2015 Jan/Feb

Download the newsletter in PDF format: Issue_90_Positive_Aging_Newsletter_Jan-Feb_2015.pdf

January/February, 2015

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

Wall Street Journal

Issue No 90


Small Talk as Daily Bread
I had never liked small talk; for me, it seemed to be directionless chit-chat about nothing in particular. Invitations to small talk were everywhere, invited by neighbors, friends, guests, my assistant at the office. It was there at dinner parties, on train rides, and on planes – should I ever give an opening to the person sitting next to me to talk. My concerns were elsewhere – to the “important things in life,” solving problems, making progress, and reaching goals. Those were matters truly worthy of conversation. In recent years, however, I have changed my mind about small talk. There is another story to be told about its value, and its special importance as we grow older.

For me the story began when I was giving a month of lectures at a university in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Because there was no guest-house for professors, I was quartered in the spacious apartment of an 86 year old widow. I didn’t look forward to my tenure in the household, because Frau Ferlein seemed introverted and spoke only German. At the same time, I was trying to better my fluency in the language, so a little conversation with her seemed a good idea. I began to notice, however, that as I asked her questions about her life, and intensely sought to comprehend her replies, a transformation began to take place. Her reticent voice acquired volume; her timidity gave way to humorous story telling. As the days went by, I too began to change. I found myself listening not to improve my language skills, but because she was simply fun to be with. I became animated by the exchanges, and by the end of two weeks we were rollicking good friends. At the end of my stay, parting was indeed sweet sorrow. When I returned to visit her the following year, much of her buoyant energy had sadly disappeared.

So, where lies the magic power of small talk? Consider this: Mary and I are taking a walk, and I casually say, “Hmm, seems to be clouding up.” Now contrast two possible responses, the first just a simple “hmm” as she stares straight ahead. The second is an energetic, “Oh well, at least we won’t be sunburned.” With the first response, something in my world also turns grey. I trudge onward in silence. With the second, the clouds now gain a new and more positive meaning. I may even chuckle. And what’s more, I myself take on significance. My step becomes lighter. For in her humorous response, Mary injects importance into the otherwise mundane. My interest is heightened. At the same time, she affirms my significance to her. I am brought into being as a person whose words – even if otherwise trivial – hold value. In small talk we hold our worlds together, we give these worlds color and dimension, and we affirm each other’s significance. Sometimes we also learn things we didn’t know or didn’t even know we wanted to know!

And so it is, as we grow older, as the ranks of our age-mates begin to thin, and the demands of working life are lessened, that we can appreciate anew the life-giving potentials of small talk. In the cheery greetings, a brief chat with neighbors, trading stories on the telephone, or sending small notes by email, text or mail, we animate the world about us. And in our daily lives with our partners, the small acts of appreciation, the attention we give to their well-being, the sympathetic gaze, or just the way we are energized when they enter the room, is significant. With small talk we affirm the significance of the realities we have created and enrich the world in which we live.

Ken Gergen


Strengths and Well-being in Older Adults
For our research review in this issue, we are indebted to Dr. Emma Kirkby-Geddes, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK. She provided us with a detailed summary of her illuminating study of aging and well-being. In the following we share some of her significant deliberations and findings.

“The afternoon of human life must also have an significance of its own and cannot merely be understood as a pitiful appendage to life’s morning”
- Carl Jung, 1930.

Psychology and the debate on ageing
Psychological research for the most part focuses on what is lost in old age; psychologists know much about cognitive decline and the diseases of old age but little about gains and potentiality in older adults. This study is an attempt to counter this negative bias. It aims to understand and report on the psychology of older adults using a positive focus by exploring psychological strengths and well-being.

Well-being – how it is defined by psychologists?
Psychologists define well-being in a number of ways. Broadly these are: hedonic and eudaimonic. Hedonic well-being measures how happy an individual feels based on the presence of positive emotion and absence of negative emotion coupled with how satisfied with life they are. Eudaimonic well-being is more concerned with measuring the happiness that comes from living a life that expresses inner values and a sense of purpose.

What was the study about?
This study aims to understand the relationship between psychological strengths - such as hope, gratitude, forgiveness, optimism and curiosity - and their relationship with well-being.

