My friend Geraldine recently celebrated her 83rd birthday.  I phoned to congratulate her on reaching this milestone. In the past, she has invited her friends for a morning tea to celebrate this annual event, but having recently moved to a new senior residence she has abandoned this routine. We resorted to having a chat on the phone.

Catching up

We were discussing our friendship of the past 40 odd years.  We met many years ago at an Easter camp that was run by our local hiking club.  We travelled together to the Alps on a two week hiking tour in Austria.   We reminisced about the many local trails we had hiked together.  We had spent a month in Israel, where we participated in special volunteer program.   In this program, people living in the diaspora can spend three weeks on an Israeli Army Base getting to know the country and its people.   Simultaneously they work as temporary members of the Israeli Defence Force, thus playing a small part in the country’s security.

Changing Technology

Geraldine was telling me that despite the fact that she is considered one of the most technologically sophisticated in her Residential Home she was really put out when visiting her son in America.   She does her own internet banking, and regularly uses an ATM.  However she was unable to begin to master the new systems she found in the States when she visited her son last year.  She expressed her feelings of unfairness.  She wanted to put a new app on her 5 year old ipad but was unable to download the software to her out of date device.  Her laptop of 10 years is unable to cope with the latest upgrades.  “It’s not fair,” she proclaimed, “How do they expect people like me to manage if they keep changing these things?”

Into the Future

If this is how an 83 year old is feeling in 2019, then how are people of a similar age going to feel 30 years from now?  By that time, technology will be changing even faster than today.  Each year the speed of change in the field of communications is accelerated.  I feel that people who are about to retire need to retain their capacity to keep up with the ever changing demands of technology.  Senior people need to maintain a positive attitude to learning new concepts.    The should be aware that our previous skills sets will not equip us for the future environment.

And, Another Friend

I was chatting to another friend who is a retired librarian.  She has a wide knowledge of literature and has been a leader in her local book club for many years.  When I saw Maria recently, I asked her what she was finding interesting in the contemporary world of literature.   I enquired whether she was enjoying an author whom I admire. “Oh yes,” of course,” she responded when I questioned her on the work of Yuval Noah Harari, “I have read all his books, although I did find his second one Homo Deus somewhat challenging.”  I decided to follow up with, “And, do you maybe read the blogs of Maria Popova.  She is someone whose work I respect. She has the ability to synthesise knowledge on such a wide range of contemporary psychological and philosophical issues.”   “No,” she said, somewhat condescendingly, “I do not have enough time to read blogs.”   “Oh dear,” I thought, “It is clear we have some different values regarding the source of useful information.”

The Implications

I see an interesting parallel.   Some people live in a country and never learn the primary official language of their adopted home.   Then, others have a negative attitude toward technological change.

We are not all going to be using all the opportunities presented by social media, or all the potential apps which are available for download.  However, I do consider it a disadvantage to cut oneself off from the reading of all the personal, anecdotal, and contemporary perspectives to be discovered by reading blogs.

My Potential Contribution

I am working hard to develop an online course specifically targeting people nearing their retirement.  I plan to share some of the habits I have been practising for most of my life.

Physical well-being

Not just the benefits of daily and ongoing exercise, but the necessity of developing a routine that includes both walking and more robust activities.  I believe potential retirees need to continue to learn new skills.  They should continuously set themselves everyday cognitive challenges.   They need to be in a position to take advantages of the fresh possibilities which become available.

Cognitive well-being

An awareness of the many ways to keep the mind active will become critically relevant.  Watching passive entertainment on the TV screen or playing games on the phone do not qualify.

Emotional well-being

Furthermore, I believe an ability to practice the techniques of mindfulness and meditation have become a pre-requisite for maintaining emotional equilibrium. These skills assist us in processing new experiences, objectively and healthily.   Allow us to develop our emotional resilience.

My hope

I hope you will be following me as I develop my online course and share my life experiences.   I aim to retain my curiosity as an octogenarian who remains intrigued by the up-to-the-minute opportunities which become available day by day.

