As I was about to enter the eighth decade of my life, I was constantly hearing from my friends about their memory loss. Or, about their confusion when navigating familiar parts of their home town, or their difficulty in maintaining concentration on everyday tasks. However, it had not occurred to me there was a recognised field of training for people who wished to assist others in slowing down this cognitive decline.

A Chance Encounter

During my daily exploration of the internet, in February 2006, I came upon an international newsletter from the University of the Third Age. There was a seemingly innocuous phrase in this newsletter which piqued my interest. It said, “Dana lives in Prague, and she is a live-wire.” I would certainly like to meet a live-wire during my anticipated trip to Prague in a couple of months. My son was due to be married in Amsterdam, and my daughter and I planned to visit Prague after the wedding.

I double-clicked on the relevant email address and composed a quick email to Dana. The message read, “I am planning to visit Prague in July and would love to meet you and take you out for a cup of coffee,”

A Live-Wire indeed

Within the next 24 hours, I received a response from Dana. Unfortunately, she would not be in Prague in July, as she was to be in Turkey facilitating a Memory Training Course for members of the University of the Third Age who live in the United Kingdom. “But,’ she said, ‘You are welcome to stay together with your daughter in my flat when you are here.”

The Concept of Memory Training

I was excited to accept her offer of hospitality and enjoy her well-equipped residence while visiting the capital of the Czech Republic. In addition, I wished to know more about the course she offered in Memory Training. It took merely a couple of emails, and a few days to arrange that Dana would travel to Cape Town to offer a three-day course in Memory Training. So in June 2007, 200 members of the University of the Third Age in South Africa had the opportunity to attend this course.

Her course was stimulating, engaging and a great eye opener to all who attended. ‘But,’ I asked her, ‘what is going to happen now you are going back to Prague? Please give me some ideas on how I can continue the momentum you have built up.’ ‘If you want to continue my work,’ she responded, ‘then you must come to my week-long course in Prague next February. I will then be running a training course in English under the auspices of the Czech Society for Memory Training and Brain Jogging.’

International Training

So, for the second time in under a year, I was destined to visit Prague. This time it was in the middle of winter, whereas the first time it was a summer encounter. Quite a contrast, but Prague is a beautiful city at any time of the year. Now I had the opportunity to join students from Scotland, America and Tasmania who were also interested in memory training. By the week’s end, I was tested on my ability to recite the 43 American Presidents from memory. Additionally, I could recite the memorised decimals of pi to 100 digits.

‘But what is this Memory Training all about?’ you may ask. ‘And who wants to know the American Presidents off by heart?’ ‘And, I am not interested in pi,’ I can hear you saying to yourself. Your reaction would be the same as the majority of people when they first hear about these exercises. When you engage in the course, you grow to understand the significance of the use of mnemonics as a tool for assisting the memory. Mnemonics is a powerful associative tool giving the learner the capacity to memorise long lists of both numbers and facts.

Sharing my New Skills

When I returned to Cape Town I wasted no time in gathering together a small group of people to share my new insights and trainings. I researched further areas for maintaining our cognitive faculties, and as time has progressed, I have incorporated additional skills into my training program.

Realising that memory training and the building of a cognitive reserve is intimately connected with emotional control, a study of emotional resilience and motivation have become part of my teachings. Recently Mindfulness and Meditation are being rapidly embraced within Western society, so the understanding, practice and appreciation of these concepts have also become part of the range of skills we embrace in our non-directive facilitations.

Maintenance Skills

When we are at school and university, and subsequently in a work situation, we are called upon on a daily basis to exercise our mind. To stretch our intellectual faculties. To absorb new pieces of information. However, during the time of retirement, these external factors no longer form an integral part of our daily life, and the temptation to live a semi-indolent existence is ever-present. However, the trouble is that if we do not use it, we lose it. This expression applies to our mental abilities, in the same way as it applies to our physical abilities. If we are to retain our optimal level of functioning, slow down memory loss and maintain our perceptual faculties we need to adopt some daily routines into our lifestyle. To preserve our manual dexterity, sustain our balancing abilities and maintain our muscle tone, these skills have to be exercised in a consistent and stimulating manner.

