Sunday, March 2, 2014

Can An Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

I recently received an email from a friend asking if we are too old to drive the new 2014 Mercedes Benz SCL 600.  The photographs of this sleek and beautiful Mercedes are consistent with what we have all come to expect from Mercedes Benz.  However, upon closer inspection, the interior of the vehicle is even sleeker than one would expect.  There is no steering wheel and no foot pedals.  The vehicle seems to be operated with a joy stick.  

Call me ridiculous, but I have come to enjoy driving intuitively.  My years of driving experience work in my favor.  I know instinctively when to begin slowing down at a stoplight, how much acceleration is necessary to avoid a problem, and even steering through a snowstorm when my car starts to slide.  A joystick?  Really?  I can only begin to anticipate the miscalculations possible with changing from a system I know to something I have never used, let alone mastered.  My kids grew up on video games.  The only game I played was Atari Pong back in the 1970’s.  If this is an indicator on my future driving success then I am in trouble and you, my fellow driver on the road, are in even bigger trouble.  There are plenty of things that I am prepared to do in my mature age to stay current, but I am not sure I had even considered relearning to drive a car in the parking lot of the local high school.  

“You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.”  ~John Nuveen

This is not the first time I have felt pain.  The past five years or so have made me realize that the world is leaving me behind.  There was a time, I chose not to watch T.V. because I could not operate the three remotes required to do so.  Changing from film to digital photography upset my system of scrapbooking and I have yet to fully implement a new system.  Learning a new computer, navigating wireless technology, understanding “the cloud”, swipe texting, making deposits to our banks with our smart phone, online banking;  I have admittedly experienced angst and reluctance to fit into this brave new world.  Albert Brooks has been known to say that “getting older is a lot of fun.  Right up there with chewing glass or putting your hand in a blender.”  Amen.

“Old age is like everything else.  To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.”  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

The characteristics of aging well have been a topic of discussion with my group of friends for many years. I agree that if you wait too long, it very well may be too late.  It is the type of decision you make early on to start you on a different trajectory.  Perhaps my friends and I wanted to be different from our grandparents who claim they could not tell time with the new digital clocks.  I still don’t get it, i.e. 10:45,  it doesn’t seem that hard, but I now understand the notion of feeling left behind by the times.  There was an article in Octogenarian Magazine several years ago that asked several seniors in their eighties what was the single most important characteristic to aging well.  The most common response was the ability to handle change.  Over the years, this idea continues to reverberate through my mind when faced with a new situation like a fog horn in a storm.  Handling change “well” seems like a worthy endeavor, the only problem is that this world is changing so fast.  

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.  Anyone who keeps learning stays young.  The greatest thing is life is to keep your mind young.”  ~ Henry Ford

Dogs are a great way to circuitously observe human nature.  I have owned two chocolate labs during the past 15 years.  The adage of teaching an old dog new tricks is familiar to us for a reason - someone didn’t just make this up.  Often we identify characteristics more easily in others because we subconsciously observe that behavior in ourselves as well.  We are reluctant to change, we don’t like it and we fight it every step of the way.  The week before I turned fifty, I received an AARP application in the mail.  Isn’t that just pouring salt into an open wound?  I couldn’t shred that envelope fast enough.  Even though I try to be age appropriate, I will not shop in old lady stores or wear old lady shoes.  I have not embraced the gray in my hair and still try to fight the obvious losing battle of wrinkles.  My husband told some friends a few months ago over dinner that he thinks he will retire in two years.  I almost choked on my last bite.  Has my head been buried in the sand?  I  hadn’t realized that we were almost “there.”  It sounds cliche but age is only a number and I feel a different age on the inside than my driver’s license indicates.  I find it difficult to wrap my head around knocking on the door of old age.

Yet, in spite of Albert Brooks comment on old age is fun like sticking your hand in a blender, there are some things that are great.  Age really does give you wisdom, it gives you a special confidence that is undeniable.  We judge others less due to a heightened empathy earned from a multitude of life experiences and can see the bigger picture where our younger counterparts get caught up in the details.  We enjoy more flexibility with our time, our finances and our futures.  Our relationships are more relaxed because we accept differences and feel less threatened by life journeys and habits that differ from ours.

Did you know that Michelangelo was carving the Rondanini just before he died at 89?  Verdi finished his opera Falstaff at the ripe old age of 80 and the Spanish artist Goya scribbled on a drawing when he was 80 years old that he was still learning.  I have an 82 year old friend in my running group with a GPS running watch, a smart phone, who is a weekly docent at a church history museum and stays connected with her childhood friends from Norway on Facebook.  My parents text me every few days to see how I am doing.  

My point it that we can’t give up!  We can’t roll over.  There are more tricks to be learned and it CAN be done.  There are many around to inspire us that it is possible.  A study led by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto found that older adults an perform just as well as the young on a variety of visual and short term memory tests.  The remarkable part of this study demonstrated that older adults utilized different parts of their brain to do so.

“What you think, you become.”  ~ Buddha

In an article for CNN Health, Amand Enayati, writes that the older brain can be stimulated to be creative, innovative and contribute in remarkable ways.  The decline seems to be from not being challenged rather than not being able.  She quotes Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, “Nudge your neurons, shake things up.  Stay physically active.  Keep doing different things.  Challenge your assumptions.  Become comfortable with ambiguity.  Listen to differing points of view and develop the ability to accept differences.  Travel.  Learn different languages.”  

We think that we lose information as we get older.  However, the information is still in our brains, it just is more difficult to access in the folds of neurons.  The result is a need to jiggle the synapses of our well connected pathways.  Taylor goes on to suggest that we “bump up against people and ideas” to enlarge our established brain connections.   Just as physical exercise builds muscle and increases flexibility, seeking information and knowledge stretches our brain.  However to stretch our brain we need to push outside of what is familiar and get out of our comfort zone.  I now have an understanding of why it is recommended to try new things or drive a different way to work.  It jiggles our synapses so that we can better access information we already have but find difficult to recall.

“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love.  When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”  ~ Sophia Loren

My new resolve is that I am going to give this fight all that I have…computer classes, learning new programs, researching my family history using technology, an illustrating class, writing.  There is nothing comfortable about any of it.  My synapses are jiggling and I am not sure it feels good.  Yet, I am pressing on.

As for the AARP mailings - I will continue to shred them for the time being.

Arfff!  Arfff! 

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1 comment:

Aubrey said...

Thank goodness for people with a little more life experience who teach those of us with a little less.