 

I had a new experience today.    Sarah McKay teaches online courses about Neuroscience.   As a past student I was invited to a zoom meeting to share my experiences in applying her teachings in the work environment..

In these an online courses Sarah teaches coaches the basic neurological principles behind behaviour change.   Once the students have acquired this knowledge, the coaches are empowered to motivate their clients by sharing with them the underlying psychological and neurological principles of behaviour change.   You can read about the course here

What is a Zoom Meeting

I am not going to presume that all my readers are familiar with what a zoom meeting is all about.   Those of you who are familiar with the concept and the experience can skip the next paragraph!

A Zoom meeting  is held on the internet.   The initiator invites participants to join the meeting by sending an online email link together with the date and time of the proposed gathering.   If recipients wish to join the meeting, they do not need to reply, they merely note the time and date and log in at the appropriate instant.   Meetings can be held with just two people, or with scores of participants.

Today’s Meeting

It was 8 o’clock in the morning for me in South Africa.   For Sarah in Australia, it was just getting dark.  Online were two women from Belgium, which is more or less my time zone!

Contributions from Belguim

One of the ladies from Belgium was a teacher trying to revolutionise the conservative schooling system in Brussels.   When I heard about her ambitions and her progressive ideas, I was able to suggest that she takes a look at Ken Robinson’s TED talk.   Here is a brilliant presentation by Ken on bringing creativity into the school curriculum.   It has had over 3 million views:

Ingrid lives in Belgium.  She spoke about the work she does with Ear Acupuncture and the healing of emotional trauma.   She told us how she applied needles in the ear, which enables her to help her patients reduce anger, anxiety and trauma.

Amrish from India

Amrith from India was the next person to introduce himself when he came online during his lunch break.   He had completed Sarah’s course many years ago but still remained in touch with the teacher who had enriched his practice of alternative therapy.   He was impressive in describing the relief he had given to his clients who suffered from both physical and emotional challenges.

Grace from South Africa

Of course, I was also given the opportunity to share my shenanigans with the assembled participants in the Zoom Room.   I recounted my experiences with facilitating Couscous Ageing for Seniors.   In these 2 hour discussion groups, participants are made aware of the neurological background of the ageing process.  This knowledge and understanding help them devise a methodology for maintaining and building their cognitive reserve.   The non-negotiable importance of the maintenance of  physical fitness is emphasised.  In addition, techniques for building emotional resilience form a large part of the discussion.

Sarah’s Contribution

Sarah shared with us some of her accumulated wisdom.   She had been participating in an Australian TV program in which Octogenarians and Nonagenarians were being interviewed.   This series aimed to glean information about successful ageing.   Emerging from her experience with this group, Sarah suggested that a mind of curiosity may be the critical quality that helps those in the latter decades of their life remain involved and committed in the ever changing contemporary environment.

Striking a receptive chord.

I agreed with her hypothesis.   I have always taken pride in my belief that curiosity is one of my positive characteristics.    Sarah jogged my memory when she made this comment.

Photocopying was the latest in technology then

I recalled the era when photocopying machines first arrived.   I had taken my notes to a photocopy shop to have the minutes of the school committee meeting printed for the attendees, and I wondered, why does the assistant not ask me what my material is all about.    Is he not interested in what I am copying? My curious mind would continue, “If I were an assistant doing his job, I would want to know what is written on the page as well as the reason the customer needing this material.”

I had never seen a computer screen

Another early memory popped into my mind.   I recalled going to reserve a long distance bus ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg.   It was at the time when businesses were just starting to use computers to enhance their services.  My curiosity was aroused.  I wanted to view the screen.  However, all I could see was the back of the monitor. I had never even had sight of a computer screen and could only imagine what the assistant was viewing.   I can still sense my frustration, my curiosity was not satisfied.   I could not have sight of the screen.

Where is my curiosity taking me?

You may consider the above examples somewhat trivial.   But I am curious, and that is why I am starting to explore the methodology of sharing my accumulated knowledge and life experiences with online learners.

