2012 January / February

PDF version of the 2012 Jan/Feb Positive Aging Newsletter to download: Issue 72 Jan/Feb 2012


January/February, 2012

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 72

In this Issue:


Enriching the Present Through the Past

It is well recognized that memory is selective. We recall certain events as if they were yesterday; others slip into the dark. This is no small matter as we grow older. What if those memories that could enrich our daily lives, give us vitality, and cheer us on are among those that drop away? In our view, we do have some choice about this. We can actively contribute to the process of selecting memories. And we can do so in ways that sustain those that are life-giving. This fact was made so very clear to us this past December. Among the Christmas cards was a special letter. It was not the kind of report card letter that lets you know that everyone in the family earned an A+. Rather, Jane and Jon took a careful and caring look at specific events in the year. Each described, for example, an event that was most exciting, another that was most gratifying, another that was most disappointing. And they each shared their favorite film, most enjoyable musical experience, moment of greatest beauty, and much more. We both enjoyed and were fascinated by their revelations. However, as we talked about the letter, we fell into unsettling reflection. How would we answer the questions that Jane and Jon had posed for themselves? Yes, here and there a candidate memory came to mind. However, all too often, and all too disappointingly, there was often a blur. What were all the movies we had seen, when were those moments of special beauty, or the exciting events early in the last year? Tough questions, and a fear that much had been lost from recounting. The fact that Jane and Jon did manage to keep so much of the past in their working present led us to consider the various ways in which we can successfully select. Most obviously, photographs have served this function, but as photographic prints have become increasingly rare, so it seems has “showing and telling.” And indeed, a great scholarly literature on “communal memory” suggests that one of the most important means of keeping the past vivid and vitalizing is through dialogue. Those rollicking occasions when we trade tales of the past with family or friends are more than just fun. They knit past and present together, and weave the mix into our relational world. And with the disappearance of writing letters – another primary means giving shape to the past – social interchange becomes all the more important. In a sense, our relationships and our mental world are fused. The two of us have experimented with this process, and particularly after various journeys. We fear that the high points will be buried in the avalanche of demands to confront us on return. So, we spend time on the return trip reviewing what happened during the trip that was special, rewarding, or appreciated. Not only do we hope this will make these memories durable, but that the less than wonderful stuff will move into the dark. Now, stimulated by Jane and Jon, the two of us have generated a joint computer file in which we can make entries whenever we are struck by an experience worth savoring. Now our relationship and mental worlds are fused as well with our computers! In December we shall test the effects. We would be very pleased if our readers would send to Mary (gv4@psu.edu) some of their own ways of helping the past to remain a lively companion. Ken and Mary Gergen


Personality Change and Health Over the Years

Traditional research on personality traits has assumed that such traits are stable over the life course. Thus, if one were neurotic as a young person, one would remain nervous and “stressed out” over the life span. Or if one were disorganized, sloppy, and undisciplined in their 30’s, they would remain the perpetual slob. The five personality traits centering this tradition are extraversion (outgoingness), neuroticism, conscientiousness (the anti-slob-factor), agreeableness, and openness to experience. However, recent thinking and research challenges this tradition. The interest here is in the possibility that these traits are dynamic, not static, and can change, albeit slowly, over the life course. This new line of thinking has important implications for aging, and especially for issues of health and longevity. In previous newsletters we have often reported on research linking personality traits with health. Such research suggested, for example, that conscientiousness, in particular, is positively related to both health and longevity, while neuroticism will have negative consequences. And, if you happen to be low in conscientiousness and high in neuroticism, you might consider yourself as more or less “doomed.” The current thinking gives reason for optimism: we can change our personalities! In this major study, over 7,000 non-institutionalized U. S. residents between 25-74 were studied over a ten year period. Scores on these personality traits were correlated with three health measures: self-rated health; self-reported blood pressure, and number of days limited at work or home due to physical health reasons. Across all three measures higher levels of conscientiousness predicted better health outcomes; higher levels of neuroticism predicted poorer outcomes. Higher levels of extraversion predicted better self-rated health and fewer health-related work reductions. Higher levels of openness predicted fewer work-related missed days. Higher levels of agreeableness (the “nice” factor) predicted poorer health outcomes. In addition, however, the study also provided evidence that long term change in these personality indicators was also related to physical health. Many people did improve in the positive personality traits, (conscientiousness and extraversion) and consequently they also rated themselves as having better health. This relationship leads to questions related to change itself. Why do people change over time? Who changes over time? How might individuals learn to lessen their anxiety, for example, or become more socially outgoing, as they age? How can people be encouraged to be more caring of their physical health and less likely to do harmful things to themselves? Interestingly, how might some people benefit from learning to be a bit less “nice”? It seems that being too agreeable has some costs as well as benefits. This research opens up many challenging and important questions. From: Personality Trait Level and Change as Predictors of Health Outcomes: Findings from a National Study of Americans by Nicholas A. Turiano, Lindsay Pitzer, Cherie Armour, Arun Karlamangia, Carol D. Tyff, & Daniel K. Mroczek, The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Psychological Sciences, 2012, 67B, 4-12.

