2012 July/August

PDF version of the 2012 July/August Positive Aging Newsletter to download: Issue 75 July/August 2012


July/August, 2012

Issue No 75

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

In this issue:


Dog Days, With a Bone
Mary and I spend a great deal of time searching for good materials for this newsletter. We prize anything we can find that helps to construct the last third of life as a period of unprecedented growth and enrichment. Yet, we also know that aging is not easy, “not for sissy’s” as the popular poster reads. Positive aging, then, lies in the approach we take to our lives, and the challenge is in actually approaching life in this way. So often, it simply doesn’t seem realistic. What’s so positive about illness, the loss of capacities, loneliness, and so on? Well, in this past month I had an opportunity to directly confront the beast.

It was mid-August, and time for vacationing at the shore with the family – swimming, tennis, golf, long walks on the beach, excursions with the grandchildren, and all the rest. However, just days before the anticipated holiday, while playing tennis with friends, I leaped forward for a ball that dribbled over the net, and rip! My Achilles was nearly shorn in two. There was first the searing pain, and then the long dull pain, followed by the pain produced by trying to walk in the large boot/cast that was to be my companion for the next six weeks. There was to be no vacation, as I would be confined to a chair, with long periods of lying prone with my leg hoisted in the air. Hot, humid, dull, dog days.

So, these were the cruel facts; a “positive approach” indeed! Or, at least, so it felt for a time. But there is in the mediation world a concept of “double listening.” This means, one should pay attention not only to the dominant story a client is relating, but to subtle signals that there is a second, and untold story lying behind. I soon began to find my own signs of an untold story behind the obvious tale of misery. There was first the fact that the confinement to my desk meant that the staggering stack of demands that colored my daily life with guilt was now dwindling. I could welcome a certain lightness of heart. And, lying there on the bed, foot propped in the air, I began digging into several books I had longed to read. Within days, I realized that I was entering a period of significant calm, a lovely feeling of balanced centeredness that a family vacation could never offer. There were also the more guilty pleasures of being relieved from household duties, finding people waiting on me, and being ushered to the head of lines. But each day, if I am prepared to listen, there are positive voices there to be heard, voices that lead me into new and nourishing spaces of being.
Should I plan now for an annual injury to replace the normal vacation? No, but I have acquired some valuable resources for supplementing the dog days with a delicious bone.

Kenneth Gergen


Believe in Your Future
If you think you may live a long time, you may indeed be contributing to your longevity. At least one reason is that you may be motivated to keep yourself in shape for the journey. Consider physical exercise, for example. Although it is a popular mantra that physical activity is a key to healthy living, participation in physical activity remains low. More than half of U. S. adults do not regularly engage in physical activities and one quarter are defined as sedentary. We see this in our own circle of friends. Our friend, Vera, at 95, feels no compunction to exercise, and her interest in moving around is low. As a result, she has a lot of trouble going from place to place, and prefers to sit at home or in a car, as opposed to walking anywhere. She is perfectly happy with the situation. Reasonably, she does not think her life span is very long.

Researchers Sarah Stahl and Julie Patrick were interested in whether our thoughts about how long we have to live affects our desires to exercise. In this research study, 226 participants ranging in age from 20 to 88 were surveyed online. They were evaluated in terms of their age, sex, body mass (how fat they were), their sense of physical limitations and their future time perspective (how long they thought they would live.) As the results showed, people who thought they would live to an old age were more likely to report engaging in physical activities. Also interesting to us, chronological age was unrelated to exercise. Older people were no more or less likely to exercise than the younger ones. Most importantly, thinking positively into the future seems to encourage one to engage in just the kind of healthy behavior that will take them there.

From: Adults’ Future Time Perspective Predicts Engagement in Physical Activity by S. T. Stahl & J. H. Patrick. The Journal of Gerontology. Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 67B, 2012, 413-416.

Joys of “Aging in Place”
“Aging in place” is a term used by researchers and policy makers to describe conditions in which older people remain in their homes instead of moving to a residential institution, where they are part of a larger community of older people. Generally the meaning of the phrase is restricted to the actual structure of a house or apartment, and there are no emotional or practical aspects of community involved. From a social policy perspective, it is cheaper to have people remain in their own homes, and so there is general agreement that it is a “win-win” deal if people do continue to live where they have been for a long time, and they like it.

