2014 Jan/Feb

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January/February 2014

Issue No 84
The Positive Aging Newsletter
by Kenneth and Mary Gergen
Sponsored by the Taos Institute (www.taosinstitute.net)

Wall Street



Aging as Art

It’s often been said that life copies art, but I recently found myself asking what if we looked at life itself as an art form? More to the point, what could we learn or appreciate if we could see aging as an art? I especially liked this idea, as it seemed a great alternative to the common metaphor of “aging as over the hill!” But a lot depends on what form of art you select, and where it is applied. So, I asked, what if I just looked at each day as a blank canvas and myself as the artist. How could I paint the day so that it could be interesting or beautiful? This was a pleasant thought over the morning’s coffee, but I must confess that as the day started rolling, the image went on holiday.

That seemed only fair, because it was also a holiday for me, and a beautiful day at that. So, I invited Mary to join me for an afternoon of golf. The afternoon began poorly. Although guaranteed a clear start, we were placed behind two more parties at the first hole. And while waiting impatiently, another party arrived behind us. Ugh! This meant that our every swing would be observed by the folks behind us. This might be ok if you were a seasoned golfer, assured of making impressive shots. But we are rank amateurs, and being watched is nerve wracking. Thus, when it finally came time for my first shot, I promptly drove the ball into the side of a nearby house! Then the tedium set in, as the play was interminably slow, and the sun had now become quite hot. By the third hole, I was in very poor spirits, and poor company for Mary. Slowly we were becoming alienated. I slunk into silence, depressed at the thought of the afternoon now spread before us. But then, in a flash, the blank canvas metaphor returned. “If this is your painting of the day,” I said to myself, “you are one lousy artist!” With this, I turned to Mary and proposed that we create the rest of the afternoon in a different way. We laughed, the tension was broken, and we just relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful scene. (Interestingly, our play improved as well).

In retrospect, my feeling is that the world may come to us in many forms, but we have control of the colors. And it is in the painting that we can create worlds worth waking up for.
Ken Gergen


Weaker Brains or Greater Knowledge?

It is common as we grow older to fail to recall a name or a place. Humorously we call these “senior moments,” as if to apologize for a deficit. But are such failures actually an indication of a weakening brain? Not according to Dr. Michael Ramscar from Tubingen University in Germany, a researcher long involved in studies on this topic. As he points out, “The human brain works slower in old age but only because we have stored more information over time. The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more.”
Speaking with the Telegraph, the scientist added: “Imagine someone who knows two people’s birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly. Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2000 people, but can ‘only’ match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?” As research journals often report, many tests of cognitive skills favor the young. But do they really? This depends on why one succeeds or fails. For example, in one particular test, called 'paired associated learning', people are asked to remember pairs of random objects – like shoes and ham, trees and fish. The scientists say this test is more difficult for older people because they have learned that these two objects never go together and so struggle to remember them as a couple. Eggs and thumb tacks do not go together as easily as ham and eggs might. However, Prof. Harald Baayen, who heads a group conducting the research proposes: “The fact that older adults find nonsense pairs harder to learn than young adults simply demonstrates older adults’ much better understanding of language.

They have to make more of an effort to learn unrelated word pairs because, unlike the youngsters, they know a lot about which words don’t belong together.”

From: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2542894/Brains-older-people-slower-stored-information-time.html

Rebounding from Disability: The Value of Social Support

We have often reported on the value of social support in this Newsletter, and the following research lends further support to the case. The focus here was on the effects of disability on depression. Many of us may be disabled over time; the important question is whether we can rebound. In this research on 800 Swedish elders (average age 86) disability was not uncommon. For some, disabilities came on suddenly, as in a stroke, while others were slowly acquired, such as crippling arthritis. And, in general, as a disability struck or was recognized, symptoms of depression began to set in. Further, it was found that following a period of adjustment, the depressive symptoms, generally, subsided. People do tend to adjust.

However, the researchers also had the respondents rate their social support networks. Most interesting, respondents who claimed to have a good social support network showed great resilience. Not only did their depressive symptoms disappear, but for many, they fell below what they reported prior to the onset of the disability! At the same time, if respondents reported a poor level of social support, the depressive symptoms were more severe and long lasting. Women who were very old, and claimed to be low in social support were most likely to be depressed following the onset of a disability.

What is important to recognize is that one may overcome the negative reaction to disability, despite the inconveniences and limitations. People of all ages are able to adjust to conditions that might seem utterly depressing to someone who is a bystander. One must be careful to not assume a person with a disability must be depressed. And too, if you are the bystander, your caring support may erase any remaining depression.

From: Changes in Depressive Symptoms in the Context of Disablement Processes: Role of Demographic Characteristics, Cognitive Function, Health, and Social Support by Elizabeth B. Fauth, Denis Gerstorf, Nilam Ram & Bo Malmberg. The Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 2012, 67, 167-177.


Scientifically Supported Suggestions for Greater Happiness

  1. Exercise more, even 7 minutes a day might be enough. Research with three groups of patients with a diagnosis of depression indicated that of the three, the group that exercised, without taking any anti-depressants, were much less likely to relapse after 6 months.
  2. Sleep More. Having enough sleep makes us less susceptible to feeling emotions such as anger or fear. We feel happier.
  3. Shorter your commute. Nothing like a long commute to drag you down during your work week.
  4. Spend time with friends and family. The most important key to happiness in life, according to various research studies, is having good relationships with family and friends. Money doesn’t appear to buy happiness, once a certain point is reached.
  5. Go Outdoors. Happiness is maximized at 13.9 C. That’s 57 F.
  6. The study was done in England. Might be higher in Arizona.
  7. Help others, 100 hours a year is the magic number.
  8. Practice smiling. A fake smile doesn’t do it. Try to find something to smile about. A fake smile can lead to a real one, however, so don’t despair.
  9. Plan a trip. You don’t necessarily have to take it. The best part of a vacation seems to be during the planning of it.
  10. Meditate. Meditation increases calmness, contentment, and empathy for others.
  11. Practice gratitude. Keep a journal on gratitude, share your good times with friends or family. Give thanks to others.