How Old Do You Feel You Are?
What answer would you give to this question? Is it the same as your chronological age? Is it five years younger? Is it ten years younger? Or is it possibly older than your calendar age? For most people who are in their 70’s, the average age given is 15 years younger than the chronological one. For a typical 75 year old, the answer is 60. At 25, most people answer 25, but the gap widens over time. It is not clear why this difference occurs, but as broad ranging research indicates, people who do feel younger than their years feel healthier and even live longer. (Of course, their good health may also contribute to their feeling younger.) This study compared people living in the U. S. and in The Netherlands, both on their feelings of their age, and their self-esteem. Psychology students in both countries interviewed people they knew, between the ages of 40 and 85, about these issues. The researchers were curious about what differences would be found between the two samples, based on the differences in the welfare systems in each nation. The U. S., classified as a liberal country, demands more individual decision-making on the part of its citizens with regard to retirement and savings for this period of life. In The Netherlands, a social-democracy, the age of retirement is fixed at 65, and the financial security of older people is guaranteed by the state. As the results showed, in both cultures the gap between chronological age and the age one feels, widens as one grows older. Further, the greater the gap, the higher one’s self-esteem. However, there was a stronger relationship between the self-enhancing functions of a youthful age identity in the U. S. – where being “young” helps one thrive in a competitive, capitalist system – than in The Netherlands. The researchers suggest that being youthful is related to the type of welfare system each country has and the clear-cut designation of “retiree” in The Netherlands. For the Dutch, it is difficult to lie about one’s age, even to oneself. If we in American feel as if we are 10 or 15 years younger than the birthday calendar says, it is not a strange or pathological quirk. It is not only normal, it is a sign of positive aging. From: The Aging Self in a Cultural Context: The Relation of Conceptions of Aging to Identity Processes and Self-esteem in the United State and The Netherlands by Gerben J. Westerhof, Susan K. Whitbourne, & Gillian P. Freeman. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B. Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 2012, 67, 52-60.


Making Retirement a Creative Event
A commentary by Ryan Fehr in a recent issue of the American Psychologist challenges the contention that retirement is necessarily a stressful life transition that requires various resources to overcome the associated anxiety. Dr. Fehr suggests that retirement can also be an energizing and fulfilling experience. He points out that people who tend to live creatively may well find retiring an exhilarating adventure. Past research indicates that people who prefer novelty, who have wide experience in the world, and who are pretty confident that they can cope with new experiences will tend to switch tasks, jobs, and careers with relative frequency and ease over the life-span. Various studies from organizational psychology indicate that people who score high on the personality trait of “Openness to Experience” are more likely to change jobs. The implications for retirement are that, provided people can draw from their creative resources, retirement can provide opportunities to enhance their lives and enrich meaning; it may enable one to embrace new, energizing life roles. Fehr suggests that leaders in the workplace can provide mentorship in this regard. “Organizations can actively shift prevailing attitudes toward retirement, replacing negative frames of stress and loss with more positive frames that emphasize gain, excitement, and self-actualization.” (pg.77). From: Is Retirement always Stressful? The Potential Impact of Creativity by Ryan Fehr. American Psychologist, January, 2012, 76-77.

