I am certain most of you are aware of the saying ‘‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Which literally means asking older people to change their habits or acquire new skills is impossible.
It is a very broad statement that we overly use and apply to all people over a certain mythical age, but like most broad statements, it is certainly not applicable to all older people.
I read with interest the story of two remarkable older people who certainly disprove the truth of the idiom old dogs and new tricks. Not that I am saying either of these people are “old dogs”.
Alan Stewart, who in 2012, at the age of 97 graduated with a Master of Clinical Science after graduating at the age of 91 with a law degree.
Dr. Lis Kirkby who in 2014, at the age of 93, became Australia’s oldest PhD graduate. Her thesis on “Will we ever learn from history: the impact of economic orthodoxy on unemployment during the Great Depression in Australia”. I cannot imagine the dedication and concentration required to write 30,000 words on this subject.
No doubt, as we grow older there is a preference to carry out tasks and activities the way we have always done them. This familiarity is understandable. It is comfortable does not require a lot of effort and will not strain the grey matter “our brain”.
It is very easy to use the “old dogs and new tricks” idiom as a crutch when it comes to learning a new activity or process. The reality is that for most of us over the age of 60, myself included, the simple answer is: “I cannot be bothered, it is all too hard”.
This is a mistake. The brain benefits by you tackling something new, a task that it is not familiar which requires effort and mental activity. This increased mental activity in later life is associated with lowering the risk of dementia.
Now, I am not saying that as an older retired person you need to go back to studies to acquire your Masters or you PhD, but sitting in front of a television set watching the latest reality TV program is not exercising your brain.
My mum is a very good example, she is 86 years of age, does not have dementia but is quite vague, forgetful and can get a little depressed. Last Christmas we gave mum an adult colouring book and pencils.
She was not impressed and I think was a little insulted. However, after some coaxing she finally opened the book and started to use her imagination and colour in the complicated designs and pictures inside the book.
Over a short period of time, we noticed an improvement in her hand-eye coordination, she is no longer watching as much television, has started to once again listen to music and would appear to be a much happier person.
These, of course, are my observations and not conclusive proof that colouring will improve the lives of those people over the age of 80, but I do believe that this small mental activity has made my mum a more contented person.
The new skills you decide to learn to stimulate the required mental activity do not have to be complicated.
A good friend who has retired has decided to grow all his own veggies and herbs in his front yard in large raised garden beds. Over the last few months he has acquired the knowledge, to first build his garden beds, understand the soil requirements to grow the perfect zucchini and sweet potatoes, install the irrigation system and build the necessary scarecrow to keep the birds off his vegetables. Not sure if the scarecrow has been as effective in relation to his own dog who has acquired a taste for his tomatoes.
Another retired acquaintance has always had the desire to be a first class barista and has enrolled in the required course to learn all the necessary skills and understand the intricacies of roasting and grinding coffee beans.
There is no doubt that while we are working our brains to remain active, but as PK and I have often said, “The act of retiring from the workforce is not an excuse to switch off either physically or mentally”.
Dementia is a growing problem and if remaining mentally alert through activity delays or prevents this insidious condition, it is time to move away from the television pick up a book, go for a walk and learn a new skill before it is too late.
Please leave your comments below – we would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.