Hot and Cold in Old Age

spring-tulips

 

Oxford Springs are slow and deceitful – tiny progress cancelled by returns to grey dank – but this April was wonderful. The Met Office says it has been the best ever recorded. I sat and read in the sun on the kitchen roof and saw my extremely eminent neighbour, 50 feet away, cautiously de-hibernate and open his bedroom window for the first time in 5 months. We waved, reaffirming for our 15th time the traditional British Neighbour Spring  Pact: “ Better weather means that our images may more frequently fall  on each other’s retinas but, notwithstanding this, no higher-level perceptual processing shall occur and, unless you or I begin to spontaneously combust, we shall never, ever, attempt conversation.”
Though kitchen-roof-tulips are out May is not yet wonderful. The tulips seem to like rain. I don’t. The Met Office thinks it will soon be warmer, drier and fit for roof-reading again. To prepare for the change I read what I can find about how altering seasons affect oldies like me.
Most Spring Poetry is unhelpful because it bangs on  about young yearnings. Basho is better tuned to geriatric inner weather: “Spring rain leaking through the roof dripping from the wasp’s nest” reminds me to do something about Mason bees excavating the bedroom wall but does not launch my spirit into Vernal Trajectories. “Spring Air, woven moon and plum scent”? A little better, but hardly in Oxford? “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself” catches the mood but also reminds me that the lawnmower is rusty. Paraphrased for those who are no longer at his imaginary perpetual “one-and –twenty” Houseman was a gloomy old toad, even in Spring:

“Of my three score years and ten,
Sixty will not come again,
To take from Seventy springs this score,
Only leaves a decade more”.

(OK, OK, Alfred. Just stop going on about it).

Do epidemiology and cognitive gerontology have anything  interesting to say about the way human spirits swing with the seasons?

The German Federal Bureau of Statistics publish data that most North-Northern Hemisphere residents will recognise. Between 1946 and 1995 deaths were most frequent between January and March, fewer during Springs and least in Summers [1]. The analysts speculate that greater mortality was related to lower temperature since it reduced with spread of domestic central heating. There is a well-documented Winter increase in incidence of cardiovascular problems, including myocardial infarctions and Strokes. This is followed by a fall in Spring to a Summer low which is more marked for old than for young [2]. An analysis of Japanese Vital Statistics between 1970 and 1999 sharpened this point by including simultaneous weather conditions. Deaths from infectious and parasitic diseases, tuberculosis; respiratory disease; pneumonia and influenza; heart and cerebrovascular diseases; diabetes;  digestive diseases and accidents all peaked with low temperatures in Winter but Suicides peaked with high temperatures in Spring and Autumn [3]. Italian suicides from 1984 to 1995, (31,771 males and 11984 females) also peaked in Spring and then dropped to an Autumn low for both sexes,- but this was true only for suicides by violent means. Non-violent suicides were evenly spread throughout the year. There were similar numbers of  violent and non-violent suicides but a wider literature suggests that their causes are not the same. Violent suicides seem to be passionate events related to disturbances in relationships at higher temperatures. Non-violent suicides are more often due to other chronic miseries. This story seems plausible but, if it is true, it is odd that the proportion of violent suicides should not decline with age and that seasonal differences in  numbers of violent and non-violent suicides were greater for the old [4].

Seasonal changes affect depression and mood. A small study found that 250 Boston women aged 43 to 72 were more Tense or Anxious, Depressed or Dejected, Angry and Hostile, Tired and Inert and Confused and Bewildered in the Autumn, but much better in the Spring and Summer [5] 400 mgm supplements of Vitamin D  (which we need sunlight to produce) did not help. Differences might also have been associated with opportunities for exercise which followed similar trends. This is important because in the N. Hemisphere winters keep elderly people indoors where they are not only bored and isolated but also inert. A British study found that older people were slightly more miserable in the Autumn and Winter than in the Spring and Summer [6] and cites other studies that have found parallel, but much greater, differences for young women of child bearing age. I am sure that a bleak winter’s day imprisoned at home with one or more infants is far more frustrating than quiet isolation in a warm room with a book or a lap-top. Increases in sadness with onset of Autumn and the progress of winter are common. In extreme Northern latitudes they are sometimes so severe as to qualify for a specific psychiatric diagnosis, “Seasonal Affective Disorder” (SAD). A Swedish review of published studies suggests that, in Sweden, it is common to be glum in Autumn and Winter and that the incidence of the most severe manifestation of glumness, SAD, varies from 0% to 9% and increases the further North you live [7].

