2013 May/June

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May/June, 2013

Issue No. 80

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)

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Issue No. 80
May/June, 2013



Miraculous Awakening
We thank Brian McCaffrey for sending one of the most unsettling and inspiring videos to cross our desks in some time. In the first few moments, we found the video difficult to watch. We are exposed to an aged and nearly toothless woman, Gladys Wilson, who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Beyond some primitive bodily movements, Gladys cannot communicate; she seems lost in a fog, completely unavailable to others. Enter Naomi Feil, a diminutive, older woman, who practices what she calls validation therapy. She approaches Gladys with a kind voice and gentle touch. Slowly, through a combination of touching, singing, and coordinating movements, Gladys begins to respond. With continued patience and a caring dedication to being “with” Gladys, Gladys suddenly begins to sing. She holds onto Naomi and pulls her closer; their faces are now touching. And slowly, very slowly, Gladys begins to speak; she and Naomi are now conversing. It’s almost like watching someone emerging from the dead.

We were moved by this video in several ways. On a general level, it suggested that while scientific research may be good in specifying the nature of various infirmities, our response to these infirmities may require a great deal of imaginative ingenuity. There is nothing about Gladys’ brain scans from which Naomi could draw inspiration. Her ingenuity fed from the wellsprings of cultural wisdom. Closer to issues in positive aging, we found in this case a poetic analogue. There is a way in which the work-a-day world of adult life can be brain deadening. That is, the continuing routines and requirements of adult life have a way of narrowing one’s capacities to respond to the world. One comes to feel that his or her personality has congealed, that he or she is deeply and rightfully a “certain kind of a person.” The range of tastes, appreciations, and curiosities is reduced; certain persons or activities cease to matter.

As we see it, this is a dangerous attitude with which to enter the retirement years. With fewer work or family demands, one is left with the potentially deadening sense of a fixed and final way to be in the world. And, it is not so easy to simply pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps; how can one imagine oneself being other than who one truly is? We erect comfortable walls between us and our possibilities. So perhaps one should be on the look-out for the Naomi Feil’s of everyday life, those people who may remind us of our “singing selves,” who may inspire new and invigorating dialogues. Or, what about playing out a form of Naomi Feil’s validation therapy with others who seem to languish in the world. Our mutuality of touch, and song, and voice may yield mutual freedom from solitary confinements.

Ken and Mary Gergen

Reference: Be sure to watch Gladys Wilson and Naomi Feil – YouTube


Self-Compassion: A Resource for Positive Aging
We all are familiar with the value of compassion as extended to others. How often do we consider how compassionate we are to ourselves? These researchers were interested in how self-compassion might influence how positively we feel about life in the later years.

There are various definitions of self-compassion, most of which emphasize feelings of care, acceptance, and kindness towards oneself, especially when dealing with difficult situations. The opposite of self-compassion is self-judgment, in which one is highly critical of oneself.

The participants in the study were 185 adults, aged 65 and older. They completed several self-report measures, including one called the Self-Compassion Scale. The scale included items such as: “When times are really difficult, I tend to be tough on myself.” Other measures included the “Meaning in Life” questionnaire, with items such as: “My life has a clear sense of purpose”; and the Ego Integrity scale derived from the life stages work of Erik Erikson, with items such as “I am proud of what I’ve done.” Each participant also filled out a 20 item scale on emotions, indicating how much they had felt each of 10 positive and negative emotions during the past year. The items consisted of such opposites as excited vs. upset.

As the results showed, there was a high correlation between self-compassion and other indicators of well-being. People who were high in self-compassion were found to be high in feelings of well-being, as well as in ego integrity, and meaning in life. Those who were self-critical, were more likely to experience negative emotions, were fixated on adverse experiences, and felt alone in their suffering.

The researchers suggest that self-compassion can be modified. Treatment plans for increasing this dimension are usually aimed at one facet of self-compassion, such as self-kindness, self-judgment, or mindfulness. Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been found to increase self-compassion and well-being among younger adults, and could well be helpful for older people as well. Then, again, attempts to treat oneself with more loving care can begin at home, at any time!

From: Self-Compassion: A Resource for Positive Aging by Wendy J. Phillips & Susan J. Ferguson. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 2013, 688, 529-539

Sweden’s Support for its Older Citizens
When looking at global issues regarding aging, we often turn to Sweden as the ultimate in government involvement in the well-being of their citizens. In this article, researchers compared the U. S. and Swedish services to older people. The U.S. is characterized by a mixed group of local, regional and governmental programs. Much is left to the individuals and their families to sort out care options for older members, often at high financial costs. It is of interest, then, to compare local support systems with those of Sweden:

In terms of nutrition, all Swedish municipalities offer home-delivered meals for those who cannot provide for themselves. They also offer meals at adult daycare centers. People pay for these. In Stockholm, the cost of a daily lunch, plus two hours of homecare per month, costs a maximum of $50 a month. Government agencies subsidize costs that exceed the maximum required of citizens.

