2014 Sept/Oct

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September/October, 2014

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

Wall Street Journal

Issue No 88


The Power of Conversation
Recently the two of us were in Nanjing, China, giving lectures. There we met a graduate student from Nanjing Normal University, Tian-fang Liu. Liu was acquainted with the Chinese translation of the Newsletter, and was eager to tell us about an experience of striking significance to her. The story was indeed touching, and has significant implications for us all. We are happy to feature here her story: “About three months ago, I volunteered for a nursing home where I met Sha, a 94 year old woman. At my first visit, she was lying on her bed in a darkened room, like a wooden, lifeless puppet. Her face was tired, listless, and dull.

When I started talking to her, she slurred in her native accent: ‘Don’t you know how old am I? I’m nine--ty… years…old…ol--d enough. I have lived long----enough in the world, just waiting for approaching death. I am a worthless being, not needed anymore. That’s why I live in this institution…I was abandoned by my three sons…I have nothing to do at all except wait for death.’ At that moment, I was terribly sad, shocked…and then angry: Is this the kind of life women entering old age should deserve? They have sacrificed themselves to their family, children and society, and this is the return!!!

As a young graduate student, I have no power or money; perhaps the only resource I have is my education. After returning to the university, I started to search for research on positive aging, and to talk with my supervisor, colleagues and friends about this woman. As they suggested, it might be helpful to be curious about the woman’s life. Ask questions, like how she was able to survive during the Second World War (She was 17 in 1937 when it began) and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, to make her sense her good fortune. On my next visit I took their suggestions, and began to inquire into her life. She began to recount the hard times she had come through, but also sharing her stories of good fortune. In response, I also began to share some of my stories with her; I found her delighted to give me advice. As we conversed, I gradually found myself asking more questions and learning so much, for example, how to run a restaurant, what it’s like to be married and become pregnant, how to raise and educate children, how to cook, and how to keep healthy. Perhaps she began to realize, just as I did, how capable, competent, skillful experienced, and worthwhile she is. What a colorful life she had. When I left that day, she was smiling.

I continued to visit, and we continued to talk together. As I began to see, she was tidying her bed and cleaning the room. She began to actively bathe herself rather than waiting for a social worker’s help. Sometimes she goes for a little walk in corridor, and even sings old songs to me when the time is right. Recently I discovered that every time I came, there was an empty chair beside her which, it seemed, was prepared for my arrival. The last time I was going to leave, she waved to me and said:” Do come to clean the chair next week!” Because a chair would be dusty if no one sits, this is a way we warmly invite people to visit us frequently.

So powerful are the effects of good conversation that I now seek ways to help Sha find other partners in the home. This has not been easy. But it is essential. As Sha complained to me:” I now realize that talking is good, but if no one responds to you, how do you talk? Talk with yourself? Are you insane?” I shall also try to involve Sha’s daughters and her sons and daughters-in-law; her children’s visiting is her final dream.
- - Tian-fang Liu


Remembering the Good Things
Gerontologists have often found that older people tend to remember their lives as more positive than younger people do. This tendency is called the “positivity effect”. It is not clear why it is that older people do this more than younger ones. This research contrasted two different hypotheses as to the reasons for the positivity effect. Might it be the way older people evaluate life events, or do the elderly just have very selective memories?

In two different studies, these researchers tried to compare these two central ideas. In the first study a group of older and younger participants had to report on one positive and one negative event for 5 days. A week later the same people were asked to recall these events. Younger people followed the instructions and gave complete answers to the request to report these ten events. Older people complied by reporting the positive events, but 38% of them did not report a negative event for all 5 days. A week later both groups reported accurately on the events they had reported. In the second study, both groups were asked to imagine positive, negative or neutral events happening to themselves or to an acquaintance. In a later session, older adults rated themselves as having much more positive experiences than the younger adults did. There was no difference between the two age groups in terms of remembering what they had imagined.

These two studies suggest that there are no memory deficits among the older people, as they recalled events as well as the younger people. What does distinguish them is that the older people seem to rate their experiences as more positive than the younger people do. The world seems to grow rosier with age.

