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Facetime your Grandpa! Cognitive Maintenance to Prevent Isolation

My Grandfather is 91 years old. It’s hard to admit but too often growing up, I had the mentality that talking to him was too difficult or not relatable. He has hearing aids in both ears, struggles to hold a conversation with any background noise, and often takes a few extra minutes to understand what you’ve said. While this is a prime example of stereotyping an older adult (my bad), it also shows how certain age related challenges that can make socializing difficult.  

About 80% of older adults have age related hearing loss. Around 20% of older adults have age related vision changes. Many older adults also suffer from a speed of information processing decline. This means that they often take longer to process and give a response to a question or comment during a conversation.

Older adults struggle to understand speech in a crowded environment. When trying to focus on what the person in front of them is saying, they aren’t as good at tuning out the background noise of conversations happening nearby. This is because they have trouble inhibiting distracting or irrelevant information. Older adults also have declines in working memory, temporarily holding onto information so that it can be processed. In conversation, this is like a sticky note in the brain that reminds you what the person just said while you figure out your response.

All of these cognitive declines in older adults can affect their ability to engage in social interactions. Young and often naive people, such as myself, too often don’t want to take the extra minute to have an older adult understand us. We give in to this stereotypic belief that because of these declines, older adults are unintelligent or child-like. These beliefs can lead to older adults not feeling as involved in conversations or being excluded from them altogether. When people are socially isolated like this, they are not as likely to continue to do activities that actively use their cognition. It is important for older adults to continue to use their cognitive abilities to maintain their functioning.

The brain is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised in order to maintain a certain level of fitness. This is called cognitive maintenance. Cognitive maintenance has been shown to improve older adults’ ability to cope with cognitive decline with age.

Some older adults have more flexible use of their brains and show less symptoms of cognitive decline. This is called cognitive reserves and allows some older adults to better cope with aging challenges. Think of it like being ambidextrous. If one hand stops working, they are able to use the other hand to compensate and make up for it with everyday functions. With cognitive reserves, if one brain area is declining, another area will step up and take over some of its responsibilities. Older adults are more likely to be able to do this if they have certain genetic factors, higher education level, and a more skilled occupation. But, lifestyle choices, such as maintaining a healthy social life, can influence cognitive reserves and maintenance as well.

As I’ve become more mature throughout adolescence and early adulthood, I’ve started to have longer conversations with my grandpa. Something I’ve realized is that he has so much more knowledge than we give him credit for. He has had 91 years to accumulate experiences and educate himself on the world. Recently, I spoke to him about his college experience at Colgate University and his participation in what he called a “nerd fraternity”.  I learned that they hand-built their fraternity house to live in and I learned that his fraternity was banned from its national society because of their decision to admit a black student to their chapter at Colgate. I learned about his experiences singing in his acapella group, the Colgate 13. I could tell that my interest in his life gave him genuine joy, because he wasn’t used to engaging with me in this way. Instead of feeling isolated, he felt seen and heard. 

People have intelligence-related stereotypes about older adults, thinking they are child-like or incompetent. In reality though, one of the things that barely declines is their knowledge of specific topics, crystallized intelligence. Younger generations need to realize there is so much to be learned from older adults. We need to stop talking down to them, or ignoring them because of preconceived notions. Some of this work can be done through younger people making the effort to engage older adults in social atmospheres. However, older adults can also benefit from prevention tactics to cope with deficits without isolating. 

My grandfather takes pride in knowing everything, and I mean everything, going on in each member of our family’s lives. To put this into perspective, I have 9 aunts and uncles and 18 first cousins on my mom’s side. My grandpa writes down everyone’s birthdays and major events on a piece of paper that he keeps in his office so that he knows to call people on certain dates. He reads the New York Times cover to cover and does the crossword puzzle every morning like clockwork, exercising his long term memory, and educating himself on current events. Before his more recent physical decline, he used to play tennis with friends in his neighborhood every week. Now that he struggles more with movement, he has become an avid Facebook user, using it to engage socially when he is unable to leave the house to see people in person.

He has learned to use Facetime and text messaging to keep in touch with people on a daily basis. These coping strategies are all serving to maintain his cognitive abilities as he ages. 

So what is the point of telling you all of this? Deficits in hearing, vision, and other cognitive changes do make it more difficult for older adults to engage in lively social interactions. However, coping mechanisms such as my grandfather’s strategic cognitive maintenance, can help to combat these functional declines. There are ways to cope with these declines without isolating yourself from friends and family. After all, we all want to be surrounded by those we love in the end. 

Citations:

Peelle, J. E. (2020). Age-related sensory deficits and their consequences. In A. K. Thomas & A. Gutchess (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of cognitive aging: A life course perspective (pp. 179-199). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108552684.012

Blazer, D. G. (2015). Characterizing and assessing cognitive aging. In D. G. Blazer, K. Yaffe, & C. T. Liverman (Eds.), Cognitive aging: Progress in understanding and opportunities for action (pp. 37-88). The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/21693

Varangis, E., & Stern, Y. (2020). Cognitive reserve. In A. K. Thomas & A. Gutchess (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of cognitive aging: A life course perspective (pp. 32-46). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108552684.003

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