Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rehabing the Aging Brain: Fact or Fiction and Why Do It?

Everyone gets older, if they care for their health and manage their stress level. But as we grow older, what negative consequences await us? Are we going to become slower in our cognitive efforts and, consequently, less creative and less work worthy? These are not inconsequential things to consider and, considering the bias there is toward older workers, is everyone over 50 or 60 headed to be put out to pasture whether its financial or emotionally possible or not?

Too many workers in this age group are already being viewed as unsuited for our full-throttle technological age. Gray hair is, at all costs, to be avoided unless, of course, it's just that "hint of gray" that is acceptable. Is it going to continue to be "Gray go away?" time in corporate America and in the entrepreneurial area?

Toss all that experience, forget the mistakes they can help us avoid and go blindly ahead with that age cut-off for hiring or any work consideration. Send them all to that dim golden age we've promised and, in an age of conservative lack of social consciousness, who cares what happens to them?

Let them all fend for themselves. It's not our concern. We just need to concentrate on getting that new iWatch, working on ramping up ad income on mobile devices and slurping up the latest cuisine or alcoholic beverages we can get, plus grabbing all those red-soled shoes. What an age. What a statement about how crass and how poorly we manage. The talent is there, but we are blind to it.

Along comes the new class of reformers who will "save" us from this dismal fate. Well, perhaps not save, but create the illusion that, if we do something right now, we can turn the tide of fortune for ourselves. Although the methods being offered may have true benefit, how do we change the bias that will still exist? Therein lies the rub.

Older workers are the workhorses of the marginal income jobs. They are reliable, have an incredible work ethic, a sense of respect for authority and, most telling of all, they have few, if any, options. They have been corralled into an employment pasture that provides no exit gate to a better life or job. In time, what will happen to them and how will they cope?

Look at the growing alcohol sales in the older population. Surely, that's one indication of despair and not increased socializing. It's a means to contend with the subtle, hostile erosion of self-esteem.

Consider, too, the distressing incidence of suicide among the elderly. A woman in her 80s jumps from the terrace of a New York City high rise building. A couple is found in their bedroom with the car running in the closed garage. A man goes into a nursing home, shoots his wife and then himself. How often does this happen? No one wants to tout these sad instances, but we must all face the realities regarding why it happens. Lay some of the blame at the doorstep of our ageist culture.

The back story to all of this lies, of course, in a return to valuing all of our citizens, regardless of their age or ethnicity. We marvel when a hospitalized 14-year-old girl invents (thanks to the forethought of the hospital administration) a device to help kids with CF clean their nebulizers.

Great, but what about the older worker who demonstrates just as much creativity? Oh, yes, we marvel when a tidbit is provided on that because this is a person in the unemployable heap of humanity. Wunderkinds are touted, but the swelling group of elderly must stand silently by and hope for a menial job. They wonder, too. But they wonder how things got this wrong and they were so abandoned because they know they still have horsepower in them and you can teach an old dog new tricks.

How do you teach these old dogs new tricks? It starts early on, but it's still viable in middle age and approaching senior citizenship or even beyond. The basic ingredients are still there.  Simple things can be done to tune up that sluggish creativity after 25 years of age and open new neural areas of the brain--areas that hold promise, but only with specific work. Think about what is termed neuroplasticity.

Start with learning something new and challenging. How many times have I heard an older person express not just reluctance but something akin to fear about computers. Ever use a typewriter? Computers are no more frightening and they are just stupid machines that depend on software written by someone else. Learning to be computer literate is available at free local community programs, colleges and senior citizen centers or even corporate programs to enlist new, older employees.

Speak only one language? Learn a new one, no matter how difficult it seems at first. Recall how much effort learning to read was when you first entered school? Yes, it was difficult and you had to work at it and you succeeded.

Computer programming is another language and there are many simple languages (Python for one and Learn Python the Hard Way--my favorite) that are useful in today's business climate. These programs, many written to get kids easily involved into programming, are online and available free. Search for these free programs which you can take in your own time and can even download the videos to view later. It's there and it will start your brain power on a new path. It also begins a process of evaluation and questioning of information and projects that charges up your interest.

In medical school, they teach interns a simple mantra, "Watch one, do one, teach one." And it's a way to help your own learning. Once you begin to learn something, you teach someone else how to do it. The process brings up questions that help you to learn your area even better. Wonderful to help yourself and someone else.

You are sitting there waiting for what? For senility to come your way? Forget about it. Fight for your right to be a "brainful" person by working at it like you work on your muscles to keep from falling. This is the new gym that you take with you wherever you go and no one can take it from you once you've built it. Just like education, it's yours for life, so live it.