In this research, the effort was to discover what older people had to say about aging in place. What do they understand as the significant aspects of remaining in their homes, and what do they value about it? The research was done in two communities in New Zealand. Over one hundred people ages 56 to 92 were brought together in small focus groups and in interviews to discuss “What is the ideal place to grow older?” In general, the most important aspects of an ideal place were psychological in nature. Staying put is desired because of a sense of attachment and connection one has established. There is a feeling of security that is related to being familiar to others outside one’s home. People feel they are known and have value to others, highly important in maintaining a sense of identity. There are also warm and caring relations maintained by staying in one’s place. In addition, people know how to get around in the familiar setting. They know where the bank, drug store, grocery store, and medical offices are. They believe the police will come quickly if they are in trouble. This sense of locatedness reduces anxiety and allows for habits developed over decades to persist.

Regardless of where they lived, participants emphasized the “safe, socially vibrant active communities” in which they resided. Although the statistics about crime and other deteriorating conditions were available for them to consider, the residents did not focus on the negative aspects of their own neighborhoods, but on the positives.

From: The Meaning of “Aging in Place” to Older People by J. L. Wiles, A. Leibing, N. Guberman, J. Reeve, & R. E. S. Allen. The Gerontologist,2012, 52, 357-366.


Breaking the Stereotypes of Aging
The negative stereotypes of aging continue to circulate in society, and worse still, we come to believe them. Because they are accepted as true, they become prophetic. And yet, so often research gives us good reason to reject these stereotypes. Consider first, various research studies of cognitive capacities and aging. As we age, what do we lose in terms of mental acuity? A University of Illinois study of air traffic controllers found that the older controllers were more proficient at their extremely difficult jobs than younger ones, despite some losses in short term memory and visual spatial processing. They excelled at navigating, juggling multiple aircraft simultaneously, and avoiding collisions. In other words, despite their deficits, older traffic controllers were better at their jobs than younger ones.

In another area, social relations, older people also excelled. Researchers at the University of Michigan presented “Dear Abby” advice-seeking letters to 200 people and asked what advice they would give to the writer. Subjects in their 60’s were rated as better than younger advisors because they were more able to imagine different points of view, think of multiple resolutions, and suggest compromises.

As we have reported previously, older people are more able to manage their emotions than younger ones. A German research team had people play a gambling game meant to induce regret. Compared with the 20 year olds, 60 year olds didn’t agonize over losing and they were less likely to try to redeem their losses by later taking bigger risks. Although more balanced, people over 50 reported in a telephone survey done at Stony Brook University that they were happier than younger people, less stressed, and much less angry than younger folks. Other studies indicate that the negative emotions, such as sadness, anger and fear become less pronounced as we age.

As Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer and co-workers wrote in 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, older people tend to say things such as, “I wish I’d learned to enjoy life on a daily basis and enjoy the moment when I was in my 30’s instead of my 60’s.” This research and many other studies agree that the stereotype of the sad old person is truly misguided.

From: Wise Up by Helen Fields. Smithsonian Magazine, July-August, 2012, pg. 12

Risk and Renewing of Zest
Writer Ken Budd suggests that the key to a healthier, happier you is to do some things that take you out of your daily routines, your usual pleasures, and your “comfort zone.” Often, after 50, people reduce the amount of risky behaviors they want to engage in. Frequently the result is that boredom sets in. Life is safe, but dull. Without any challenges, people often turn to activities that are not very healthy, such as smoking and drinking too much, and finding a comfy spot on the couch.

Budd recommends that you consider ways of challenging yourself in any arena of life. The advice to get outside your comfort zone is not a request that you run with the bulls in Pamplona. It doesn’t have to be a challenge that puts you in harm’s way. What is important is to become actively engaged with people and ideas in a way that gets you on your toes. New experiences help breathe vitality into your life, and this often leads to exhilarating feelings of joy.