So, with the Spring Equinox now well behind us, Northern oldies swing from SAD land into glad warm Summer. We shall read in the warm sun, get out and walk about much more and take the cheering exercise that we have avoided throughout a long dull winter. If we commit suicide there are greater odds that we will go out violently with a bang or a squelch rather than  just a plaintive whimper. With global warming now evident the likelihood of heat waves and other extreme events will surely increase. Will this be a good or bad thing for our survival and morale ?

Blazing Sun

Recent studies anticipate problems for older people. The problems of harsh winter weather are obvious but a Japanese study covering summers of 1968 through 1994  found significant rises in deaths of children and elderly during temperature peaks of 38 deg C or more. I feel that I am more comfortable at high temperatures than most of my friends are, and that a reptilian ability to happily bask has strengthened in old age. I am probably wrong. A small but useful study found that both older and younger people feel most comfortable at temperatures between 20 deg C and 22 deg C but also that the old have problems because their perception of temperature changes is so coarse and sluggish that they may not notice as they gradually chill down – or heat up – outside this range [8]. Analysis of records of elderly patients admitted to a French Hospital emergency department during the 2003 French heatwave found that 42 out of 246 had heat – related illnesses not diagnosed by their physicians and that living in institutional care and taking psychotropic medications were risk factors [9]. A study of heat-stroke deaths in Japan between 1968 and 1994 found that numbers rose sharply when temperatures rose to 38 or above and half were people aged under 4 or over 70.[10] I had been looking forward to The Great Warming, especially in North Oxford, but these numbers, and increases in counts of exotic pollens now wither my hopes.

So, back again to poetry in the hope of some relief from the realisation that when we all begin to freeze or fry we old, and the very young, will suffer before the rest. Robert Frost is not particularly cheerful, but at least is poised and balanced:

Some say our world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if we have to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

1. Lerchl, A. (1998). Changes in the seasonality of mortality in Germany from 1946 to 1995: the role of temperature. International journal of biometeorology, 42(2), 84-88.
2. Sheth, T., Nair, C., Muller, J., & Yusuf, S. (1999). Increased winter mortality from acute myocardial infarction and stroke: the effect of age. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 33(7), 1916-1919.
3. Nakaji, Shigeyuki, et al. “Seasonal changes in mortality rates from main causes of death in Japan.” European journal of epidemiology 19.10 (2004): 905-913
4. .Preti, A., & Miotto, P. (1998) Seasonality in suicides: the influence of suicide method, gender and age on suicide distribution in Italy Psychiatry Research, 81, 219-231.
5. Harris, S., & Dawson-Hughes, B. (1993). Seasonal mood changes in 250 normal women. Psychiatry research, 49(1), 77-87.
6. Eagles, J. M., McLeod, I. H., & Douglas, A. S. (1997). Seasonal changes in psychological well-being in an elderly population. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 171(1), 53-55.
7. Magnusson, A. (2000). An overview of epidemiological studies on seasonal affective disorder. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 101(3), 176-184.
8. Collins, K. J., Dore, C., Exton-Smith, A. N., Fox, R. H., MacDonald, I. C., & Woodward, P. M. (1977). Accidental hypothermia and impaired temperature homoeostasis in the elderly. BMJ, 1(6057), 353-356.
9. Fish, P. D., Bennett, G. C., & Millard, P. H. (1985). Heatwave morbidity and mortality in old age. Age and ageing, 14(4), 243-245.
10. Nakai, S., Itoh, T., & Morimoto, T. (1999). Deaths from heat-stroke in Japan: 1968–1994. International journal of biometeorology, 43(3), 124-127.