The study:
Part 1 – A survey/questionnaire-based study: In total 396 people – aged 65-85 - took part in the survey. These participants were not ill, and they were somewhat more educated than the general population of the same age.

  • They reported good mental health, with a low incidence of psychopathology.
  • Their well-being was comparable to younger adults, as measured by other research studies.

 Additional findings related to well-being:

  • Those who were more active were also more curious and were more hopeful. These traits are often associated with achieving goals and are important for dealing with stress and illness.
  • Optimism and gratitude were consistently good at predicting well-being, both hedonic and eudaimonic.
  • Religious/spiritual people were more grateful and enjoyed greater well-being than others.

Final comments by Dr. Kirkby-Geddes
The study is also interesting in the following ways:

  • It showed me that psychology as a discipline is actually quite ageist, evident in the scarcity of data about strengths in older people. Most of what psychologist claim to know about psychological strengths is based on younger people.
  • It is important when trying to understand well-being, to include a measure which captures not just our feelings of happiness in the moment, but our feelings of living a purposeful life.
  • As a culture we seem to lack the words/vocabulary to adequately describe this latter stage in life as a positive experience. This may have implications for our ability to experience old age as positive.


Priming the Positive
We all carry visions or stereotypes of aging, some negative and some positive. How we feel and act at any given moment may depend on which of these stereotypes is most salient. For example, if someone offers you a seat on the bus, you may suddenly be defined as ”old,” but if grandchildren seek you out to play hide and seek, you feel as if you never grew older. Research suggests that these stereotypes may be stimulated or “primed” by very subtle cues. In a study published last year in Psychological Science, a group of 100 people, 61-99, in the New Haven area were tested with subliminal messages. Yale University researchers showed positive messages on a computer screen at a rapid rate, below conscious awareness. Words that contradicted negative stereotypes of aging such as “creative” and “spry” were flashed. Later the people who were exposed to the messages showed improved balance and other psychological and physical improvements. In addition they had developed stronger positive stereotypes of aging and weaker negative ones. Lead researcher Becca R. Levy described the changes as a “cascade effect” in which first the participants who had the subliminal messages gained a positive age stereotype, then stronger self-perceptions of aging, and last, improved physical functioning. Perhaps the take-home here is to keep oneself surrounded by positive primes – possibly some recent books, sports equipment, tools, or a stylish coat. Prepare the environment to prepare yourself.

From: Older Adults Prove the Power of the Subliminal, Aging Today, Jan.-Feb., 2015, pg.4

Tips for A New Career
A majority of people who are planning to retiring from their usual job are also beginning to think about the next one. The idea of a new job, a new career, even, is one that is full of intrigue, and is an invitation to a new kind of work life. A majority of people who retire do end up doing some new work activity. Transitioning to a new field can be intimidating, but it can also be a revitalization of dreams. The Philadelphia Inquirer offers some tips for a career-change option.

  1. Research new fields and professions. Look in the want ads, talk to friends, watch the internet for new positions and their requirements.
  2. Talk to a career counselor. A good one will know the work world better than you, and have some suggestions for you to follow that you might not have thought about.
  3. Set up an informational interview or shadow a professional or volunteer. Get a first hand sense of what working in this new area might be like.
  4. Talk to professionals in the new field. What is their life like? What are the pros and cons, and especially how satisfied are they with their work?
  5. Update your skills. Perhaps a retooling in some specific computer software package is in order, or returning to refresh some capacity you have already had earlier in your life.
  6. Revamp your resume. You may need to stress skills and experiences that were irrelevant for your previous job.
  7. Network! Join organizations related to your interest. Attend related events and conventions. Start talking and making connections. Recall prior connections you have had, but didn’t pursue back when you were otherwise occupied.
  8. Get out and start applying for the new positions. Don’t let fear of rejection count you out before you begin.
  9. Downshift. Consider part-time work. Be willing to settle for less. Let it be known that you would be a consultant working on your own schedule for your old organization or a new one. Be willing to trade money and prestige for the love of some new activity.