The latest initiative

I am planning to complement the face to face monthly meetings I have been running for the past 12 years, with some opportunities offered by current technology in the form of online tuition and zoom meetings!  I plan to offer guidance and advice to those in the middle years about a lifestyle which will allow them to build cognitive reserve, maintain their physical fitness and develop their resilience for coping with the emotional challenges of their life.

I need your help!

Anyone who is reading this blog and has an idea what they might like to learn within my area of expertise is welcome to place suggestions in the Comment Box.    I would love to hear from you!

 

 

The increasing popularity and awareness of the Practice of Mindfulness in the Western World during the past decade, has been so phenomenal, that some sceptical observers have been calling it somewhat sardonically MacMindfulness!

My first memory of being impressed by the potential of the Practice of Mindfulness was when I read about research that was being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, some 25 years ago.   It was when the first efforts were made to derive scientific evidence for this phenomenon using long term meditators as the subjects.  Matthieu Ricard was chosen as the perfect candidate to Meditate on Compassion in an MRI machine.   Practising Compassion or Metta is a pivotal mindfulness practice derived from the Buddhist tradition.    He was the ideal subject for this early attempt at obtaining scientific evidence on Mindfulness, as he was well on his way to receiving a Nobel Prize for his research in microbiology when he decided to leave his career at a Parisian research centre and immerse himself in Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation in the East.

Early Research

With many thousands of hours of meditation under his belt, Matthieu subjected himself to the rigours of Meditating on Compassion in the MRI machine.   When reading the report of this trial, I learned that the graph paper was not big enough to record the information being received from its experimental subject. The graph actually went off the top of the page because of the intensity of the brain waves which were being recorded during the experimental sessions.   This information motivated me to find out more about the practice of Mindfulness and meditation.

An Opportunity

At that time I was involved in the study and practice of Eric Berne’s “I’m OK – You’re OK.”  This theory investigated how the early relationships set up in the family home influences our thought patterns, behaviour as well as our responses to social situations and cultural pressures during our lifetime.    It was my teacher of Berne’s theory who emailed me information about an eight week course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.   Having reassured myself that the presenters of this course were well qualified I decided to take a leap of courage and immerse myself into this training.

The idea of needing to meditate for 45 minutes a day, every day for the next eight weeks was daunting, and I had to be constantly reminding myself of my impressions of the performance of Ricard in the MRI machine, to keep me motivated.   There was a significant dropout rate from the class, but I did manage to fulfil all the requirements of the course which included a 6 hour day of mindful silence.

I was satisfied with my handling of this early immersion into Mindfulness.   I had done the homework meditation practices, attended all the two hour sessions, learned about mindful eating and incorporating mindful moments in my daily routine.   However, I was not successful in motivating myself to perform the daily meditation practice on the cushion.    This was a cause of personal dissatisfaction.

Further Opportunity

However, it was about 6 months later that I received an announcement about a new two year diploma course that was being offered at Stellenbosch University Medical School on the Theory and Practice of Mindfulness.   The entrance qualification was a degree in Psychology or experience in an allied field.   I had the necessary qualifications but, “What chance has a woman in her mid-70s of being selected for this course” I pondered.

Very soon I had a phone call from Dr Simon Whitesman, the initiator of this program.   He interviewed me telephonically and I learned I had been successful in my application.   The course involved on-line study, the writing of essays, and 4 separate weeks of immersion into the experience of Mindful Meditation at local retreat centres.    Two years later I was the proud owner of a certificate stating my success in pursuing this Diploma Course.

It is a full six years ago that I completed this training, and I now have an established mindfulness practice.   The first thing I do after my early morning ablutions and getting dressed is 20 minutes ‘on the cushion.’   If I miss out for any reason, like having to be on the tennis court at 7am, then the whole day has a feeling of something missing or ‘ennui’.   I have mastered the art of meditation in many varying situations including the park, the queue at the bank or just taking a break in my writing schedule!  Additionally, I sometimes remember to take a pause for a few mindful breaths a couple of times a day just to bring me back into the present moment, and away from the tendency to think compulsively.

Positive Lifestyle Augmentation

It was indeed challenging when my somewhat sceptical daughter questioned me a couple of days ago, “Ma,” she said, “Do you feel that your daily practice of meditation has helped you?”

