found that people came, they did well, they went out and accomplished their plans,” says professor Nancy Morrow-Howell. “They got into the careers they wanted and they looked very favorably at their experience.” One final reason to celebrate: Tens of thousands more children in urban elementary schools will soon get the benefit of tutors and mentors in search of an encore. This past week, AARP and Experience Corps announced that they are joining forces. Let us know when you see signs that the encore stage of life and work is taking hold. Write us at [email protected] All best, Marc Freedman Founder and CEO, Civic Ventures Author, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife


Nan Phifer writes:
I appreciate your valuable newsletter, and for the next issue I'd like to submit the following announcement:
"Life-Review through Spiritual Memoirs" will be demonstrated in a workshop led by Nan Phifer, author of Memoirs of the Soul: A Writing Guide, during the Fifth Annual International Conference on Positive Aging to be held December 6 - 9, in Los Angeles, CA. Phifer will show how to identify meaningful writing subjects, prompt spontaneous writing, and evoke affirming insights. Participants will become able to replicate and adapt Phifer's writing process to bring about fulfilling, positive life-review. See www.memoirworkshops.com and www.positiveaging.fielding.edu.

Thank you, Mary!

James Lenarz writes about his positive aging study group, which he founded after noticing how dismal the conversations about aging were at his senior housing facility, Copperfield Hill.
“At our meeting one member presents to the others information on some aspect of Positive Aging which she/he has researched, an example would be Positive Aging and Laughter. The group then discusses the subject and may consider such questions as:

• How does this relate to our own aging and eldering?
• How does this impact the quality of our lives and that of our families and community?
• What would be appropriate action?

We have had presentations on Positive Aging & Exercise, Volunteering, Resiliency, Myths, and Laughter.

James has asked for suggestions about new topics, about how to intrigue new members, and how to keep the study group going. If you have ideas to share with James, his email is [email protected]

Harry Butler, responding to our summary of a research report that early childhood musical education helps to stave off cognitive losses with aging, writes:
I was a musician in high school and I spent 4 years at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (bass trombone). I always thought that my years at the Conservatory gave me time to mature and develop conscientiousness so that 3 1/2 years of additional undergraduate study were easy for me. It never occurred to me that my studying music might have given me an edge. Consistent with your reported findings, my bass trombone teacher of that time, Betty Glover, lives in the South of France and at 88, she has lost nothing. She was a pioneer. She was the first woman bass trombone teacher in any major symphony orchestra and the second woman trombone player of any kind in a major symphony orchestra. I think she will be pleased to learn that her musical studies contributed to her current vibrant old age.

We Stand Corrected:
In our last issue we wrote about a rabbi, Dayle Friedman, who has served a community of elderly Jewish people in the Philadelphia area. We commended her for her position that she went there not to serve, but to engage with these people. There were some corrections to be made, as we discovered when she was kind enough to write us.

Dear Ken and Mary,
Just reread the piece and I'd like to note the following corrections, in case you can correct the online version:

1. I was not the FIRST of 75 women rabbis--I was within the first 75...important distinction of being the first belongs to Rabbi Sally Priesand, not me!
2. Web address is www.growingolder.co (not .com!)
3. One mention has my name as "Gayle" not "Dayle"

If it's not possible to correct, no problem, and if it is, I thank you so much!!!
Warmly, Dayle


The Fifth International Positive Aging Conference will be held in Los Angeles from Dec. 6-9, 2011, under sponsorship of the Fielding Graduate University. Fielding also offers a program on "Creative Longevity and Wisdom" and the December conference will include sessions on community, creativity, wellness, and life transitions. For more information about this event see: http://www.positiveaging.fielding.edu/ Keynote speaker for the Positive Aging conference will be Mary Catherine Bateson, author of the new book Composing a Further Life. For more on her and this book visit: http://www.marycatherinebateson.com/bibliography.html

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