Finally, just getting older tends to make people feel happier. One hypothesis is that older people have learned how to regulate their moods better than younger ones. They do the things that maximize their happiness. Whatever floats their boat!

From: 10 Simple things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happier, Backed by Science by Belle Beth Cooper. From her blog Buffer, found on Linked In.

From Nursing Homes to Residents’ Homes

Nursing homes are transforming, and residents are overjoyed. Instead of being medically-oriented facilities or storage houses for the very old, they are becoming resident-oriented dwellings, designed to make people feel at home. The new emphasis is on changing the culture of what defines a nursing home. The new approach stresses giving choices to residents in terms of how they live, how they decorate their living spaces, when and what they eat, how long they sleep, and how they spend their time. People who live in nursing homes are expressing their opinions about their facilities, and they are feeling much more satisfied than those who live in traditional facilities.

The staff is happier as well, and there is less turn-over. Because the residents are happier, they require fewer medicines and restraints. They are also more likely to remain fitter, stronger, and more energetic.

Overall the U.S. has over 16,000 nursing homes. A typical person’s stay is 836 days. Medicaid pays close to $78,000 a year per person, and private-pay customers often pay more. The hope is that bringing about this cultural change will reduce costs, despite the possibility that residents will live longer. The basic theme of this cultural change is about building relationships and enhancing the power of residents and staff. Peggy Sinnott, a director of health services for the Kendal organization, has noted, “I can tell as soon as I walk into a nursing home [what kind it is.] If there are visiting hours, it’s not culture change. If you can’t have a birthday party for your mother, there’s no… change.” Change is also experienced in terms of the death of a resident. Previously it was an event that was unmarked and unceremonious. Now, residents learn about the death and have the opportunity to remember and grieve the person. One nursing home has a remembrance table with portraits of those who have died. The relationship of the nursing staff with the residents makes them more vulnerable to the losses, but also gives them a deeper appreciation of their roles as caregivers and friends to the residents.

The new wave nursing homes are increasingly available, and easier to spot. It’s the only way to go!

From: Nursing Homes’ Culture Change by Stacey Burling, Philadelphia Inquire r, Feb. 2, 2014, A2.

Powerful Puzzle Producer Ponders Posterity

Bernice Gordon may not be a household world in your house, but in the world of crossword puzzle makers, she is the Queen. Ms. Gordon has been creating puzzles for major publications for over sixty years. Her first puzzle was printed by the New York Times in 1952. January 12, she celebrated her 100th birthday, with friends and family. Puzzle making began when she was a young homemaker and mother, and it has been a fascinating part of her life every since. Gordon married and had two sons, but was twice widowed. Doing crossword puzzles has kept her focused and content, despite the usual pains of a long life.

Gordon lives in an apartment on a fashionable square in Philadelphia, where she enjoys sociable dining with old friends. She also teaches a class in puzzle making in her community. Out in public, she uses a wheelchair, but gets around with a walker at home. She has had her troubles, physically, with two hip replacements, and an arthritic knee. She was operated on for a brain tumor when she was 90, but no longer has brain scans because “its too late for another operation. Enough already” she says.

Her love of crossword creating has been constant, although constructing a new one daily is a daunting task. Another of Gordon’s great loves is Rafael Nadal, the tennis star from Spain; she watches every match she can “live”, no matter what time, day or night.

According to Dr. Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, recent research suggests that such intense cognitive activity not only maintains brain functioning, but helps to grow new neurons, making the brain even more powerful. And that is good news for all of us, especially those of us who enjoy crossword puzzles.

From: Clues to keep an active mind by Michael Vitez, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 17, 2014, pg. A1,A2.


Marc Freedman, Founder and CEO, Encore.org, writes:
Now, in her compelling book, Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life, Jane [Pauley] provides a vision for purpose and contribution in the second half of life we can all aspire to. Her book – which has already become a New York Times bestseller— makes the case that our generation can change the world for the better, and illustrates that prospect through a series of beautifully told stories, including those of Encore.org Purpose Prize winners Jenny Bowen and Barbara Chandler Allen.

Dennis M. Garvey, a gerontologist who has had a long career working with mature adults sent us a book, Sex, Drugs and Growing Old – A Boomer’s Guide to Aging, which he thought our readers might enjoy. Many basic facts about aging, with the opportunity for some self-evaluations, are included. It is written in a light-hearted, engaging, and clear manner. $15. For more information, contact him at [email protected]


From: David Myers ‪‬
Ken and Mary, kudos to you both for your continued good work.

There has been lots of encouraging progress in our grassroots efforts to make assistive listening for Americans with hearing loss more conveniently and effectively available. FYI, here are a few recent synopses of progress:

Simple Tech Fix Could Allow Millions to Hear
Keep on, Dave

Tom Pinkson, author of Fruitful Aging: Find the Gold in the Golden Years, writes:

The email address given with the review of my book in the last Positive Aging newsletter is incorrect; it has an "a" after gmail and it should just be - [email protected]. Also, I have two web sites and the www.nierica.com is not the best one for readers interested in my fruitful aging work. Better they should go to drtompinkson.com

Thank you again for the very supportive review.


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.

Gerontological Society of America 2014
Annual Scientific Meeting, Nov. 5-9, 2014
, Washington, DC.
Making Connections: From Cells to Societies.
Abstracts by March 5, 2014 to geron.org/2014.

Information for Readers:

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