Baby Boomers: “Us, aging? Who says?”
For the tenth year, the adult housing development corporation Del Webb has published the results of their survey of people, 50 plus in years. Most interesting were the results from the responses of “the baby boomers,” those born between 1946 and 1964. This population tends to regard itself as physically and mentally fit, and “age” as a mere number. Their attitudes are different from previous generations, who were more likely to accept that life would be different and difficult for them, now that they were of “a certain age.” When asked why they feel younger than their chronological age, their general responses had to do with being healthy, being happy, and having a sense of humor about it all. Some of the major findings from the study:
• Participants said that old age begins at 80.
• Over 50% exercise, and the majority feel they are in better shape now than when they were younger.
• Over 70% say they will continue working in some capacity post-retirement.
• They see the secret to aging successfully is having new hobbies and multiple interests.

Is there a down-side? Yes, in the sense that the younger boomers say they will need more money than the older ones said they needed. From: Baby Boomers: “Us, aging? Who says?” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 19, 2012, R7.

Wisdom from Aaron Beck at 90
One of the most well-known psychologists in the world is Aaron Beck. His most important legacy has been formulating a theory of cognitive therapy and helping to promote its use throughout the world. He has recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and is now focusing his attention on helping people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Rarely has there been much success in treating those suffering from schizophrenia with any form of “talk” therapy. Beck is publishing a paper that summarizes the effects of cognitive therapy on a group of patients. As a result of the therapy, these people have improved their capacities to function in the world and to reduce the delusions that often hinder their lives. This therapy is based on the notion that how we think influenced how we feel. Good thoughts lead to good feelings, and the reverse is also true. Asked how he avoids negativity in his thinking, he said, “I try to keep things in perspective. I don’t get as ruffled as I might because I ask myself: Is it fatal? Is it the end of the world?” Although he has some limiting infirmities, he rises at 6 each morning and warms up his body with stretching and balancing exercises. Later in the day he rides a stationery bike for 30 minutes. In the evenings he often watches movies with his wife, Phyllis, a retired judge. They have an active social life with a lively circle of friends. Beck enjoys his iPad and iPhone and loves a video game called Angry Birds. Reading and listening to books on tape are favorite activities.
Asked about his tips for others as to living a long and happy life, he offered these comments:
• Keep things in perspective.
• Try to turn disadvantages into advantages.
• Don’t let work get in the way of relationships.

As for his birthday, and the possibility of retiring, “It’s not a concept that crosses my mind because I’m happy with what I am doing and there’s no need to retire.” “90 is the new 70.” From: Professor Beck at 90: Not the Retiring Type by Art Carney. Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 2011, B 03.

Betty White: Facing Age with a Saucy Wink
Celebrating her 89th birthday last January, Betty White is having what in her eyes is the career of a lifetime. She currently stars in “Hot in Cleveland” a tv hit, now in its third season. She has a new book, “If you ask me (and of course you won’t)” and another upcoming. When asked about her recent popularity, Ms. White seems baffled, but others who work with her have their own ideas. She is a workaholic, they say, and she replies, “I’ve long since given up trying to get over that.” She is very independent, and takes care of herself without much help. Her co-star, Wendie Malick, describes her as “truly a Midwestern…who was taught to take care of herself, show up on time, and do it with the best attitude.” Although she has had no children, her maternal love has been spent on countless animals who have been in her life, including the ones in the zoo. Despite all her special connections with others, she misses having someone to hold. The “love of her life”, third husband, Allen Ludden, died in 1981, and she has not had a fourth. “Animal lover that I am,” she wrote, “a cougar I am not.” From: Facing Age with a Saucy Wink by Frank Bruni, NYTimes, May 1, 2011, Arts & Leisure, 1, 11.