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How to Do Old Age

merry oldies

I meant to post on ways to cheer oneself up in old age, beginning with  the kind of psychotherapy that seems to be  interminably extended conversations. These continue, for an hour on each of most days of the week. The process lasts as long as clients stay solvent and therapists healthy and sane. The post has not come off because of irritation with  recent published memoires of such long intense relationships by some clients and therapists. I began to suspect that both of these groups collaborate  to construct alternative life-stories until they agree on one that “fits”,  hopefully, providing  a plot for a life story that can serve as an explanation, possibly even an excuse, maladaptive behaviour and its miserable consequences. Any relation of these ingenious sagas to reality seems irrelevant and both therapists and patients insist that gains are unquantifiable (except, perhaps, in terms of the therapist’s income). Both parties seem proud of this, perhaps because it invests the transaction with  something numinous and also because it blocks crass evidence-seeking questions such as whether clients who experience such talking therapy get better faster, or more completely that those who do not 1.  Relieved from any obligations to test by evidence  therapeutic relationships can be judged in the same ways as novels or poems: in terms of different levels and kinds of enrichment of experience. Perhaps this is why  many  clients move restlessly on from therapist to therapist and so from one theory of therapy (e.g. Jungian, Freudian, Transactional etc.) to another until they feel that they are getting the best return of interest and comfort for their fees. There  is no clear evidence that any one analytic theory works better than others, but this apparent interchangeability  does not question their validity any more than the fact that individuals prefer some poems or novels to others proves that literary theories are “wrong” or “misguided” or “unscientific”.  Maybe we should agree to use formal techniques of literary criticism to assess the relative values of the life stories that therapists help their patients to weave rather than haggle over “recovery rates” from different therapeutic disciplines. Many of us, certainly I, have had our lives transformed by particular poems and novels. Sometimes even for the better.

 

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Another block to a post on psychotherapy for the old is that I am beginning to think that a better way to learn to manage our attitudes to our lives is from the examples of our friends.  People of my age become increasingly valuable to each other as we grow old together and notice how we each  manage difficulties that we currently share or must anticipate. It would be crass for me to try to list the various ways in which this  helps since I have a direct example from a school-friend who endeda long and  diverse career as a Professor of Political History at the Hague.

“Good to hear from you. .. I am about to join you across the boundary into octogenarianism. That thought has had a deeper effect than I anticipated when considering the next decade. …. such reflection began more than a month ago, when I had to make first us of my help service. One afternoon I had another fall indoors. It was the usual occasion. I was walking with my stick, this time into the bedroom, suddenly felt dizzy and lost my balance. Miraculously, as in all incidents so far, I did not strike any hard object and break anything, but did end up stuck in a foetal position (second childhood?) between the wardrobe, the bed and a bookcase. What distinguished this occasion was that I could not free my legs enough to roll over and crawl to where furniture could be grasped with enough leverage to stand up. On three occasions when this has happened before I have wriggled serpent-like to the front door, managed to get it open, and asked a passer-by to help me up. Now I could use the speaker round my neck, and after about twenty minutes two large, strong young ladies used their key to get in and lifted me up. After checking I was uninjured they left me to experience recovery shaking on the sofa.

Medical-Alert-Alarm-for-Elderly-with-Fall

Anyway, the result was that I came to the conclusion that moving into a home for the aged with constant supervision might not be as bad as it has hitherto seemed (in 2011 I was in one for four days after an operation in order to recover. It was sociologically fascinating but not decisively attractive). ….. So the next stage will be to find out what I can get. Actually, I still get a weekly outing to do shopping and take a cappucino, thanks to the self-sacrificing Desiree, my partner now for 15 years. However, she actually lives and works in Leiden, so can drive here and back just once a week (a further factor is that she is basically afraid of driving…) She telephones to check on me, but in the absence of family ….. living nearby I really miss someone popping in and seeing how I am and doing things like changing light bulbs. In principle, that is what social services arranges.