Transportation: Public and special transport services are 100% accessible. In various modes, special provisions are made for older people and others who cannot manage ordinary forms of transit. For example, some busses are small, and have low floors. These are provided free, also for any traveling companion who provides assistance to someone. Some forms of transportation have costs, but they are minimal.

Help at Home: Together with the clients, help needs are assessed. Costs are also figured, depending on income. In Stockholm, the maximum cost to an elder for home health services used 3-5 times per week is about $128 per month. Informal caregivers, including family, also receive direct support and salaries. All caregivers get four hours of respite per week, as well as access to counseling, support groups and training.

The Swedish system guarantees the fulfillment of the goals for their older citizens through a highly involved system of services. The U. S. system is much less reliable in how it cares for older people. Comparisons such as these may be a source for political action.

From: Considering Quality of Life for Older Adults: A View from Two Countries by Susan M. Collins, Robbyn R. Wacker, and Karen A. Roberto. Generations, Journal of the American Society on Aging, Spring, 2013, 80-86.

Self-Compassion: A Resource for Positive Aging


From the Web: Gymnastics at Age 86

Five Reasons to Look Forward to Aging
As we age, we do experiences changes and losses. But at the same time, there is much that we gain. Consumer Reports suggests these are the five top good things about aging.

  1. Negative emotions decline as people age.
    According to a Gallup telephone survey of more than 340,000 people in the U. S., people in their 70’s and 80’s report being troubled by negative emotions less than any other age group. Feelings of stress are at their peek at age 25, and drop rapidly from 60 to 73. Worry, which remains fairly high from 21 to 51, slumps at the same time. Anger is on a steady decline from age 21 to 85. Also happiness and well-being grow in the later years, as the negativity declines.
  2. Wisdom Grows
    In a study by researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Texas, subjects age 25 to 93 were asked to pass judgment on the outcomes of fictional reports of political disputes. Experts evaluated the answers on six dimensions. These included the ability to see other points of view, the likelihood of change, the many ways a conflict might unfold, the uncertainty and limits of knowledge and the possibilities for conflict resolution and compromise. Significantly more older people ranked in the top 20% on wisdom performance. People, average age of 65, outperformed younger participants. Wisdom does not seem to decline as do some other capabilities, such as memory and processing of new information.
  3. Marriages Get Better
    Married older people report greater satisfaction and more positive experiences with their mates than younger couples do, even when they quarrel, as reported in research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. During arguments older spouses show more positive emotions and affection than middle aged couples. Happily married older people also report better health, quality of life, better ties with their children and closer friendships.
  4. Positive Social Relationships Grow with Age
    Having satisfying social relationships is important for all ages; older people tend to have fewer connections than younger ones, but they also have closer relationships with family and friends, which are rated as highly satisfying. Other forms of social connectedness are also important. For example, volunteering is helpful to the helping person, as well as to the helped, maybe more so. A study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University recorded the altruistic attitudes and deeds of 1,000 people age 72 and higher at a Florida retirement community. They found that volunteering was the most consistent predictor of cognitive well-being. Having altruistic attitudes also contributes to mental health in later life, according to a recent study in the Journal of Aging and Health.
  5. Happiness Increases
    Researchers at Stanford University followed the emotional health of 184 adults from 18-94 for 10 years. During three periods, these people reported their emotional states at 5 randomly selected times each day for a week. Various analyses indicated that aging is associated with more positive emotional well-being, and with more emotional complexity (a greater co-occurrence of positive and negative emotions). The older the participants, the happier they were. Those people who experienced more positive than negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived over a 13 year period.

    A director of the New England Centenarian Study of people 100 years and older, Thomas T. Perls said, “Being happy and content … is an important factor for most people in terms of their sense of well-being and even risk for various diseases.” Happy people tend to live longer, in better health.

From: 5 Good Things about Aging. Consumer Reports on Health, 2013, 25, pgs. 1, 4.

Home Sharing in the New Economy
In these economic times, home owning is a major expense. It can be especially burdensome if living alone. How does one have a home and yet not go broke? The answer may be to share one’s home with others. This idea has gained ground recently, as older women, especially, have found home sharing to be an ideal solution to their living dilemmas. Not only is it possible to cut one’s costs for housing by at least a half, but one also gains helpful partners and friends in the bargain.

