2013 Nov/Dec

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November/December, 2013

Issue No 83

The Positive Aging Newsletter by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Sponsored by the Taos Institute (www.taosinstitute.net)

Wall Street Journal



Renewing the Vision

It is our tradition to periodically review again the central mission of this newsletter, thus clarifying as well what you may anticipate and how you may participate as readers. Since its inception ten years ago, the readership of the newsletter has expanded at a rapid rate - now reaching thousands of subscribers and translated into five languages. Subscribers include gerontologists, health related researchers, therapeutic practitioners, service providers for the elderly, and interested laypersons. Many new readers of the newsletter may be especially curious about the orientation guiding the selection of content.

Our primary aim is to bring to light resources - from research, professional practice, and daily life - that contribute to an appreciation of the aging process. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline, we strive to create a vision of life in which aging is an unprecedented period of human enrichment. Such a revolution vitally depends on the communities of research and professional practices that focus on adult populations, especially people over 50. It is within these communities that new ideas, insights, factual support, and practices of growth enhancement can congenially emerge. By focusing on the developmental aspects of aging, and the availability of relevant resources, skills, and resiliencies, research not only brings useful insights into the realm of practice, but creates hope and empowers action among older people. By moving beyond practices of repair and prevention, to emphasize growth-enhancing activities, practitioners also contribute to the societal reconstruction of aging.

Reader contributions to the Newsletter are most welcome. If you have writings or practices that you feel would be especially interesting to subscribers of the Newsletter, you are invited to share them in future issues. We also review selected books and films, and carry announcements of relevant conferences and workshops. Please send your suggestions to Mary Gergen at [email protected]

All past issues of the Newsletter are archived at: www.positiveaging.net

To reintroduce ourselves, Kenneth Gergen is a Senior Research Professor at Swarthmore College, and Mary is a Professor Emerita at Penn State University, Brandywine . Ken and Mary both serve on the Executive Board of the Taos Institute, a non-profit organization working at the intersection of social constructionist theory and societal practice. Each has a long history of engagement with gerontological inquiry and therapeutic practice.

We hope you will join us in the present endeavor,
Ken and Mary Gergen


Good News for Those Taking Care of Grandchildren

Throughout the world most grandparents share in the care for their grandchildren. For some, it may be casual babysitting from time to time, and for others, it may be a fulltime, live-in commitment. Although caretaking is often regarded as a negative or debilitating occupation in the U. S., it is not clear, either in Western countries or in other areas of the world, what effects caregiving has on grandparents.

This study focused on grandparents aged 50 and above who had various commitments to caring for grandchildren. They were part of a massive 10-year long study of aging in Taiwan. The result are illuminating.
Compared to non-care givers, caregiving grandparents seemed to be enhanced by their service to their grandchildren. Overall, these grandparents rated themselves as in better health, had higher life satisfactions and less depression. The longer one was caretaking, the higher the life satisfactions. Another plus for the caretakers was that they seemed to have greater physical mobility over time than those who were not chasing after kids on a frequent basis.

In research reported from other countries, similar findings have been reported. In Chile, for example, helping grandchildren has been found to be beneficial for the mental health of grandparents. In the U.S. one study indicated that grandmothers who care for their grandkids rated themselves as having better health than those who did not. Another study by Hughes and colleagues (2007) also found more physical mobility among grandmothers who babysat 200-500 hours a year than those whose sitting was less frequent or non-existent. Without anyone considering it exercise, the kids are keeping grandma on her toes, all to her benefit in the long run.

From: Impact of Caring for Grandchildren on the Health of Grandparents in Taiwan by Li-Jung E. Ku, Sally C. Stearns, Courtney H. Van Houtven, Shoou-Yih D. Lee, Peggye Dilworth-Anderson & Thomas R. Konrad. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 2013, 68, 1009-1021.

Reference: Hughes, M.E., Waite, L. J., LaPierre, T. A., & Luo, Y (2007). All in the family: The impact of caring for grandchildren on grandparents’ health. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B. Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 62, S108-S119.

Enjoying Life after 100
Although living to 100 is a difficult accomplishment, there is much to be learned from those who do. And, as gerontologists inform us, with physical activity, productive lifestyles and social relations our chances improve greatly. In fact, it is estimated that over 53,000 people in the U. S. alone have reached the 100 mark. So, what can we learn from the current centenarians?

A research study in Heidelberg, Germany has found that a positive outlook on life characterizes most of this group. To be sure, many feel frustrated with health-related issues, but mostly these limits do not make them depressed. Interestingly, these findings parallel earlier research we have reported in this Newsletter, indicating that a positive outlook correlates highly with longevity.

Men only make up 17% of the centenarians, but they tend to be in better physical health, and claim to feel happier than women do. They seem to enjoy the fact that they have beaten out the other guys. Women are more likely to report that their health is not great, but they live longer, and they also test better for cognitive capacities. They may be smarter, but not happier than men.