I took a deep breath and expressed myself as follows.   “Tanya, I feel that I can with good conscience tell you that this practice has been of value to me.   As you know, I moved into a Retirement Village two years ago.   This move took place just 6 weeks after I had major back surgery.   I needed to pack up my home, recover from the post-operative pain, and cope with all the practical details involved.   I managed to do that with some degree of equilibrium, and indeed hosted a meeting at my new home, just two days after taking occupation.  I feel that my training in Mindfulness helped me to cope with the stresses involved in making this change in my lifestyle.”

I continued, “You know about the negotiations I went through to have my two dogs living here with me.   You recall that management only wanted me to bring one dog, so I went through many painful negotiations with the committee to ensure that I was not separated from both Blanco and Freddy.”

And besides, I said to her, “You know about the various family pressures with which I have been involved so soon after moving.   I have managed to cope with these events while continuing to pursue my hobbies and my commitments to my groups who come for their monthly sessions of Conscious Ageing.”

“So in conclusion,” I announced, “yes, my daily practice of mindful meditation has assisted me in establishing an equilibrium which I do not believe I would have enjoyed without this training. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to add this area of knowledge and skill set, to my repertoire of acquired skills.   I can sincerely recommend the practices I have learned around Mindfulness and the knowledge I have acquired on the journey towards developing a regular daily practice.”

Rachel Carsons who wrote the definitive work Silent Spring in 1962, her classic exposition on the potentially disastrous role of DDT which caused such damage to wildlife, birds, bees, agricultural animals, domestic pets, and even humans; has said  “If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, the chances are very high that you will interest other people as well.”

I am interested in maintaining my cognitive reserve, which includes my ability to concentrate, pay attention and remember.   Since I learned about neuroplasticity; a concept which has only been part of the lexicon of medical terms for the past 20 years, I have realised that the maintenance of my cognitive skills is dependent on the use I make of my cognitive potential on a day to day basis.

Daily Rituals

Hence I have certain daily practices like doing the Sudoku problem in the Cape Times, as well as checking out the daily bridge problem.   Another attention and memory skill I attempt to do on a daily basis is Mindsparke, see http://mindsparke.com/    Whilst today a subscription needs to be purchased on a monthly basis to practice this sophisticated training when I started practising Mindsparke it could be purchased on a CD.    I have great faith in this exercise which involves some complex multi-tasking such as remembering both visual and auditory cues simultaneously.   The participant has to pay attention to the incoming cues delivered to two sensory modalities, and then make an appropriate response on the keyboard.    I have offered many of my students a copy of this CD (after getting permission from the creator), but so far I have not found anyone who has performed the exercise in the long term.

Another interesting daily task which can be done on the internet can be found at this link https://www.setgame.com/set/puzzle   I invite you to follow the link and engage in the game.  It is not too difficult to follow the instructions offered, and you may well find it an interesting challenge.   As you improve at Setgame, you will find you can perform the task in less time on each attempt.

Facility with Numbers

I am not a great mathematician, nor am I a graduate in any form of the “hard” sciences.   Despite my lack of academic study in chemistry, or physics, I enjoy numbers puzzles.   For the past six years, I have been attending monthly meetings offered by Alison, a retired teacher of mathematics.   She offers her expertise and vast experience to a small group of local members of the University of the Third Age.   At our monthly meetings, Alison offers as some challenges which involve just over an hour of concentrated thinking, whilst the rest of the morning is devoted to conversation and chat.

Some of the topics we have discussed over the years include Magic Squares, Pascal’s Triangle, Nine and some multiples of Nine, Farey’s sequences, Bayes Theorem and Matrix Multiplication.   These topics may sound somewhat esoteric to the uninitiated, but they can all be tackled with matric level mathematics.

Today we were given some tasks on the qualities of Polyhedra, which are solid shapes with flat faces and straight edges.   The pictures illustrating this blog will give you an idea of what a polyhedron looks like.   It was such fun making these models with toothpicks and jelly tots!

Here is a challenge!

