, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 3-23

Positive aging: New images for a new age

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The gerontological literature in the social sciences has typically characterized the aging process in terms of decline, degeneration, and decrepitude. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the possibility of growth, generativity, and development in the last decades of life. With the growing population of older people who enjoy increasing social, political and economic power, the willingness to accept the Dark Ages of aging has diminished; a more positive image of the aging person is invited. This paper explores the potential of gerontological inquiry to reconstruct aging in a positive mode. To illustrate the potentials, we show how a variety of research findings suggest that efforts to enhance physical health, emotional well-being, active engagement in life or meaningful relationships all work in a mutually reinforcing manner, with substantial positive consequences for aging people. To emphasize positive practices, we highlight the work being done with an approach called Appreciative Inquiry. Its impact on a large Florida health support system for elders is delineated. In addition, two case descriptions add qualitative weight to the emerging possibilities for positive aging. We conclude with a comparison of successful aging approaches to positive aging, finding common grounds, but also a significant difference in epistemological considerations.

Mary Gergen is a professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at Penn State Delaware County. She is the author of several articles related to aging, and of Feminist Reconstructions in Psychology: Narrative, Gender & Performance (Sage, 2001). She is also co-creator, with Kenneth J. Gergen, of the positive aging newsletter, a monthly electronic publication, which emphasizes research into the positive side of aging. She is a member of the Board of the Taos Institute.
Kenneth J. Gergen is the Mustin Professor of Psychology and Interpretation Theory at Swarthmore College. He is highly recognized for his work on social construction theory, and is the author of several articles related to aging. His most recent book is An Invitation to Social Construction. He is the Director of the Taos Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that spans the gap between theory and social practices.