2012 March / April

PDF version of the 2012 March/April Positive Aging Newsletter to download: Issue 73 March/April 2012


March/April, 2012

Issue No 73

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:


Who Laughs, Lasts
We were recently struck by a line from the poet W.H. Auden, “Among those I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” For us this underscored the central importance of laughter in our lives, and in our relationships. Researchers have long touted the contribution of laughter to our physical and psychological well-being. As amply demonstrated, laughter improves respiration, lowers blood pressure, relaxes the muscles, improves brain functioning, and reduces pain. Many believe it also strengthens the immune system. And in laughing, tensions and anxieties are reduced, anger dissipates, and our disposition improves.

However, with Auden, we also see laughter as playing a central role in relationships themselves. We don’t feel that laugher is essential to love, but we do find ourselves drawn to those with whom we laugh. To laugh together is first, a sign of trust. To laugh with a person’s antics, is to support his or her parting with common convention. Laughing together is also a form of mutual play, one that allows us to reveal fuller personalities – as children, comedians, buffoons, pranksters, and the like. We have often found our way out of a brewing disagreement with a humorous aside.

Finally, we have written a great deal in this newsletter about the capacity to see events from many perspectives. While “growing old” is a drag; to see it as “growing wise” is a gift. Humor is a pivotal means of “seeing anew.” Humor is an escape from the prison of realism. The difference between a stumbling block and a stepping-stone may be a ready quip.

Ken and Mary Gergen


Social Bridging: High Scores for Women
Much research on social networks has championed the idea that having a close kin-friendship network is vital to a happy and active life as one ages. This is undoubtedly the case. However, such close ties also have their drawbacks; for example, in such networks there are strongly held norms, a resistance to outside ideas, and pressures to conform to the group’s expectations. To be lodged in a tight little group may foster rigidity and bring threats of boredom. The creative juices flow when there is challenge of new ideas, alternative ways of seeing the world, or new vistas are opened.

Benjamin Cornwell, a sociologist interested in social networks, has developed a way to measure the extent to which one is lodged within a single group, as opposed to participating in multiple groups. A person who is high in social “bridging” participates in multiple clusters of people. An individual who was a member of a family, and participated in a job, a religious group, a social club, a book club, and a friendship group in another state, for example, would be high in bridging capacity, in contrast to someone who participated in only one or two groups.

From a national sample of 3,000 older adults, Cornwell used a statistical analysis to compare older men’s and women’s bridging potential. There was reason to believe that women, being more family centered, might be lower in bridging than men. On the other hand, it has traditionally been the case that women are more engaged in the network of family and friends than their husbands. As the results of this study indicated, the latter view of the woman as more fully networked, is supported. Older women had richer and more varied social networks – more bridging options – than older men. Bridging capacities may be especially important when there is a death of a spouse. Such results suggest that men who have retired should not rest on their relational history, but should expand their social networks. The richness of life may depend on it.

From: Independence through Social Networks: Bridging Potential Among Older Women and Men by B. Cornwell, Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 2011, 66B, 782-793.

Appearance and Age
A prevalent stereotype of the aging is that people cease to care how they look. Since they are no longer interested in keeping up appearances, their clothing becomes dull and unkempt. Research by Doris Francis, a cultural anthropologist, destroys that stereotype. Francis studied the rituals of dress among 25 older women living in Santa Fe. She chose a group of women who had the financial resources to freely select how they wished to dress, and studied how these women dealt with their aging bodies in terms of clothing, shoes, make-up, and hair styling. For all the women she interviewed, comfort was the most important attribute of their daily choice of clothing. (No more binding clothes and pinching shoes.) Physical comfort was quite easy to establish; psychological comfort was more difficult to ascertain and to achieve.

Francis divided the women’s fashion styles into three groups. The Creative-Innovative group was characterized as seeking to wear interesting, colorful, eye-catching clothes and accessories. One might wish to be unique in one’s style, but at the same time fit into a group. A desire of these women was to not become invisible, which can be an issue for older women. Another group, Minimalist-Uniform, had narrowed down their choices of clothing to a few basic colors, especially black. Their ritual of dress is to appear consistent over time, to be uniform in a uniform. Often these women had found a “look” that they felt expressed their identity most clearly, and they stuck to it. The Easy-Casual style group tended to wear jeans and a t-shirt and to resist being pegged by their age. In fact, their appearance is similar to many younger people.

Francis concluded that older women do not lose interest in their appearance. Clothes create a visual image of the body about which they remain conscious. Women are ambivalent about their bodies and both accept their physical changes and resist them. Women’s rituals of dress demonstrate the two tasks of older years, to re-create and reaffirm identity and to accept the inevitability of biological aging. We applaud these words from Francis, “… old age can be a rich time for women as their positive performance of fashion challenges, resists, and rises above their stigmatized position of invisibility to create new images of positive aging.” These women demonstrate the way rituals of dress can be part of an on-going process of self-realization. As with other studies in this special issue of the journal on rituals, Francis concludes that “repetitive daily rituals of body and dress engender feelings of control, security, and individuation.”

From: Daily Rituals of Dress: Women Re-Creating Themselves Over Time by Doris Francis, Generations,_Journal of the American Society on Aging, Fall, 2011, 64-70.