Role of Blogging

And, perhaps the best way of all to retain one’s cognitive reserve is in the discipline of blogging. The weekly effort to draw insights from my experiences has become an effortful way of exercising concentration. It ensuring my creative skills do not become dormant. If you do not wish to blog, then daily journaling is a recognised pursuit for those who wish to practice their cognitive skills and ensure their faculties remain intact.

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!

 

 

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!

Burning the Candle at both Ends

They say you cannot burn the candle at both ends, but today in the middle of summer I managed to do just that.   At 8am this morning, just after sunrise,  I was on the tennis court playing in a Tournament at my local club to mark the start of the summer season.   By the time the heat of the day had developed, the tennis match was completed, and I was having a swim at the local gym to refresh myself after the physical exertion of running around hitting a tennis ball.   This evening was the time to play croquet which continued until sunset after 8pm.   There is no doubt in my mind that the best part of a summer day is in the early morning and the late evening.   How grateful and lucky I am to have the facilities, the lifestyle and the health to take advantage of the long summer days of the South African summer.

Multitasking?

In addition it is said there is no such thing as multi-tasking.   I have found a very special way of performing more than one activity at the same time.   Walking my dogs in the evening has been part of my routine for the last fifty-five years.   I have always had a dog and once your canine companion knows that he is going to have a walk in the evenings, there is no way that activity can be skipped for even one day.   However during my evening foray onto the croquet lawns, my opponent and I have the place to ourselves which means that I am able to take my Whippets along for their daily evening run around.   They have a wonderful time chasing each other on the lawns, disturbing the birds and finding other canine things to keep themselves active and busy.  Simultaneously I am having a good time playing a game that I love.   How’s that for multi-tasking?

What the Experts Say!

I have always found some resistance to the certitude many experts display when they announce that multi-tasking is not possible.   I feel that we spend an awful lot of our time multi-tasking in all sorts of ways.  Driving a car is an activity which involves using our visual ability to scan for objects that may be in our way, our auditory senses to listen for sounds which may be a harbinger of danger, whilst simultaneously handling the gears with our hands and the accelerator and break with our feet.   We may be enjoying a conversation or listening to the radio at the same time.   However, I do agree that texting and driving is not a good idea – even if it were legal!

Redefining

I would like to rephrase the popular description of the inability to multi-task.   I believe that activities requiring a high degree of concentration and skill may be compromised when performed simultaneously.   However, so many undertakings that occupy our daily activities do in fact incorporate a degree of multi-tasking.

What about a pilot or the captain of the ship.   They must be at one and the same time aware of a wide range of tasks that need to be accomplished.   A surgeon doing a tricky operation must be cognisant of the tasks needing to be performed by his whole team whilst he is performing the delicate work of the operation.

It is well known that women are better at multi-tasking than men.   Being a mother one’s time and attention is constantly divided by the needs of the various members of the family.   A mother may be preparing a meal whilst helping the children with their homework.  In between she may be called away to the phone or have to answer the door-bell.    Her efficiency may suffer, and her tension levels may be challenged, but her ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously will remain sustained.

Mark Williams on this Topic

I recently returned from an international conference on Mindfulness where Mark Williams who is so well known for his work on teaching sufferers of depression hoe Mindfulness can assistt hem in improving their attitude to the illness and their capacity to improve their coping skills with a change of attitude.

He did an experiment with the live audience to illustrate the impossibility of multitasking.   In front of the audience of about a hundred people, he challenged them to count to ten in their minds, and raise their hands when they had completed the task.   “That took you two seconds“, he determined after the demonstration.    And now, he challenged the audience to say, “Mary had a little lamb who followed her to school.”   A similar methodology of timing brought the demonstrator to the conclusion that it took three seconds for the audience to say the selected phrases in their minds.   “And now,” Mark announced, “I would like you to say; ‘Mary’, followed by the number ‘one.’   Then ‘had’ followed by the number ‘two’ and proceed in this way until the end of the sentence.    See how fast you can perform that task and indicate to me when you have finished.”

“You see.   Instead of taking you 2 + 5 seconds, that took you 15 seconds.’ He announced with great delight.   “So performing the task of counting and interspersing it with reciting a nursery rhyme leads to inefficiency,” he declared.   However, I fail to be convinced that this particular example can be representative of multi-tasking in all its manifestations.

I retain the belief that the ability to multitask depends on the situation and the degree of complexity of the tasks at hand.   You may well disagree with me, because you will then be in good company!