I am in shock. In five months I turn 80—I, who thought I would never live past 30. Still, I find myself rather pleased to be venturing into the country of old age. And what better way to bone up on a new destination than to write a book on it. My new book, Dancing with the Muse in Old Age, is just out. In researching it, I discovered so very many vibrant, amazing elders—many, though not all, active in the arts. As I navigate this new territory, they are my guides.
I once thought old age was about sitting around remembering. How ridiculous! Yes, we remember, at times vividly. But we also have goals—my main goal for the next 20 years is to write 10 more books. And we are exercising more—or know we ought to. (I have bonded with my Fitbit.) And we know to reduce stress. Check. Connect with others. Check. Eat vegetables. Check.
But the most mind-blowing thing I’ve learned has to do with learning—for brain heath, for entertainment, for connection with others. We now know how plastic the brain is, that the hippocampus, that body part essential for memory, can produce new neurons (brain cells), and grow thicker. We know that every time we learn something new, our brain adds to its zillions of connections. And we also know that the brain is plastic the other way—lack of use causes neuron death, brain shrinkage.
The researcher Rachel Wu and her team at CALLA (Cognitive Agility Across the Lifespan via Learning and Attention) have added a new twist to the need to keep learning in old age. It’s less about maintenance, more about cognitive development. Most middle-aged folks, however brilliant and high-functioning, are not learning much. They have become increasingly specialized, relying on experience and past learning. In middle age this is likely good enough, thank you very much. We are busy holding down a job, raising kids, getting the car fixed.
But in old age we need more. We need to develop cognitively. And cognitive development, Wu and her team have discovered, works in the elderly exactly as it does in children. To begin with, you must believe you can learn. To paraphrase the cosmetics entrepreneur Mary Kay Ash, if you believe you are too old to learn, you are right. It’s important to get input from the environment rather than drawing on past knowledge. This is about learning something new. It’s important to learn within a supportive environment, to see mistakes as part of learning. It’s important to learn in small steps, mastering one before proceeding to the next. It’s important to persist, to keep going when the going gets tough. And finally, Wu and her team advocate learning several things at once, as children and college students do.
Now, what has this got to do with me? It’s true that when I write a new piece or book I learn stuff, but isn’t this the kind of learning I’ve always done? In terms of my brain, how does learning about the history of writing differ from learning about the biology of salmon (considering two of my recent pieces)? I don’t know the answer, but I do already know how to research a piece.
So, what would steer my brain into truly exotic territory? The answer is obvious—math!
Here’s a subject about which I know zilch. Okay, I can count. I can even make change, which you do by counting up from the price to the amount handed over, which our father taught us children to do so we could go door to door selling strawberries. Beyond that, I struggled with math.
Fast forward a few decades. In my mid-40s I began studying for the GRE in the process of applying to MFA programs in creative writing. And here comes math, my nemesis, back to haunt me. I studied and studied. Within a month I had advanced from the second grade to the fifth grade—pretty good! —though I doubted an admissions committee would think so. Then the worst happened. I arrived at the test an hour late. So poorly do I perceive numbers that I read 12:10 as 1:12. I was heartbroken, my dream of entering an MFA program dashed. The application deadline preceded the next GRE test opportunity.
Three weeks later, with no GRE score, I received an acceptance letter. Saved!
Three more decades have passed. Could I now actually learn math? I think of the Italian nonagenarian, Giuseppe Paterno. Growing up, Giuseppe loved to read, but life did not afford him an education past the eighth grade. He married, helped raise two children, and worked as a surveyor for the Italian railroad. At age 93 he entered college, but, within days, had serious doubts. Everyone else was so much younger! A dean encouraged him and before long he just blended in. At age 97, he graduated in history and philosophy at the top of his class. He said, “My time at university has changed me for certain. It’s as if my brain has evolved. I’ve started to speak a different language. If I’m discussing the newspaper with my friends, I can articulate myself with greater precision… .”
So, it can be done. And if it can be done, perhaps I can do it. I have obtained a math book for innumerate adults.
Priscilla Long has an MFA from the University of Washington. Author of seven books to date, she is a poet, science writer, and writer of creative nonfictions as well as fiction. A longtime independent teacher of writing, her how-to-write book is The Writer’s Portable Mentor. Her most recent book is Dancing with the Muse in Old Age (Epicenter/Coffeetown Press).