Benefits of Not Feeling Your Age

What age 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. The typical 75 year old person, then, will say that they feel 60. At 25 years of age, 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 possible similarities and differences between the two samples. As reasoned, the U.S. is more individualistic, where the Netherlands emphasizes general welfare.

As the results showed, there were striking similarities in the countries: in both cases the gap between chronological age and the age one feels, widens as one grows older. Further, in both countries the greater the gap, the higher one’s self-esteem. However, in the U.S this relationship proved to be much stronger. Feeling that you are younger than your age is closely related to feeling good about yourself. This is much less the case in the Netherlands. Possibly in the latter case, people are less concerned about being judged by virtue of their age. The bottom line is that feeling as if one is 10 or 15 years younger than the birthday calendar says, 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.


Entrepreneurship: Territory for the Over 60s
When we think of an entrepreneur, don’t we imagine some brilliant college drop-out, creating the next technological invention in somebody’s garage? Images of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates come to mind. Yet, in contrast to this stereotype, the fact is that entrepreneurship is primarily the territory of the older generations. The Missouri based Kauffman Foundation, which compiles an annual index of Entrepreneurial Activity, discovered that people between 55-65 have started new businesses at a higher rate than any other age group, including the 20 year olds. Another survey by Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work found that 12% of all small business owners were over 60. Add in self-employed independents, and the total becomes 38%, far beyond that of other age groups.

A recent survey by Civic Ventures found that in the 45-70 age group, 25% expressed an interest in entrepreneurship. These people were called “Encore Entrepreneurs”. About half of these people said they wanted to create a non-profit that would address some pressing social issue. Thus, the spirit to create a new enterprise was not simply to earn more money, although that certainly is a motivating factor for many entrepreneurs. Older people are blessed with many advantages when it comes to starting a new enterprise. They have a broader range of skills and experiences, better judgment, more personal resources, more robust networks, and often fewer distractions.

Jeff Williams, founder of Bizstarters.com, which helps people start a new business, helps to allay fears of starting something up. “People don’t realize that many small businesses can now be started for about $5,000, and run on less than $300 a month. That reduces the risk that most people associate with business start-ups, and makes it a much more attractive option….Not everyone will hire you after age 50, but they’ll buy from you,”

From: Over-60 Entrepreneurship is Redefining Work by Doug Dickson, Aging Today, Newsletter of the American Society on Aging, March-April, 2012, pg. 11,14.

Retiring from Retiring: Bill Moyers
Bill Moyers, a well-known television talk show host, retired from his active career in journalism on his 70th birthday, ten years after open heart surgery. His retirement lasted one year. He retired again at 76, and that retirement also lasted one year. Currently he is working with his partner and wife, Judith, on Moyers & Company, a television series that will end in time for his 80th birthday. After that, he is not certain, but he is envisioning fulfilling a long held goal of doing a series on aging, and that may be his next post-retirement series, assuming he takes a break at 80. As Moyers says, “We’re fascinated by what science and experience are discovering about how to maintain high mental and physical ability as we grow older; how to reduce the risk of disease and disability; why attitude matters; and the importance of wonder, surprise and joy. “ We couldn’t agree more!

Taped to Moyer’s computer are the apt words of Tennyson, from his poem, “Ulysses,” which possibly sums up his views on life and aging:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end;

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life!

From: On Not Growing Old by Bill Moyers, AARP Bulletin, April, 2012, pg. 34


From Janis Bohan:
I thought your readers might be interested in another sort of approach to “positive aging.” For a while now, I’ve been writing a blog, “Retirement in the Mix,” that explores the variety of things that retirement can entail — volunteer work, leisure, continuing professional activities, family and friends, recreation and fitness, the happenstances of a day, the meanings we extract from everyday experiences … and on and on. Since I get to write this blog, it reflects my own interests, from wasps nests and a winter weekend at the Oregon coast through the lessons of volunteer gigs and psychology’s role in eugenics to the remarkable pace of the movement for LGBTQ rights, often with a bit of humor thrown in.

If you or your readers would like to check it out, it’s at retirementinthemix.blogspot.com

Readers (and comments) welcome!

A Note from Diana Meinhold:
I am a professional fiduciary. My clients are 75-91 years of age. Life indeed becomes quite serious for these individuals (and for me) because physical and/or mental issues and financial concerns often dictate a daily regimen of doctors’ appointments and fiscal uncertainty.

However, what I have started with my clients is “Friday Funday.” Since many doctors don’t even have office hours on Fridays or quit by noon, I don’t schedule appointments for my clients on Fridays. Instead we reserve that day for something that each client finds enjoyable–manicures, pedicures, walks at the beach, a favorite restaurant outing, a friendly visit or visitor, listening to Big Band or sacred music. So now my clients know they always have something “fun” to look forward to at the end of the week–that makes the needle sticks, the stethoscopes, dental whirring all somehow more tolerable and non-intrusive in their lives.

Now, if only yours truly could figure out how to enforce “Funday” for myself, all would be right with the world.

From the “Spirit” Newsletter, April, 2012, by Nancy Gordon, Director of California Lutheran Homes Center for Spirituality and Aging.


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. Deadline for Poster Submissions: May 31, 2012.
www.palliativecare.ca/pdf/Pal_PrelEng2012.pdf to view the Preliminary Programme.

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May 15, 2012 12:00 am