In looking back on life’s most significant events, marriage stands out for the Americans. For Japanese, historical events, such as an earthquake, World War II, or some other tragedy is number 1. Interestingly, mentioning marriage as of the highest importance, is positively associated with good mental health. Such people have lower rates of depression and neuroticism, and tend to be more extroverted.

Levels of Vitamin D are high in centenarians and correlate strongly with good cognitive health. Subjects 95 to 103 in an American study on genetics found that centenarians had the Vitamin D levels of 70 year olds. People with low levels of Vitamin D tended to have a much greater tendency to develop cognitive impairments. So viva sunlight and salmon.

In the Heidelberg group, 87 centenarians were asked about their thoughts about dying. They enjoyed the chance to talk about this, as often they feel prohibited from doing so by their families. About 25% said they sometimes or often longed for death. Only one person said she feared it. Those who wanted to die gave as reasons loneliness, a lack of a confidante, and a negative view of the future, colored by their social isolation. Pain was mentioned, but physical health was not a predominant cause. Those who contemplated death serenely without longing for it talked about goals for the future, such as seeing a grandson graduate from college or reaching 105.

From: The Science of Aging: Enjoying Life After 100 by Barbara Peters Smith, Herald-Tribune, November 24, 2013. On line.

Online Communities: Benefitting from the Internet
Among the fastest growing websites on the internet are those dedicated to older adults. This research explored the nature of the site users, who they are, and what benefits they receive from participating in these online communities. The research involved a survey of 218 adults who participate in 16 English language-based online communities. The survey asked people about their usage – membership histories, frequency and length of visits, postings, and visits to other sites. They were also asked if anything constrained their visiting behaviors. They were also asked how interested they were in 13 issues, thought to be of high priority among older adults. Analysis of the data indicted that participants in these communities can be divided into three groups: The first are the Information Swappers, who tend to use the internet to solve daily life problems, such as rates on car insurance and good vacation locations. Participants in the second group Aging-Oriented. They are the oldest people in the sample, and are primarily concerned with issues of health and well-being. Then there are the Socializers, who primarily use the online community to chat with people, enjoy some mental stimulation, and engage in “self expression.” The benefit of “companionship” was important to the socializers and the aging-oriented, and “joyfulness” characterized the socializers and the information swappers.

In general the participants in the study tended to be relatively well-off, healthy, well educated and young-old. The respondents also found the internet a very congenial place to go on a daily basis. They find ways of satisfying their particular psychosocial needs. These communities often help people compensate for constraints and limitations that daily life may place on them. The researchers suggest that finding ways of helping older, less educated seniors become involved in internet communities would be beneficial to their lives as well.

From: Probing the audience of seniors’ online communities by Galit Nimrod. Journal of Gerontology, Series B. Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 2013, 68,773-782.


Helping Those Who Grieve

For many people the prospects of greeting someone who has lost a significant other is daunting. It’s difficult to know what to say, and sometimes the easiest choice seems to be to avoid the grieving person or say nothing at all. Advice from a hospice bereavement counselor, Marty Tousley, cautions that avoiding the person is “the worst thing we can do.” Rather, there are simple, sincere ways of relating to someone who has lost a dear one. She recommends:

  • Encourage the person to share their experience. Avoid rushing them, but listen to the entire story.
  • Realize that you cannot erase the sorrow. Focus on their story, not your own, even if it is similar in many respects.
  • Let the other person express their emotions. Don’t be surprised by outbursts of crying, and let it happen. Touch and offer a hug, if that seems appropriate.
  • Schedule regular contact with the person. If you know of especially significant times, such as the anniversary of a wedding or birthday, get in touch on those days.
  • Invite the person to socialize as you normally did. Let there be an odd number at the table. Don’t exclude people who no longer have a partner. Alcohol may spur sadness, so consider that in your planning. Do something active and fun, if possible.
  • Be present with the other. Sometimes silence is golden. Sitting together outside, enjoying the beauty of nature is healing.

Grieving is not a progressive process, despite the common belief that one should “get over it” in six months to a year.

Grieving is more a wave process, in which sorrowful feelings can come and go, often for the rest of one’s life. One’s capacity to grieve is a sign of love and relatedness as well as a negative experience.

From: Life After Loss by C. J. Hutchinson, Amtrak Arrive, Sept.-Oct., 2013, 56-59.

