Karen Telleen-Lawton: A Dilettante’s Delight | Housing & lifestyle


Shoot, what are those little green vegetables that look like mini cabbage? Yesterday I couldn’t remember the word for Brussels sprouts; Last week it was a friend at Trader Joe’s whose name I couldn’t think of. I forgot property tax a few months ago. That cost me a pretty penny.

Most of us fear that we will lose brain function as we get older. However, we have all struggled successfully against cognitive loss since early adulthood. Laura T. Germine, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, published a study in 2015 that shows that processing speed peaks in late teens.

Short-term memory for names and faces is best between 22 and 30 years, and vocabulary acquisition levels off between 50 and 65 years.

Germine and co-author Joshua K. Hartshorne might conclude that we are all on the path to senility. Instead, they come to the rosy conclusion: “Not only is there no age at which people perform at their best in all cognitive tasks, but there can also be no age at which people perform at their best in most cognitive tasks.”

Scientists are finding neurological support for what is commonly attributed to the elderly: wisdom.

Author Rich Karlgaard (“Late Bloomers: The Hidden Strengths of Learning and Succeeding at Your Own Pace”) writes, “Our brains are constantly building neural networks and pattern recognition skills that we didn’t have in our youth when we were fiery synaptic PS.”

The cumulative skills of older adults make up for lost speed and memory. In addition, adults can cultivate this wisdom in a safer way than buying memory pills online. Researchers Rachel Wu, George W. Rebok, and Feng Vankee Lin find six ways seniors can improve their long-term, comprehensive cognitive skills. They realize:

1. Open-minded, input-driven learning

2. Individualized framework

3. Growth mentality

4. Forgiving environment

5. Serious commitment to learning

6. Learn multiple skills at the same time

Every factor is worth analyzing, but the last finding surprised and interested me. It seems that people can learn better when they tackle several new skills at the same time.

The study asked adults over 55 years of age to acquire three new skills, “not only to acquire knowledge in these areas, but to improve their overall cognitive functions, including working and episodic memory”.

I’ve enjoyed being a newcomer to the series for the past decade and more. I started stand up paddle boarding when I was over half a century mark, but now I sometimes lack the strength to pull the board onto the beach and through the surf. After nearly 40 years, I returned to fencing for a season even though it was tough on my knees. This has resulted in a new yoga practice where my mountain pose is only surpassed by an excellent Shavasana.

My home-grown kombucha, kefir, and capers testify that I learned fermented foods as natural probiotics. The most fulfilling thing I do now is to play a band instrument, a dream since childhood at the piano. For the past five years I have happily added my saxophone tones to the Prime Time Band.

Every new skill I acquire is without the expectation of becoming an expert. As Margo Talbot writes in The New Yorker, “If you think of amateurism as advocating learning for the sake of learning … what is not to love?”

She continues: “The willingness to get involved in something that one is mediocre but intrinsically fun, to indulge in the imperfect pursuit of something one would like to do for no particular reason seems like a small form of resistance.”

I haven’t tried learning three new skills at the same time. That sounds scary. It may be that hyper-learning would get a few extra synapses, but it also seems more stressful than fun. I do find myself feeling a bit resistant to being a three-time beginner.

– Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the director of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach them with your questions about financial planning at [email protected]. Click here to read the previous columns. The opinions expressed are their own.