Geriatric Care by Design: A Clinician’s Handbook to Meet the Needs of Older Adults Through Environmental and Practice Redesign edited by Audrey Chun, MD, with Joann G. Schwartzberg, MD and Cheryl Irmiter, PhD. The American Medical Association was kind enough to send us a copy of their handbook, designed primarily for physicians in order to improve their practices. However the book could be a valuable asset for any organization that has a client base of older people, including educational institutions, governmental agencies, and businesses of all types. Further, there are many ideas that could be used by both the elderly themselves, or family members with whom they live. One important section of the book discusses how to make offices and buildings easier, safer, and more convenient and comfortable for older patients to use. Discussions focus on such problems as uneven walking surfaces, high curbs, low light levels, unsafe stairs, inaccessible furniture, low glass tables, and background noise, and how to improve these features of the physical environment. Design features such as lighting, colors, color contrasts, and patterns are all described, along with suggestions for helping to make spaces more useable and comfortable. Various chapters present case studies indicating how various facilities were redesigned to facilitate the work of the staff and the comfort of the patients. Besides the actual physical changes in the facility, attention is given to improving communication among staff and patients, improving forms, dealing with transportation issues, the coordination of care, and the role of the family caregiver. Health literacy and patient self-management are also included. A final chapter deals with culturally effective care and health disparity. For a short time, the hard copy is available for those who would like to use it for educational purposes at generitriccarebydesign@ama-assn.org It is also sold as an ebook.


Terra Nova Films, premier provider of films on aging, has some outstanding films and DVDs of interest:

• “Positive Images of Aging” (14 video segments, each 3-5 minutes in length)
• “No Age Limit: Creativity and Aging” (includes a section on Gene Cohen and his work)
• “Grow Old Along with Me: The Poetry of Aging”
• “I remember Better When I Paint” (Treating Alzheimer’s through the Creative Arts).
• “Art Collection: Exploration of People with Dementia Expressing Themselves Creatively”

For more details on these and other materials, visit:


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 info@encore.org.
All best,
Marc Freedman
Founder and CEO, Civic Ventures Author, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife


Judith Zausner writes:
Thank you for mentioning my 2 Creativity Matters blog articles on new age communities. I have recently published 2 articles on age friendly cities which is an interesting local as well as global initiative. It holds critical importance to all of us. Here are the links:


Thanks and best,
Judith Zausner
Caring Crafts, Inc. www.caringcrafts.com

Stefanie Weiss writes:
Dear Mary,
If you’re wondering how to figure out what’s next in your life, take three minutes and watch this clip from Emmy-award winning journalist Jane Pauley. http://youtu.be/Q1_k0-zHJvQ I love the way she explains her own encore career as host of “Your Life Calling” on NBC’s TODAY Show, then zeroes in on the myth of reinvention, suggests the best way to get started on your encore, and summarizes the potential for a growing encore movement for the greater good.
All best,
Stef Stefanie Weiss Vice President for Communications
Civic Ventures, Encore.org

We share an excerpt from Krishna Gautam’s letter from Nepal:
Dear Mary Gergen,
Thank you for the Positive Aging Newsletter. It was wonderful to see different sets of people in different parts of the world doing similar things for similar reason. Once more a realization that the god created us all equal, rather, the same.
This was the first time that I got opportunity (for our own doing we have made the time so scarce a resource for ourselves, though the god gave us plenty !) to read the whole text of November/December, 2011 issue and feel proud of having done so. Wonderful work, more so for its intentions – wishing people good healthy life, only mothers do for their children….
Best Regards
Krishna M. Gautam
Founder Chairperson
Our portal: ageingpost.com

Howard writes:
Hi Mary,
Marika and I have now banned our iPhones from the dinner table, and from tea breaks. We are talking to each other again!

Second, 2young2retire is now owned and run by Paul Ward. He can be reached at paul@2young2retire.com . We are now on to our next encore careers. Marika expanding yoga teaching classes, and I’m entertaining elders at assisting living and geriatric centers here in South Florida.
Warm regards,


October 9-12, 2012: The 19th International Congress on Palliative Care, Palais des Congrès in Montréal, Canada. This biennial Congress has grown to become one of the premier international events in palliative care. Deadline for Poster Submissions: May 31, 2012.
www.palliativecare.ca/pdf/Pal_PrelEng2012.pdf to view the Preliminary Programme.

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May 14, 2012 12:00 am