You Can't Teach Old Dogs New Tricks!
I beg to differ –this 83-year-old woman learned numerous tricks the last few years – but it does take effort.
Several years ago, my husband and I took a trip to New York City, Boston, and Atlantic City. We stayed in Times Square, took a horse drawn carriage ride in Central Park, had a romantic dinner cruise on the Hudson River to celebrate our 56th wedding anniversary, and visited Harvard University. It’s a memory that I hold dear because we had so much fun together.
At that time, I described myself as a loving wife and partner, who worked and supported her family, but mainly left the technical problems, financial issues, and significant decision-making to her husband. I trusted him to take care of me and he did for over 50 years.
Fast forward to 2022. That earlier woman is long gone. Most people change to a greater or lesser degree over time. I had to change dramatically during my husband’s illness and death – had to make the tough decisions – and had to learn a textbook of new tricks.
Today, I describe myself as a strong, independent woman who is aging well. How did that happen, you might ask - the answer - lots of work.
In 1721, Nathan Bailey wrote in the book Diverse Proverbs – "An old dog will learn no tricks.“He referred to humans and the difficulty, if not impossibility they face in learning something new or changing a behavior. We’ll use anything to avoid change and stand firm in our ways, even if they bring discomfort to ourselves and those around us.”
That thinking has evolved. In 1948, Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski introduced the term “neuroplasticity”- the brain’s ability to adapt over time by creating new neurons and building new networks.
Dr. Norman Doidge popularized the notion that the brain is not stagnant - that even into older adulthood, the brain can grow, change, and heal itself! Doidge says the truth is you can teach an old dog (or even a person) new tricks. For a more in-depth discussion, you can listen to his message.
Learning can occur throughout life – that’s a start, but attributes must be in place - attributes such as; willingness, acceptance, honesty, initiative, courage, and curiosity.
Willingness - I was unwilling to sit on the sofa and let others take over after my husband died. So, I had to put on my big boy pants - to willingly re-establish old skills, and learn new ones. Taking care of our affairs was now my responsibility. I had to find answers and learn new tricks.
Acceptance - I had to accept that life as I knew it was over – there was no one to take care of me. I was solely in charge– like it or not. I certainly had help, but the decisions were mine.
Honesty - I could no longer rely on old excuses such as not knowing how and not understanding or blaming others. I had to take care of business – the internet remains a great resource.
Initiative - I couldn’t wait for someone else to do it. The dishes had to done, the house cleaned, and the bills paid.
Courage – It took courage to move out of my comfort zone and take on new projects. It would have been easier to let others do the thinking and the planning - to turn over management of my life to others, but no.
Curiosity - I permitted myself to try, to make mistakes, and to learn through the lens of being curious.
It seems that older adults can learn and that learning is essential for aging well.
The Scientific American website suggests
Why should adults learn new things in midlife and beyond? The ability to live independently requires periodic “upgrades” because of changes in our environment, especially due to technological advances.
And if people avoid learning these skills themselves, it fosters functional dependence—asking others to do stuff for them
The WEBMD website says
The more you learn, the better your brain can learn.
A study looked at adults ages 58 to 86 who took three to five new classes for three months. They increased their mental abilities to the level of people 30 years younger after just a month and a half.
Some people think that children and young people are more capable of learning. The truth might be that children are just in situations where they spend a lot of time learning new things. A survey of people over 40 found that 50% don't learn something new every week. If older adults act like children, at least in this sense, they are just as capable of learning.
The author of the Age-Wise website says
Folks, we have to keep moving forward in life. And I don’t mean just slogging through another day of work, parenting or doom-scrolling. We need challenges, especially physical ones, that take us out of our comfort zone.
To me that includes teaching old dogs new tricks. I am ready to continue learning them as I practice aging well.