My challenge to you the reader is to follow the links I offer to both Mindsparke and Setgame.   It will help to ensure that your cognitive reserve is not only maintained, but also enhanced.   Let me know in the comments section how you fared!

I have something in common with both Winston Churchill and Oliver Sacks.   Yes I know I am neither a great politician nor an esteemed neurologist known for my brilliant essays written for the lay public.   However, all three of us suffer from a condition known as prosopagnosia, or “brain blindness”.   People suffering from this diagnosis have a malfunction of the fusiform gyrus, the specialised area of the brain which determines facial recognition.   This disorder puts us at a serious disadvantage in social situations and I have often been accused of being a snob, by the person I do not recognise.   I bit more understanding would be appreciated!

My niece, living in Canada, drew my attention to a mind engaging article by Robert Sapolsky entitled “The biology of Us and Them,” which highlights a further important function of the fusiform gyrus.  Because of the role that his small area of the brain plays in facial recognition, it, in turn, plays a role in the formation of social prejudice. We feel more positive towards people who look like us, as have a natural tendency to be more favourably disposed to those who have similar behaviour patterns as ourselves, as well as those who have a comparable appearance

As Sapolsky points out in his analysis, both humans and animals favour those of our species who are most like ourselves in their physical appearance.   Despite the fact that today many of us who live in big cities live in culturally diverse environments, most people will have more friends who bear a physical likeness to themselves, than those who differ in appearance.   No doubt education and familiarity helps us to minimise these barriers of physical appearance, but the gut reaction of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for our unconscious reactions, will demonstrate during an experiment in an MRI machine, a definite preferential reaction to photographs of similar faces to the subject and those which differ in physical qualities.   There will be an instantaneous negative reaction to a physiognomy which differs from our own.   This reaction may be adapted when the subject allows cultural influences to overcome his initial prejudice.

From this theoretical understanding of an inherent bias which we possess for a preference to people who are both physically and culturally similar to us, I am going to introduce a contemporary controversy which has elicited heated debate.   Being a secular Jew the current events of the nation of Israel are of particular interest to me.   One of the most prominent political divides in politics in that country is around the treatment of the Arab citizens within the state of Israel. Such a controversy has erupted over the past few days.

With the elections coming up in next month, Netanyahu who has been the right wing president of the state for the past 14 years is being seriously challenged by a centrist party which is forming a coalition with some of the Arab political parties.   This has resulted in the prime minister supporting his colleague who has made some statements around the danger of the Israeli Arab Parties, with which his opponent intends to form a coalition.  Netanyahu feeling insecure about his political future has pointed out the danger of having Arab political parties as members of the ruling party.

Netanyahu was responding to comments on social media by Israeli TV presenter Rotem Sela who wrote on Instagram on Saturday, “When the hell will someone in this government broadcast to the public that Israel is a country of all its citizens? And the Arabs, God have mercy, are also human beings. So are the Druze, so are homosexuals and by the way so are lesbians….and, shockingly, the left.”   Both Gal Gadot, international star of the film Wonder Woman, and the President of Israel have support Sela

Netanyahu supports his comments by quoting the contents of the new Nation-State Law which was passed in Israel a few months ago and similar sensitivities were aroused.  This controversial law states that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. This is our state, the state of the Jews. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to cast doubt on this, and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights. Today we etched in the stone of law: This is our state, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag.”

An unfairly brief background excursion into the historical background may help the reader understand this gut reaction of the Prime Minister.     The Jews have a 2000 year history of being discriminated against and have suffered, and fought long and hard for the Jewish state.   A sad reflection is that there needed to be a Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews to give the motivation for the UN to create the conditions for the creation of this Jewish Nation State.

I think that the amygdala of Jews has become super activated because of this difficult history.  There is an unconscious reaction when a Jewish person’s insecurity is threatened.   It is all due to so many years of being a nation of outsiders.     So whilst I can agree with Galot, Siler and the President for their support of universal human rights, the rights of Arab citizens within the state of Israel, I can also understand the biological basis of the gut reaction of Israelis who feel that their culture and lifestyle is being threatened by giving political power to the Arab parties.