Retirement: A Time for Sensitive Negotiation

Retirement may look good in many ways. But it is also a period of difficult decision making. There are so many ambiguities, the questions are new, and the outcomes very important. For couples there is also a lot of room for disagreement. One study by Fidelity Mutual found that when asked about retirement, 1/3 of the couples surveyed either did not agree about their future plans, or didn’t know what they wanted to do. In addition over 60% could not agree when a good time to retire was, or when they might want to do so. Even in long-term relationships, disagreements can be unsettling. As Dorian Mintzer, a Boston-based therapist and certified life coach, puts it, “You can assume you know what the other wants, but when you're up against the clock and you're really thinking about retirement, letting go and making changes is hard. Catherine Frank, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, also works with couples moving toward retirement. The first step in the process is simple enough: having couples sit down and start a conversation about their separate and shared ideas for the transition. The difficult part is When couples realize there are contradictory opinions and surprising goals, they must consider adjustments in their plans to keep their relationship in sync. "If you don't negotiate some of these changes together, I think you're in for some bumpy times ahead," Frank says. "Initiating the conversation and seeing how close you are or how far apart you are is really important." Non-confrontational conversation techniques are helpful for future retirees who hit a stumbling block in the planning process. "These conversations actually can bring more intimacy to a relationship," Mintzer says. "The more you understand what's important to the other — even if you agree to disagree — the more …connection there can be between the two people."

While financial and dwelling location are obvious talking points for couples facing retirement, the small, day-to-day matters are often overlooked. "Without negotiating some of those small, practical things, people can get on one another's nerves," Frank says. "When we're taken up with all of the responsibilities that come for most of us in midlife, what we don't do is stop and say, 'What is our marriage going to look like? What's it going to be like when we have this major change in our lives, and we have new opportunities, but also new challenges?'" Sometimes people get stuck in their positions: "'It's my way or your way,' win vs. lose," Mintzer says. "What I have found really helpful in my work with people is helping them identify that, and opening up the space for the 'we' of the relationship, so people can really think about what would be a win-win."

From: Where? When? Couples facing retirement need to talk.
Jennifer Devorin, USA Today, November 13, 2013

Myths About Exercising After 70

After the excesses of the holidays, people often look forward to doing some fitness exercises. Before you get to the gym, consider what AARP The Magazine suggests are “Myths” about Fitness.

  1. Stretching is very important as one ages. The reverse may be the case. A review of studies in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that stretching a muscle for 60 seconds or more causes a decline in the performance of that muscle. After stretching, that muscle tends to contract and tighten.
  2. The best way to burn fat is to work out longer. It isn’t about time, but about intensity. Jogging is more effective than walking. High intensity activity boosts your metabolism.
  3. Cardio matters more than weight training after 70. The reverse may be true. As one ages, muscle mass declines. Weight training helps stave off that loss and helps you stay stronger.
  4. Doing crunches will get rid of belly fat. Spot exercise doesn’t work, according to James Hagberg, a Professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. Diet and exercise both help reduce fat.
  5. You shouldn’t exercise if you’re sick. If your symptoms are above the neck, a workout is fine. Below the neck, rest. Also rest if you have a fever.

From: Six Myths About Fitness After 70 by Tom Slear. AARP The Magazine, Oct. - Nov. 2013, pg. 27


Fruitful Aging: Find the Gold in the Golden Years by Tom Pinkson, Ph.D.,
Email: [email protected],
Website: www.nierica.com

Tom Pinkson sent us a copy of his latest book, Fruitful Aging: Find the Gold in the Golden Years. It is a beautiful book, filled with stories of how people have entered into the “Golden years” and emerged transformed. His own story of being in intense back pain and how he managed to discover the ways to dissolve it are inspirational for any and all of us who suffer from physical trauma and disease. The path that Dr. Pinkson came upon involves a form of healing that is spiritual in nature. In the book he describes the exercises and activities that have helped him and many others to reach profound and delightful means for being in the world with grace. The book is also filled with quotations from authorities as varied as the Book of Psalms, Nietzsche, Jung, Zen Buddhism, George Bernard Shaw, and the Huichol Native Americans of Mexico. The wisdom of many scientists and therapists is included as well. The orientation of the book is toward developing the qualities of personhood that will make the last half of life highly fulfilling through seeking one’s full potential. “This book is an invitation to see what these ideas spark in you using your gift of longevity and its challenges as a vehicle towards the most fruitful blossoming of your selfhood, your creative expression, your wisdom lessons, and your love in a world that so desperately needs more love.” (pg. xxxiii). Whether you follow the details of his recommended activities or not, the book is inspiring in its insistence that, if “played right” the best is yet to come.


March 11-15, 2014: AGING IN AMERICA. 2014 Annual Conference of the American Society on Aging, San Diego, CA. 26 CEU free credits. Register online at www.asaging.org/aia

Feb. 27-March 2, 2014: Association for Gerontology in Higher Education Annual Meeting & Educational Leadership Conference. Westin Denver Downtown Hotel. Theme: “Taking Educational Quality to New Heights. Aghe.org/register

May 8-10, 2014: AARP Presents [email protected]+, Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, starring a conversation between First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Barbara, and music from the Moody Blues. $25 for AARP members; $35 for non-members, including a 1 year membership. Register at www.aarp.org/atmbos or 1-800-650-6839.

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