These may be useful tips, but as we the editors see it, they leave out one of the most significant possibilities: developing your own career! The possibilities for innovation are endless.

From: Shifting gears and changing careers later in life. Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 19, 2015, R5


The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America
by Ai-jen Poo
We thank Anna Galland for sending her review of this book:
How can we ensure that our aging loved ones live with dignity and independence, and that the people who care for them work with dignity as well? An important new book by Ai-jen Poo, a recent MacArthur "genius" award winner, asks that very question in The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. This elder boom means that more and more of us are relying on our families and home care workers to help us live and stay at home as we age. But despite what our elected officials say, this elder boom is not a crisis—it's a blessing. That's why Ai-jen wrote The Age of Dignity. She's calling it an "organizing tool for building a movement for elder care and home care worker justice." As the number of elders in our nation increases, we'll need to count on professional home care workers more and more. And this workforce—the majority of whom are women, and many of whom are immigrants—is among the fastest-growing, lowest-paid workforces in the nation. This is not only unfair, it's unsustainable for all of us. In Ai-jen's book, she lays out a vision and solutions that will enable everyone to live and age at home if they choose, with dignity and care, while ensuring dignity for the care workforce. It's based on the belief that all of us have a stake in the creation of more care choices for families. And that our nation's policies and budget priorities should reorient toward this vision, in the name of a more just and sustainable future. In The Age of Dignity, Ai-jen shares stories from her own life, along with stories of families and workers on the front lines of the movement to transform care in America. These stories create a road map for how we can build the 21st-century care economy we all need to live and age with dignity.


From Fielding University: Listen to a conference session focused on positive aging in later life, at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMuyBCWSEyc

[email protected]
Inspiring news bits revealing people’s acts of kindness to others.

Sharing the following website with you, from Norman Molesko

Readers Respond:

Krishna Gautam writes from Nepal:
Dear friends of senior citizens,
It is pleasing to note that Ageing Nepal entered into its fifth year of serving the interest of older people. We are also happy for being a part of the successful launching of action/2015 campaign across the globe on 15th January 2015.

The January 2015 issue of "Voice of Senior Citizens" and the 9th issue of the only vernacular magazine of Nepal on the subject -"senior citizens" is available for your information and use. Both were brought out to mark the global launching of action/2015 on 15th Jan. http://www.ageingnepal.org/?cat=43 and http://www.ageingnepal.org/?cat=51.

Geert Mork writes from Denmark:

Dear Ken and Mary,
I would like to share this phenomenal link to some really great pictures and wonderful stories:

Great photos taken by Dr. Jeffrey Levine, a New York-based geriatric specialist and professional photographer.

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, returning from Jerusalem
Dear Mary,
I write this on the eve of Tu Rishvat, the New Year for the tree….This is the season at which the sap begins to rise within the trees of the land of Israel, signal of the new beginning of spring.

Beyond midlife, we, too, can experience renewal and fruitfulness, as the Psalmist writes and I translate: May we grow fruitful as we age, ripe and abundant and sage. Keep our hearts open to all we face, present to goodness, even a trace. Renew us, let our spirits soar, sustain us, our Rock, for more.

You can taste a sample of Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding your Grit and Grace beyond Midlife, my newest book, in my brand-new blogpost, “What Calls You Beyond Midlife?”….

In blessing,


  • May 6th, 2015: Creative Aging Symposium, 6th Annual Creative Aging Symposium: building arts and aging partnerships across North Carolina
    Theme: Aging in a Diverse World
    Where: The Lusk Center, 2501 Summit Avenue, Greensboro, NC
    When: 8:30am - 4pm

  • May 19-21, 2015: NCCA Creative Age: Creative Aging in America Washington, DC. This seminal event will bring together arts and humanities , health, and research professionals; artists; caregivers; and all who want to age creatively; to exchange best practices, build capacity in the field, and explore emerging research that will build the field of creative aging. More than 100 presenters from across the field of creative aging will lead conversations focusing on the practice, research, and business of creative aging.

    Additional dynamic events surrounding the conference include the world premiere of the family comedy drama, The Blood Quilt, Kairos Community Dancehall, and a festive networking dinner and after party.

Information for Readers:

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