From: Does the Age-Related Positivity Effect in Autobiographical Recall Reflect Differences in Appraisal or Memory? By Emily Schryer and Michael Ross, Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Studies and Social Sciences, 2014, 69, 548-556

Music and Memory

What is the effect of music on memory? Recent research reveals the potential of music to help people remember the past as well as learn new information. Here are a few of the studies recently reported: A 2010 study at Boston University suggested that music might help people with short-term memory loss learn new information. A neuropsychologist, Brandon Ally, studied two groups of people who were cognitively healthy. The participants were asked to remember information that was relayed to them in a variety of ways -- printed, spoken, and sung. The researchers found that the participants from both groups retained the most information when they received it through song. Importantly, cognitive status did not alter this trend: even after the effects of dementia had set in, music continued to stimulate and improve memory. No pharmaceuticals were required.

While listening to music seems helpful for the aging brain, performing music seems even better. Nina Kraus, from the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, studied the brains of musicians and non-musicians, both young and old. Her research team attached electrodes to the heads of 87 participants, in order to track their memory and sound processing skills. If a participant was eating dinner with a friend in a crowded restaurant, the electrodes would measure how quickly the individual processed his or her friend's voice through the clamor of surrounding noises. The two main factors in the experiment were age and musical experience. Half of the participants had considerable musical training and a lifetime of experience performing music, while the other half had little or no experience as musicians.

The results of this research indicated that musical experience was more important than age when it came to understanding and remembering sounds. The musicians, no matter how old they were, were found to have stronger memories and stronger sound processing skills.

If your relationship with music has waned over the years, consider rekindling it. In addition to being enjoyable in its own right, music seems to be good for the brain. If music lessons are a thing of the past, why not pick them up again. If you have never played an instrument, it may be just the time to learn. At best, musical experiences are profoundly fulfilling on an emotional and spiritual level.

From: Echoes: On Music and Memory by Adam Johnson , TheBostonPilot.com www.musicandmemory.org)


Are There Gains Through Brain Games?
Listening to the local radio station, one frequently hears ads encouraging you to play the games that enrich your mental capabilities. Luminosity and Posit Science are two of the most well-known companies that make claims that their products will give your brain a new lease on life.

Psychologists have been studying these claims by running experiments that compare the outcomes of older people who engage in cognitive training and control groups who do less invigorating things. The results are mixed, but not pessimistic: some upgrades in cognitive activities can be achieved through participating in the training.

In one study Glenn Smith, a neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic, tested a group of healthy people over 65, who had practiced computer games designed to improve listening abilities. This group made significant improvements in tests of memory and attention. They also claimed that their coping in everyday life had improved. Three months later the effects of the training were diminishing. In another study, effects of the training could still be seen 10 years after the study was finished. These participants were taught strategies for problem-solving, which were integrated into their everyday life. One indicator of the program’s success was related to driving records. Those people who were in the experimental group, which stressed speed-reasoning had 50% fewer at-fault collisions.

Mind games seen to be most helpful to children and older adults, especially those who are least competent at the beginning of a study. Younger adults don’t seem to benefit much. Although there seem to be gains for older people from these games, very few studies have been done to evaluate them, their long-term effects, or if time spent learning a new language or skill might be more productive. For example a recent look at a variety of studies suggests that regular aerobic exercise is as helpful in improving intellectual capacities as mind games. Perhaps the bottom line is that effortful activities can enhance one’s intellectual skills, however one prefers to engage in the world.

From: Mind Games: Can brain-training games keep your mind young? By Kirsten Weir. Monitor on Psychology, October, 2014, pp. 43

Purpose Prize Salutes 2014 Winners
Every year the Purpose Prizes are given to six people who are at least 60 years old and who have made a positive difference in the lives of others. This year, the six are very different from each other in many ways, but similar in that they have done a lot more with their senior years than sit in the rocking chair on the porch watching the world go by (although that sounds like a rather charming activity to investigate sometime.)