One example of a successful joint living arrangement involved women who knew each other from church, but were not close friends. Each was in her 50’s, was divorced, and had an active career. They decided to pool their resources and buy a house together. After conferring with lawyers, accountants and financial planners the three took out a mortgage on a 5 bedroom $400,000 Colonial in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Although they share much of the house in common, each has a private domain. One has the third floor bedroom, bathroom and office; another has the same arrangement on the second floor, and the third has the master bedroom suite. Each month they deposit the same amount into their joint checking account to pay for mortgage, utilities, property taxes and repairs. They each contribute a $100 gift card for buying and sharing groceries. If someone entertains, the cost is paid separately. After nine years, they continue to appreciate the value of living together, and have written a book about it: My Hous,

Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household. Besides the financial benefits, each appreciates the others as close friends, and also helpers if emergencies arise.

The idea of house sharing has been spreading across the country. In Sarasota, Florida an organization called “Living in Community Network” helps people find potential housemates. In Portland, Oregon, the online service “Let’s Share Housing” provides a list of people who are interested in sharing a home. In Vermont there is a service called “Home Share Now.” A majority of those who explore these options are boomer women. Divorce and widowhood, having no children nearby, and being on limited budgets all encourage women to seek this option. They are also interested in finding others with whom they want to share a living space. Being alone, in itself, is a mixed blessing, and having some company at home is far preferable.

There are drawbacks, and living together involves compromises. Problems usually occur over household chores, pets, cleanliness, noise, guests or unexpected financial costs. If issues are worked out in advance, with written agreements, life can run smoothly. A plan for dissolving partnerships is also necessary as changes in health status, for example, might require that a partner move out. Agreeing on how to find a new housemate is also an important task. Still it is a movement on the cusp of exploding as more people realize its benefits.

From: Sharing Home Sweet Home by Sally Abrahms, AARP Bulletin, June, 2013.


Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, by George Vaillant. Harvard University Press, 2012.
At a time when many people around the world are living into their tenth decade, the longest longitudinal study of human development ever undertaken offers some welcome news for the new old age: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days. The now-classic Adaptation to Life reported on the men’s lives up to age 55 and helped us understand adult maturation. Now George Vaillant follows the men into their nineties, documenting for the first time what it is like to flourish far beyond conventional retirement.

Reporting on all aspects of male life, including relationships, politics and religion, coping strategies, and alcohol use (its abuse being by far the greatest disruptor of health and happiness for the study’s subjects), Triumphs of Experience shares a number of surprising findings. For example, the people who do well in old age did not necessarily do so well in midlife, and vice versa. While the study confirms that recovery from a lousy childhood is possible, memories of a happy childhood are a lifelong source of strength. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, and physical aging after 80 is determined less by heredity than by habits formed prior to age 50. The credit for growing old with grace and vitality, it seems, goes more to ourselves than to our stellar genetic makeup.

As Vaillant says, “If you stay healthy, 90 can be a lot of fun.”
(From the Harvard University Press.)


From Georgie Bright Kunkel

I am turning 93 in August and am hosting my Bright family reunion, expecting about 30 relatives to attend. I have been dating for about two years and we are experiencing the aging process together. My fellow is 2 1/2 years younger than I, however. I joke about it and say, “After all, all the men my age are dead.”

I still dance once a week, swim at least two times a week, do public speaking at least once a month, read poetry at the local coffee house, write a column each week for the local paper, get together with my family and my fellow’s family often, play solitaire before going to bed each night, play pinochle often, visit with my city neighbors often, stay involved in my political organizations, attend church and am now marketing a book that my late husband and I wrote together.

My website will soon be ready and that will help in marketing my book. I recently appeared on the Seattle Antiques Road Show on public television. Later today I will meet with a newfound relative that just researched her heritage and found me. Our prolific Bright family tree will now have another leaf.

Cheers, Georgie Bright


July 31 – August 4, 2013: American Psychological Association Meetings, Honolulu, Hawaii

November 20-24, 2013: Gerontological Society of American Annual Scientific Meeting: Optimal Aging Through Research. New Orleans. Geron.org

February 27-March 2, 2014: Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. 40th Annual Meeting & Educational Leadership Conference. Denver, CO. aaghe.org/am

March 11-15, 2014: American Society on Aging 60th Anniversary. San Diego, CA. www.asaging.org/aia

Information for Readers

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