On the writing front, my help against becoming totally gaga, writing every morning, has begun to run down. I’ve just finished another novel. It is about what happens to a history lecturer who, while in a long-term coma after a car crash, finds himself in late 19th century London and able to make real his favourite horror stories of the time, featuring Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and Dracula, and play parts in them. For example, he proves that the real-life Jack the Ripper, identity unknown to this day, was in fact Mr Hyde. No pressure intended, but if you might like to read it… On that general front, I fear the writing-to-ward-off-senility device is becoming severely threatened by the knowledge that the chances of getting published are in effect nil. My last attempt to find an agent not so long ago failed once again. Even my ego balks at again taking the self-financing route, though my savings would be up to at least one more venture. The autobiography is currently affected by this mood, although a limited printout for friends only is possible.

That seems more than enough self-pity for now. ….”

On the contrary, my dear old friend, the cool absence of self-pity, the ability to maintain a detached and analytical humour about a bad situation and of ones’ prospects in it, and determination to continue to amuse oneself and others is a better lesson in living than I can find in psychotherapists’ memoires.  Thank you for a master-class in How to do Old Age.

 

1. To summarise a very large and very convincing literature: They don’t.

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Seeking Joy in Old Age

plane landing witrh palms

In North Europe cold dark February leaches joy from elderly lives. So in Tenerife, every 10 minutes another plane unloads a new cargo of Northern Oldies seeking brief warmth and light but also  hoping for restorative happiness. We crowd down gangways, beam at the unfamiliar sun and then  face the problem of what to do next. Scores of custom-designed oldie-play-areas – “Resort Hotels”- anticipate a future in which a few cheerful, smooth, indigent young people earn a living by cosseting hordes of bewildered, crumpled, solvent elderly. We reach peak satisfaction every morning at primate-paradise breakfasts with omelettes and pancakes and fried eggs on demand and tables stacked with succulent stuff for us to load on plates or secrete  for thrifty lunches. Then the food and crockery begin to disappear and we feel dearth of feasible fun. Shall we bask on sunbeds like disabled dugongs? Pay to be massaged, steamed, and have hot stones laid along our spines? Grab sweets from the reception desk as we exit to streets dulled by daily excursions wandering as mixed pairs  of relatively mobile and optimistic women, each  followed by a despondent man visibly wondering how his life has congealed and nostalgic for a comfy office and secretary  forever lost to him in space and time ? Or sit in bars as bold singletons,  burly, obese males and females flaunting speckled skin and seeking final solutions to the joy problem in huge glasses of mid-morning beer. Once we have got warm for the first time in months can we also manage to get happy?

Old Man in deckchair

Over 2085 years ago Epicurus thought that he had cracked the problem of geriatric joy. Like  contemporary geratro-tourists in Tenerife he believed that since we have just one life the only sensible decision is to spend it as happily as we can. He believed that old age can bring  peak happiness because demands of politics, careers and families have waned, freeing us to pursue the Good Life. His ideas on what constitutes the Good Life were, and still are, misunderstood. Unlike Epicures mis-named after him, or elderly guests at Tenerife resort hotels, he did not think that we can achieve lasting delight by finding and consuming the best of anything that may conceivably cheer us up, especially food and alcohol.  At the entrance to his “garden” which seems to have housed an hospitable commune, a notice read “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of this abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you, he will welcome you with bread and serve you water, also in abundance…..”  Epicurus’ sparse surviving writings insist that  the key to enduring happiness is a sufficiency of bread, boiled legumes, water and endless philosophical debate about “the meaning of it all ”.  I like to believe that, in practice, the entertainment in his garden was a little more lavish 1

