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Getting older can mean getting smarter

By Staff | May 12, 2011

The last few nights I have been working on becoming a Cockney. I have a small part in “My Fair Lady” playing at the Old Opera House in Charles Town. At 68, I’m learning something new. I have noticed that as I have gotten older, my desire for new information and new ideas is just what it was when I was much younger.

My grandmother lived to be 100. She lived in the house she and her husband built. A large portion of my childhood was spent in that house. I spent hours listening to my grandmother talk about her past and the family’s history.

I learned to read listening to her reading out loud. Mother once told me that she also learned to read thanks to her mother. She was Irish, and she loved Irish music as well as poetry. As she got older, her thirst for knowledge did not drop off. She always was reading a new book or doing crossword puzzles. On one card table she had a giant jig-saw puzzle that she was working on.

In these experiences, and many others, I was learning about old age. A whole layer of understandings, meanings – in fact, a whole framework within which I was to come to understand and give meaning to old age – was being constructed.

Each one of us is such a collection of experiences and stories. The background against which I think and talk about old age comes from my personal background. That is the approach to old age I have taken and is the framework that I see old age in others as well as myself.

Trying to explain old age to others is tough. I have a hard time finding the words to explain some of my feelings and how older people live with day-to-day problems. Actually when you think about, it the day-to-day experiences are handled the same way whether you are old or young.

Until just a few years ago, doctors believed that the brain stopped making new neural connections. This meant that the memory began to get worse when the body stopped developing, usually in the early 20s. Doctors knew that, like any other part of the body, neurons weaken as people age. It turns out they were wrong.

In the past few years, it has become clear that you can, in fact, make new neurons starting in your 20s and continuing well into old age. You can literally rewire the brain with new parts as the older parts wear out.

Some good ways to stimulate your mind is traveling, taking day trips, camping, going to museums or reading books, newspapers or magazines. Ditch the calculator once in while and force yourself to do the calculation in your head or on paper. Play “thinking” games like cards, checkers, chess, crosswords or Sudoku puzzles.

I find that working part time keeps me in touch with younger people. If you don’t want to work, find something that you like and become a volunteer. Through out all that can be done, make your life a little healthier.

Remember the best way to stay healthy is to try and enjoy each day you face.