2014 March/April

Download the newsletter in PDF format: Issue_85_Positive_Aging_Newsletter_March-April_2014.pdf

March/April, 2014

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

Wall Street Journal
Issue No 85


Memories as Resources

Perhaps I am naïve. I have spent the vast share of my life thinking forward. Somehow looking backward seemed a waste of time. I focus mainly on the activity right in front of me, and on what comes after that, and after that, and on into the future. It’s always been, “what’s coming” and “what to do about it?” Unless it was needed for one of my projects, looking backward was a useless daydream. Recently, however, I found my situation where “looking forward” was useless. Mary and I were in Paraguay, and wanted to see the famous Iguazu Falls, a five-hour drive from where we were working. The van pulled up; Mary was placed in the front seat, and I in the back. I had hoped to read or work on my computer; so much to do. But the road was so bumpy, I found, that neither was possible. And the sound was so loud that conversation was also impossible. Soon the scenery became monotonous. For me, this was a condition bordering on hell!

I tried to doze, but the rumbling van would not allow for sleep. However, as I lay back with my eyes closed, I found myself slowly turning over incidents from the past in my mind. And when I began to recall an incident, I soon found myself reminiscing about an associated person, event or place. To my surprise, I slowly began to feel a sense of pleasure. I would say to myself, “That was a fun time”; “That was fascinating”; “He was terrific”; “She was fantastic”. With this, I began to focus on specific times and places – a sixth grade romance, senior prom, Paris in the 80’s, and so on. I greeted old friends, smiled at mishaps, revisited feelings of awe…the time began to move swiftly; I had discovered a treasure.

Perhaps you as readers have known this pleasure all along. But for me it was another important step in realizing the joys of being older. We carry with us enormous riches, and if we learn to sort wisely through our memories, they are available at any moment to give us pleasure, support, companionship, affirmation, and more. With Mary, I am going to go back and revisit those photo albums we have stored in our cupboard in the hall. They will help fill out the years that have been left as fallow fields. I now worry that memories have been lost because I never visited them. Perhaps I have let them go. I shall not wait for another bumpy ride to re-visit my treasure house.
- - Ken Gergen


Crossword Puzzles Aren’t Just for Fun!

From a summary review by Kathleen Smith
A new trial funded by the National Institutes of Health has found that the benefits of cognitive training for older adults can last as long as 10 years. The report, featured in the January issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, details how training aimed at boosting older adults' skill at memory, reasoning and speed of processing slowed their cognitive decline and helped participants maintain functioning in daily living tasks over a decade.

"It's like going to the gym 10 years ago and doing some strength training, and you still have good arm strength 10 years later," explains one of the study's co-authors, Sharon Tennstedt, PhD, vice president of the New England Research Institutes. "You are maybe not quite as strong as you were then, but there is still benefit."

The study is the largest of its kind, enrolling more than 2,800 participants ages 65 to 94 from a broad range of educational, socio-economic, and racial and ethnic groups. The researchers assigned volunteers either to receive 10 one-hour sessions of training over five to six weeks, or to a no-training control group.

At the 10-year follow-up, those with training in reasoning and speed of processing experienced less decline in those cognitive abilities compared with non-trained (control) participants. Participants in all three training groups reported significantly less difficulty performing daily living skills than did untrained participants.

The results imply that psychologists should encourage older adults to engage in activities that challenge their cognitive abilities. Consumers should be aware that few commercially available brain games have been tested adequately to support their claims of benefit. However, expected increase in consumer demand and market competition should result in more programs or games with proven impact, according to the study authors. In the meantime, they recommend older adults try any cognitively stimulating activity, such as solving crossword puzzles and playing cards.

"Maintaining cognitive functioning may become even more salient for the generation now moving into their 60s and 70s," says Sherry Willis, PhD, another co-author and a research professor at the University of Washington. "Baby boomers who are moving into old age are really becoming extremely aware that they may have to work longer. And this study speaks to the plasticity of cognitive functioning — that older adults can improve from cognitive training and they can maintain the effects."

From: Kathleen Smith’s (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/03/cognitive-training.aspx) account of Ten Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, by Rebok, G. W., Ball, K,. Lin, T., Guey, R. N., Jones, H-Y. K., et al. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2014, 16-24.

What Does It Mean to be Old?

AARP did a survey on aging, in which 1,800 Americans were asked what getting older has been like for them so far. Here are some of their major findings:
Question “How Old is Old?”

85% of the respondents, ages from 40-90, said they were “not old”. In general, regardless of age, “old” was always older than they were. When asked how others would describe them, based on their age, 45% said “younger” and another 25% said, “Active”, “healthy” and “in the prime of life.”

Interestingly, in general, the older people got, the more they agreed with these statements: “Problems with my physical health do not hold me back from doing what I want,” and “Growing older has been easier than I thought”, and “I have more energy now than I expected for my age.” For example, about 70% of people in their 60’s and 70’s said that physical health did not hold them back.

Respondents were asked whether they agreed with the statement “There are many pleasant things about growing older.” African Americans were the most likely to answer yes to this (79%) as well as to the following: ”I believe my life has made a difference.” Least likely to agree with both statements were the Asian Americans at 63%, and they were most likely (24%) to agree, “Old age is a time of loneliness”
In answer to the comment, “I know I’ll enjoy sex no matter how old I am” men were more likely than women to say yes (71% vs. 50%).

From: “You’re Old, I’m Not” AARP The Magazine, February/March, pp. 42-44.


A 93 Year Old Writer Speaks of Memories and Loss

The famous baseball writer Roger Angell talks about loss, and the memories he has of the countless people, who inhabited his world, and then died. Despite their absence, “gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs… reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.” His view, “The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming.” Thinking of the parade of the dead, he wonders, “Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this: Why am I not endlessly grieving?”