I have spent far too much time in University common-rooms to buy the idea that, especially when philosophers are present, debates about the meaning of everything spontaneously ignite happiness. Even when the coffee is better than usual and the biscuits are Jammy-Dodgers or Fig Rolls. I do not think that boiled lentils and water would make things any better.  David Klein2, a charming contemporary PR man for Epicurus, describes epiphanies during summer holidays on a Greek Island watching a small group of septuagenarians spend their days at the same table, in the same café playing cards, drinking retzina, scoffing mezzes and gossiping. With respect for Klein’s warm heart, a different café-frequenting philosopher thought that endless time with a few people who soon exhaust all of their anecdotes and opinions would be Hell 3. Another of Klein’s European epiphanies was encountering elderly Frenchmen attain delight while playing petanque. His pleasant Mediterranean images may encourage anyone who ever doubted that some old people can sometimes share bursts of communal contentment or even significant gladness. Some of us would like to hear more from the wives of boules players and barflies.

old men in cafe

Klein makes valid points:  even though many aspects of aging are not very nice, growing old can strip us of burdens of obsolete obligations and ambitions, and futile regret for  “lives that came to nothing, or deeds as well undone ‘til death steps tacitly and takes us where we never see the sun”4. Such thoughts should free us to find new and to rehabilitate neglected sources of joy, or at least of mild contentment. But how to manage this?

As usual, after Philosophers have claimed all the best biscuits in the common room Psychologists rummage left-over crumbs. Between 1939 and 1944 the Harvard University Health Service began the “Grant study of Adult Development” by recruiting 268 undergraduates (including the young John F Kennedy). Between 1940 and 1945 Sheldon Glueck enrolled a further 456 young men from Boston neighbourhoods. 188 members of both groups are still alive in their 80’s and 90’s.  George Valliant has summarised his conclusions from this vast database in his books “Adaptation to Life” and “Triumphs of Experience” 5,6.  :   Health is particularly important and determines happiness and economic success more strongly than genes do. Alcoholism is  destructive of marriages, careers and contentment. Intelligence is a less important predictor of worldly success and happiness than is often supposed. Men who do well in middle age do not necessarily flourish in old age and vice-versa. Recovery from a wretched childhood is difficult but becomes easier with passing years;  a happy childhood is a lifelong advantage; marriages become better when they persist after 70. Being affluent helps.  Valliant’s  most  pleasant discovery  (at least for me) is that elderly Liberals seem to have more and better sex than elderly Republicans. Apart from this last gem I think that I have already worked out all these conclusions for myself without the hassle of running and analysing a 70 year study. I find Valliant’s concluding summary bullet-point endearingly naff:  “Happiness is Love. Full Stop”.

The Harvard study has lasted longer and  probably amassed more disparate details of men’s lives than any other. However it only includes men, is based on small numbers  and, perhaps for this latter reason, the most interesting questions that we might ask of the data are not addressed because there are too few representatives in different categories of persons to make sensible comparisons.  Martin Pinquart7 explored a larger data-base by reviewing findings from 125 different studies.  He concludes that old age seems to be accompanied by a slight decline in happiness (“positive affect”) and a slight increase in unhappiness (“negative affect”). As people age strong emotions, such as being joyously excited or acutely distressed are increasingly replaced by weaker feelings such as relaxation or mild depression. Pinquart acknowledges that in old age we become increasingly likely to experience unavoidable problems with poor health and economic stringencies.   Nobody has ever thanked me for bringing up his findings in conversations about the odds of elderly joy.

Lacey, Smith and Ubel8 used Pete Townsend’s famous line “Hope I Die Before I Get Old; (the things they do seem awful cold)” as the title of a description of a study in which they asked younger and elderly adults how they feel about their present happiness and how they assess the odds of happiness at different times of life. Like Pete Townsend middle-aged adults thought that things will gradually get worse. The already-old agreed that, for most people, things probably do get rather worse as they age but cautioned that they were not speaking for themselves but only for others. Lacey et al point to a paradox of happiness studies: although people of all ages do not think that things get better in old age, responses from successive age-decades suggest that  happiness actually increases after middle age with a possible, slight, decline after the mid 70’s.