Winner David Campbell, 72, who will receive $100,000, began the creation of his organization after the 2004 tsunami, which hit countries bordering on the Indian Ocean. He went for a brief visit to Thailand, and ended up staying a month. Ten years later he runs All Hands Volunteers, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts. So far it has sent 28,000 people to 45 global disasters abroad, from Haiti to Peru, to Bangladesh, as well as in the U. S., to help after the devastation of tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding. The volunteers do what is needed at each site, from rebuilding houses to helping school children get back to their classrooms. The volunteers receive tools, meals, and living arrangements from the non-profit.

A second major winner is Charles Irvin Fletcher, 76, who had a lifelong interest in horses and riding. After he retired, he spent five year and 5,000 hours volunteering at a therapeutic riding center in Dallas. The center is designed to help children with disabilities. He was disappointed that the children’s gains were not as great as he would have liked. He dedicated himself to researching ways to improve the outcomes of therapeutic riding. In 2001 he founded Spirit-Horse International, a nonprofit organization near Dallas. His ranch is the headquarters for a worldwide network of 91 therapeutic riding centers for children in the U. S., South America, Africa, and Europe. In Texas, about 400 children receive free weekly riding sessions on his ponies. The children suffer from various medical conditions, including autism, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida. Mr. Fletcher believes that the horses can feel love, gratitude and approval, and they return these feelings to the children. The children improve as a result of their encounters with the horses.

Other winners of the $25,000 prizes include Rev. Richard Joyner, 62, who created a congregational garden; Dr. Pamela Cantor, 66, a child psychiatrist who runs an organization called Turnaround for Children in New York City; Mauricio Lim Miller, 68, who founded the Family Independence Initiative, in Oakland, CA. This organization helps families in poverty to pool their resources as members of lending circles, which helps them pay down their debts and save for new enterprises. The final winner, Kate Williams, 72, runs an employment program designed to help blind and visually impaired people find work.

The Purpose Prize was created by Encore.org, a nonprofit that is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities. Ann MacDougall, president of Encore suggested that “An increasing number of people over 60 want to leave a legacy and do something that makes their children proud.” This year’s winners are certainly role models for others who begin their retirement lives.

From: Gaining in Years, and Helping Others to Make Gains, by Kerry Hannon, New York Times, October 25, 2014, B5.

Grandmother: The New Game in Town

This generation of women is getting a new lease on life as they acquire the title of grandmother. The Boomers are making a difference in how this next phase of life is being defined. No more on the periphery of their grandchildren’s lives, but rather, active contributors to the well-being of their off-springs’ off-springs. Credit for much of this new model of grandparenting must be given to the longer life span and healthier conditions of older people. In the last 100 years, women’s lives have been extended by 25 years, on average. For many women, being a grandmother can be a “do-over” time, giving their grandchildren the care and attention they were too busy to offer their own children when they were young. For many women, the care they give grandchildren is also a gift they give their own daughters and sons, helping them feel that they are giving their children gold-plated care at no cost.

For many grandparents, the benefits of the internet have enlivened family ties, with texting, emails and Skype calls expanding connections. One grandma in Washington DC makes a monthly trip to Boston to visit two granddaughters, and she goes to Israel to visit her daughter’s family for a month every year. The role of grandparent extends one’s commitments to the world, as well as to one’s own families. As one grandmother said, “We care more about what lies ahead. We care about the earth, air and water, the legacy we’re going to leave behind.”

From: “Grandma “ Gets a Reboot by Barbara Graham, AARP Bulletin, September, 2014, 10-12.


Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End.
by Atul Gawande, From the New York Times, November 8, 2014
Dr. Atul Gawande has written a book that challenges the medical profession to change the way doctors deal with debilitating conditions among their patients. Rather than being dedicated to healing disease and staving off death, Dr. Gawande believes the focus should be on well-being. Given the eventual decline in bodily robustness, everyone concerned should be able to engage with changes in ways that enhance living rather than avoiding dying. Doctors tend to focus on diseases, which often diminishes the possibilities of living well. Families often focus on older members being “safe”, rather than living with a sense of meaningfulness. Most important is that people are able to shape their lives, at any age, so as to feel some sense of purpose. Assisted living units and nursing homes often prevent this sense by over-caring. People have priorities beyond living as long as possible, regardless of the cost.


Feb. 26-March 1, 2015: The Changing Face of Aging Around the World. Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. Sheraton Nashville Downtown, TN

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