For long term marital partners, the danger of becoming stuck in old patterns that have been satisfying in the past is ever-present. Having the kids over for Sunday evening supper may be satisfying, but after 15 years it becomes less so. Changing the time to a brunch followed by afternoon games lends a new luster to family life, as does a Sunday apart. It may be hard to see comfortable patterns as the enemy of a good marriage, but with an occasional upsetting of the routine, new excitement can be found.

Budd also recommends becoming a novice at something. Learn a new language, visit a new place, take up a new sport... be willing to put yourself into a position of being a rank amateur. The fear of failing or making a mistake is something we have learned to avoid; instead, being willing to fail leads to new powers and potential pleasures.

One of the benefits of doing novel things is that the neural pathways in the brain are reconfigured. New connections are made, which makes you more able to think and act in new ways. Taking tango lessons, for example, allows your body to acquire new physical moves and new orientations to your dance partner and the floor.

As author Rick Foster said, “The more I say yes, the more variety there is in my life. I force myself to say yes because ... health [is] directly tied to novelty and change. Every time I’ve said yes, it’s paid off.”

From: New Adventures, New Risks, New You, by Ken Budd. AARP The Magazine, June/July, 2012, 60-63.

Senior Transportation Innovation in Florida

At the University of Florida a model innovation to support senior mobility has been launched. The university’s Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation has developed the Florida Senior Safety Resource Center, a database containing over 800 transportation services. This up-to-date and user-directed information for seniors or persons with disabilities addresses the need to find appropriate, acceptable and affordable transportation options within their local communities. These services range from highly organized to very flexible and provide various levels of assistance, throughout all of Florida’s 67 counties. To take a look at the outcomes, go to http://www.SafeandMobileSeniors.org/FindARide.htm.


A recommendation for friends and family, especially women with careers they love. Retiring but Not Shy: Feminist Psychologists Create their Post-Careers, edited by Ellen Cole and Mary Gergen, has been getting kudos from readers for its compelling personal stories. The book serves as a guide for those who are considering retirement, whether they look forward to it or not. Find the book or the e-book version at www.TaosInstitute.net/publications
or online at your favorite store.

From the Second-Half of Life Blog of David Solie (www.davidsolie.com/blog/, December 27, 2011:
I have begun working on a new project to create a “How To Say It” communication coaching book for elders. The goal will be to provide elders with insights and strategies for working with their adult children. Part of the work will be to educate elders about the development tasks of middle age, and, based on these tasks, which words and themes are the key to effective communication with their adult children. Part of the work will be to map out openings, scripts, and settings for conversations about the predictable dilemmas of aging, especially at the end of life. These prompts won’t make the choices any less painful or messy, but they will offer a perspective and context to start and sustain conversations, a critical starting point to engage dilemmas that are here to stay.

Mary Gergen’s comment: The other side of the task is helping younger generations speak to older ones. Healing Conversations Now by Joan Chadbourne and Tony Silbert, published last year by Taos Institute publications, emphasizes this approach. Clearly it is not a one-sided endeavor. Times have changed as more and more people choose to die at home or in hospices, with loved ones around them. How can the preferences and potentials for each generation be communicated and honored, mutually? That is at the heart of what needs to be exposed. Find it at www.TaosInstitute.net/publications


Lynn W. Huber writes:
I LOVED reading your lead article in the May/June issue (Who Laughs, Lasts); having just turned 70 (after working for 30 years in the field of aging and spirituality) it feels as though I am living what I have been teaching, and it's true!!! Your teasing out the dimensions, and your delicious examples of each, somehow touched me deeply and encouraged me in living this all out.
Blessings and peace


Sept. 26-28 Ageing and Spirituality: Linking the Generations. Canberra, Australia. Conference focuses on baby boomer and intergenerational aging addressing themes of positive aging, palliative care and the lived experience of dementia and mental illness. For more information, please visit: http://www.centreforageing.org.au

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.
www.palliativecare.ca/pdf/Pal_PrelEng2012.pdf to view the Preliminary Programme.

November 14-18, 2012: Gerontological Society of America 65th Annual Scientific Meeting, San Diego Convention Center, CA. Registration now open.

Information for Readers

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