This news is mildly reassuring but I have  found nobody who is surprised or excited by it. It confirms that our worst fears about old age are unnecessary (or at least pointless, which is not at all the same thing) and that,  as we continue to survive, things may get better, or at least will probably not become as bad as we fear  unless, and until, we run into unavoidable hard times. It does not tell us what we all deeply, and secretly (for fear of being laughed at) want to know: “What is the best way to live and to be happy, whether in a resort hotel or while trundling through our everyday lives?” Many psychologists have tried to address this by analysing the answers that large numbers of people give to large numbers of quite simplistic questions. This tool does not seem fit for purpose. The excellent “Journal of Happiness studies” has published scores of studies in which people have been asked whether or not they are happy and whether they think that their past or future might have been, or turn out to be better than their present but  I find no answers to the poignant question that we all continue to ask even though we suspect that no answer is possible: “How can I get joyful IMMEDIATELY and go on being happy ever after ? ”

My colleagues and I should not be mocked because our questionnaires and longitudinal studies do not cut the zesty mustard. Philosophers are  luckier because they are free to reach conclusions  without constraint of evidence and, anyhow, tend to divert along dull threads like “What does ‘being happy’ actually mean?” I believe that I have always known when I am “happy” and semantic exercises do not much amuse me or even seem to cheer up my philosophic colleagues. Religious Leaders have always been free to propose any solutions to the Happiness Problem that they care to imagine, and have become experts at marketing their fantasies but, even given these wide opportunities, they are surprisingly evasive. They admit that some who buy into their belief systems may achieve fits of sublime religious rapture but  seem to disapprove of this. The main deal is that their faith can help us to accept everyday unpleasantness and boredom, and even to tolerate excruciations if we accept that these are what a wise and benevolent God has scheduled  for us. Compensating gratification will be delayed but extreme:  an eternity featuring an abundance of virgins (or plums, depending on the translation of the Koran that you choose), or choral singing and harps, or Elysian fields, or delight  in ceaseless, gladsome praise or just Bliss Beyond Understanding (and so, also, conveniently beyond need for description).

heaven's door

“There is a happy land, far, far away! Where we’ll eat bread and jam, three times a day! Oh how we’ll laugh and shout, when the bread and jam’s brought out! We’ll all laugh and shout! Three times a day!”

In contrast Buddhists suggest that the best way to get through life with minimum fret is to be as nice as possible to everybody while learning to desire nothing and so become free from ambitions and regrets. They are pretty cagey about an afterlife. This seems similar to Epicurus’ recommendations, and quite a good idea.

The closest that respectable academic psychologists get to writing recipes for happiness is imagining, and then empirically testing, ways to reduce misery. Specifically, by treating depression, or helping people to recover from disaster, or to cope with uncomfortable lives. I have not previously felt any need to explore this literature because I have led an exceptionally lucky and amusing life during which I have been diverted from worries about attaining true happiness by obsessions with human reaction times and, more recently, with the effects on speed and intelligence of white matter lesions in the brain. My current desire to learn more about how to promote happiness is driven by curiosity rather than necessity (though, of course this may switch at any moment).  I have learned that the best way for me to begin to understand something unfamiliar is to try to discover enough about it to write essays for an imaginary critical audience, just as undergraduates do for their tutors.  So future posts will be my best tries at undergraduate essays on such topics as Mindfulness Meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and other currently fashionable cures for little and large miseries, particularly those that tend to occur in late life. Of course I am very pleased and flattered if anyone reads anything that I write, and  even happier if anyone cares to comment but, for my solipsistic exercises an imaginary audience will do just fine.