The most important insight for Angell is how significant is “our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.” Most people who are younger don’t want to know about this “raunchy secret.” “But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark.” He ends by suggesting that those who have lost a love, such as he, “know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone.”

From: This Old Man: Life in the Nineties by Roger Angell, New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014, 60-65

Widows in Support

It is now estimated that 75% of all women will be widowed at least once. The “W” Connection refers to a growing number of groups being formed that bring widows together for colleagueship, advice, and mutual support. The Connection is not designed as a spiritual or therapeutic encounter, but it does serve as a place for helping women survive emotionally and economically challenging times. The first “W” Connection group began in New York in 2010, and from there has been spreading across the country. The Philadelphia group meets once a month. Each session has a topic either personal or practical. Women counsel each other on ways of adapting to this new and difficult period of life. As one member said, “I wish I had this group when I was widowed. I wish they would have told me I would smile again. That I could love again.” Another challenged the notion that widowhood was hardest to bear in the first year. “You’re numb the first year. It’s the second year that’s the worst because the shock wears off.”

From: After Loss, Living by Jeff Gammage, Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 19, 2014, B1, B11.

Erotic Literature and the Good Life

A new key to a good life in aging is suggested by researchers in Colombia: Reading and discussing erotic literature! At a recent congress of the Pan American Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics, researchers reported on their studies on the cognitive effects of reading and discussing erotic literature. The books were not pornographic, but had strong erotic passages and themes. Among the books were Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (Como Agua, Para Chocolate), Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, (El Amante de Lady Chatterley), and 20 Love Poems and one of Despair by Pablo Neruda (Veinte Poemas de Amor Y Una Cancion Desesperada). Adults over 65 gathered every 15 days in a university course to discuss the books they were reading from the list of suggested books. The vast majority of the readers were women. Before the year long meetings, the women were evaluated on cognitive skills - including attention, memory, and narrative skills. At the end of the study, these diverse capacities had become stronger than before. The literature encouraged the group to share their own stories of romance, to express interest in others’ views and experiences, and to create an uplifting and light hearted atmosphere. Fewer participants expressed depressive thoughts at the end of the course. The researchers suggested that reading the erotic literature had a special power to enliven the participants, and that other forms of literature would not have the same impact on abilities and moods.

Literatura erotica. La inesperada terapia para la tercera edad by Fabiola Czubaj, La Nacion. 3 April, 2014. Pg. 18.


Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America by Margaret Morganroth Gullette. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
From an essay by Ruth Ray Karpen
In her latest book, Agewise, a collection of essays that explores cultural myths and prejudices surrounding aging and old age, Margaret Gullette illustrates the life-changing nature of stories and storytelling. In the introduction, Gullette sets up her premise that the aging process itself is a narrative affected by physiology, life experiences, and social influences. … For Gullette, ageism strikes at the very core of what it means to be human. She wonders, in frustration, “Why isn’t this unprecedented damage to the life course the biggest story of our time?” (p. 4).

In Part II, Gullette provides a feminist critique of “common wisdom” about women’s aging bodies circulated by mainstream media. In her chapter on “Hormone Nostalgia,” she argues that menopause never should have been a story in the first place because it is unremarkable in the lives of 90% of women. Like most age-related experiences, menopause is a bio-cultural phenomenon, but the media, following traditional medicine, treats it primarily as a biological phenomenon. For Gullette, “the universal menopause is a false decline narrative” (p. 88).

In the final chapter of this section, Gullette invites us to consider “Sexuality Across the Life Course” by re- imagining the meaning of “progress” in the stories we tell about sexual aging. Rather than setting up negative comparisons between later life sexuality and the hormone-fueled performances of youth, we would do better to consider sex within a life-course perspective that involves a range of experiences. Particularly for women, the “starter sex” of youth is often very bad, compared to sex in later life, which is free of the fear of unwanted pregnancy and often accompanied by greater self-esteem and knowledge of one’s own desires and responses. Gullette cautions that universal sexuality, like universal menopause, becomes a “false decline narrative” in the hands of a pharmaceutically driven media.

In section 3, Gullette offers hope for anti-ageism….The key is to create a life narrative that sustains rather than drains your motivation to keep moving forward toward an unknown future. In the final chapters, Gullette demonstrates how to tell individual life stories in ways that affirm aging, even at the end of life when faced with serious illness, loss, and dependency. She looks to examples from her own life, literature, and memoir. Gullette uses the novel, Emma, by Jane Austen to reflect on a change in regards to age and memory. There was a time, before the mind had been “medicalized,” when memory loss was not considered a failure in all mental faculties and certainly not in character or morality. Now that the mind has been reduced to brain, which for older adults has been reduced to memory, we have become a culture of “hypercognitive and frightened people” (p. 179). With greater understanding and compassion, we can and must change this culture. Gullette reminds us that “memory is only one aspect of mind—and not necessarily the most important aspect of selfhood” (200). Taken together, all the chapters in the book illustrate the various ways that decline can be countered at the cultural and individual levels— ideologically, legally, politically, ethnically, and in particular, “imaginatively, through the illuminations of our best and longest-lasting stories” (p. 223).

The full review may be found at: http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/NW/article/view/21472/24976


Every so often we get a note from Georgie Bright Kunkel, describing her latest adventures . Here is the latest version, which she sent along with a photo at the comedy club.

Since I wrote last I have had quite a 93rd year of life. I continue to go on the comedy stage here in Seattle and I appear on the stage at poetry reading night each month. I have been singing in my church choir and have been interviewed by the local CBS station, KOMO, for a spot on the evening news because I am the oldest standup comic probably in the world perhaps.

Life is good.

Cheers, Georgie Bright Kunkel

* 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 nierica one 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. Tom


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.

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