“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
My first, almost reflexive, old-doggie response to this cliché is to disagree. “What do you mean!? How old is old? 50? 65? 80? Some can be demented at 60 years and others, at 80, can be sharper than many 20-year-old’s.” Once my indignation subsides, I am painfully aware of the daily reminders of the inescapable reality that the body ages, the mind slackens, and energy wanes. Information goes in, but doesn’t stick. Recall is diminished as I root around for a familiar name, word, or past event. Attention wanders. Complex reasoning is a trial with failure a common outcome; even no-so-complex reasoning sometimes befuddles. Focus is fragmented: “What was I just doing?” “Why was I doing it?” “Where did I put it?”1
Dementia. I have witnessed family members, friends, and acquaintances fall to this dreaded outcome. The tragedy is twofold, afflicting both the sufferer as well as their family and caretakers. Dementia is one of my biggest fears and, I know, also is for many others of my generation. Diminishing capacities are not only a source of concern, in themselves, but another, more general level of anxiety pervades: “Is this a sign of dementia?”
Research on the normative patterns of cognitive decline with age helps, somewhat, to normalize what I am experiencing. Normal declines include: information processing speed and reaction times; keeping multiple thoughts in mind at the same time; memory of recent events; remembering to do things in the future; screening out distracting information, multitasking, sustaining attention; recalling words, names, places; thinking abstractly, making complex decisions, reasoning, solving new problems, and regulating behavior.2
Quite a comprehensive list! Should I be relieved that these are “normal?” It certainly suggests that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Well, let’s look at some things that remain relatively stable or improve with age: Vocabulary and comprehension of language remain stable. Procedural memory, which is how to do things, like ride a bike, ice skate, swim, drive a car, also remains stable. Older adults have a lifetime of stored information to draw on when making decisions and responding to problems and situations. They also are quicker to recover from negative experiences, less reactive to stressful interpersonal encounters, more positive in their outlook, and, surprisingly, happier.3
So, when the elderly get in a car accident, which is much more likely, they will be able to talk about it fluently and be less emotionally reactive. They retain the ability to drive, but their mental and physical reaction times are slower, they forget where they are going, get confused, distracted, lose their attentional focus, and have diminished perceptual acuity making driving at night, in the rain, snow, etc., challenging. This is hardly reassuring. And it does not make me happier…
Old Tricks, New Tricks
The diminishment of my facilities poses a new challenge: How do I manage to continue effectively performing old, necessary tasks? Answer: New tricks must be learned. Most advice about coping with aging focuses on diet, exercise, and activities. Much less is offered about specific behavioral strategies to deal with everyday tasks that have become more challenging because of cognitive decline. Here are some that I have discovered.
“Houston, we have a problem.” The first, necessary, and most important step is to admit there is a problem. Nothing can happen until this admission is made. This can be difficult, for it means admitting that I am old, vulnerable, no longer as capable, and on the noticeable downward slide into the grave. Yikes!4
Speed Kills. This phrase has been used in reference to auto safety. It also applies, metaphorically, to the elderly. Diminished processing speed and attentional focus, greater distractibility, attenuated multitasking capabilities, etc., etc., can create serious problems when performing even routine tasks at the formerly habituated speed. I chant to myself, “Speed Kills” to slow myself down when, for example, paying the bills, collecting my belongings at the gym as I prepare to leave, or trying to save time by doing two things at once. Chanting is especially important while driving when “Speed Kills” is not metaphorical. The challenge, of course, it to remember to chant…
Remember You Won’t Remember. I know I will not remember. When I do remember that I must mail a letter, write a bill, etc., I arrange the environment to remind me: The letter goes in front of the door exiting the house, the checkbook is placed in my shoes, etc. Also, yellow sticky notes placed in unusual and unavoidable spots. ”In place of memories, memorandums.”5
New Tricks for New Tricks
Believe that old dogs can do new tricks. It is easy to get discouraged in the face ever diminishing abilities and conclude, “I’m too old” or “Why bother.” One of the biggest obstacles to learning new tricks is thinking, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” You can. It just takes more time, requires more repetition, more written notes to aid memory and focus, more practice, and more patience.
Adjust expectations. I will not write a novel in a new language, become a concert pianist or an IT expert. Time and ability impose limits. But I can, if I chose, learn a new language, acquire skills at the piano, or setup my own blog site. New tricks are possible within the compass of my energy, abilities, and interests.
Seek joy. I have less energy to sustain prolonged, intense tasks. This means it is absolutely essential that the new tricks I undertake, tricks not necessary for my welfare and health, bring me joy. Joy is my “Geiger counter” to detect those tricks that are worthy of my precious, dwindling, and ever more limited energy. Joy creates energy, passion, engagement in the world. Joy is what keeps me motivated to keep at it, to seek mastery—but at a level that does not seriously diminish joy.
Coordinating activities to maximize joy. I simply cannot sustain focused energy as I once could. Furthermore, if I attempt complex tasks when my energy is low, problems, frustration, and mistakes abound. Not much joy in that. So, I try to match my tricks with my schedule; difficult ones in the morning, and reserve the afternoons and evenings for less taxing and more entertaining activities, like reading novels, listening to baseball games, talking with friends.
One Big New Trick for an Old Dog
The new tricks above involve developing specific cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with the loss of old tricks. A completely new challenge also arises that requires a new trick: The trick of making peace with old age. This is unlike other tricks; it does not entail learning new skills, acquiring more know-how, or improving proficiency. It requires a new attitude towards oneself, one’s life, one’s past, one’s future. It involves acceptance.
Acceptance is not surrender. Surrender is passive. Acceptance is much harder— it calls us to actively embrace our plight. This challenge encompasses humility, forgiveness, and gratitude; to live vitally in the face of impending demise. I have witnessed family, friends, and acquaintances grow old and have learned from each. Some I admire greatly, and they have tutored me how to approach my end. Others offer a cautionary note to the dangers, traps, and pitfalls that I could so easily succumb.
So, can you teach an old dog new tricks? Depends on the dog.
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
- I am acutely aware that many younger people might respond to these ruminations, “Get over it. This is what happens when you get old—why the surprise?” This was my response as a youth when I listened to old people’s laments about aging. To this I say: “But this is happening to ME! It is my first time at this aging business, and despite all the warnings, I am still shocked.”
- There is considerable research on this. For a nice summary, see https://betterhealthwhileaging.net/how-brain-function-changes-with-normal-cognitive-aging/
- A note must be made about wisdom. A common belief (and conceit among the aged) is that “With age comes greater wisdom.” Not true. Simply living longer does not confer greater wisdom. 25-year-old’s can be wise, and more than a few elderly are not…
- ”Life is a play with a badly written ending.” Cicero.
- B.F Skinner, who I also credit for the tip to arrange the environment to aid memory.
Thanks for these reflections, Brian, and for reprinting the beloved poem by Billy Collins.
Another thing I’ve noticed is changing roles. For a literal example, I noticed in the Second Sunday Dinner Theatre (pre-pandemic) I was no longer being asked to play the ingenue, even though in the past I’d often played that part. Why was that? Oh, right. I was almost 80!
Yes, Andy, you are right. You may no longer be a candidate for the ingenue, but new roles are now possible—the wise sage, for example.
An friend shared her perspective with me almost 40 years ago when she said ,”You will never become an old dog if you are always learning new tricks!”
Thanks, Juan, for the insight, and I know you are a doggie full of new tricks.
Love the quote ”In place of memories, memorandums.” One thing that helps us with these changes is to see both the humor and common human experience of these changes.
Yes, Matthew, great point…hold that thought while I try to find a pen to write it down….