 

  1. It is widely reported that guests in Epicururus’s “garden” also consumed hefty amounts of good wine. He had at least one rich patron who could have provided this, and perhaps some better things than boiled lentils.
  2. David Klein, (2013) “Travels with Epicurus”, One World Publications, by arrangement with Penguin group USA. ISBN 978-1-78074-412-4
  3. J. P Satre (quote from conversation) Hell is Other People.
  4. Apologetically adapted from a verse in A Tocatta of Galuppi’s by Robert Browning
  5. Vaillant, GE (1977),Adaptation to Life, Boston, MA, Little, Brown, 1977 (also Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)  ISBN 0-316-89520-2)
  6. Vaillant, GE (2012),Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Belknap Press,ISBN 0-674-05982-4
  7. Pinquart, M. (2001). Age Differences in Perceived Positive Affect, Negative Affect and Affect Balance in Middle and Old Age. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, pp 375-405.
  8. Lacey, H.P., Smith, D. M., Ubel, P.A. (2006). Hope I die before I get old: Mispredicting Happiness Across the Adult Lifespan. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, pp 167-182.

 

 

 

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Playing Games in Old Age

 

Old people pass their time in very different ways. My mornings are glad and confident and some work is still possible.  For long gaps between lunch and gin different solutions must be found. In dank Oxford winters Internet Chess is a fine resource.

 

old chessplayers

Even after many years  I am still delighted with the idea of playing live opponents  in Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia Iran … or in the Philippines – where they seem to be startlingly good.  As dawn and dusk terminators circle the planet people in China and India settle down for their evening games while those in the Middle-East play during their lunch breaks, North and South Americans are waking up and insomniac Australasians still struggle on. Luckily for me the world is full of weak but obsessional players. Sites1 rate  you to play people roughly of your own level so I am  in an undistinguished ruck from which I strive to get promoted. Players can message each-other during games but most are silent after a tentative “Hi” at the beginning and a polite (if often insincere) “gg” (good game) at the end.  Most of us long ago stopped exclaiming on differences in our time zones or weather but some still start brisk conversations, perhaps to distract you from your game rather than from curiosity. Most sites encourage us to provide simple personal details, such as our ages, on public bulletin space.   I recorded my actual age and am often mistaken for a jokey schoolboy feigning senility and offered ponderous patronage by kindly mature players : (“You don’t use your Queen enough” “Opening symmetry is not necessarily good”; “a Bishop Pair always wins”). Usually I am correctly weighed up by fellow geriatrics whether courteously (“Too much time to waste – just like me”) or not (“Get out of the house more, Old Man”). Anonymity has odd effects on interactions. Very rarely even apparently quiet and staid players abruptly begin heckling and abuse for no reason. There are fine moments when you nevertheless beat these trolls but this does not happen often enough. Best to use the site’s blocking facility so you do not play them again. Unexpected kindness is far more frequent – I have often been offered a draw, at some cost to my opponent’s rating,  when I am obviously losing.

You can guess some things about players from the game-names (tags) they give themselves. These are often cryptic (DX1212/A) or actual surnames and initials or nicknames. Sometimes slightly odd like “Brilliant Sunbird” or “ Scintillating Wave”; or jokey/boastful/self-deprecating  (“Grandmaster of the Universe” ); or jokey/threatening “Exterminator”, “Agonyforyou”, “Predator”, “Uloseagane; or embarrassing (”Jesus Loves You”, “God is my Saviour”; “Sword of Islam”, “My Faith – My Life”); Very rarely monikers are sociopathic ( “All Whites Filth”; “Christian Sewer Rats”; “Disgusting Towelheads”) but these are  expurgated by site managers and, of course, if you are prudent you will refuse to play against people who choose them. Though nearly all players are friendly and patient, everyone is enraged by opponents who, if their position goes bad, simply stop moving and let the clock run out. When this happens you can earn a pointless win by stolidly waiting them out or abort and accept a loss. The reactions people post on these opponents’ publicly accessible home pages range from aloof reproof (“Tedious Person”;  “Childish”; “Learn Etiquette” ) to homicidally violent ranting (“DIE stinking piece of bug s**t!” ; “Koward Douchbag!”).

 

furious chessplayer

Most players do not record their ages but my impressions of those who do suggest that about 30% are schoolchildren of 17 or under; 60% are between 18 and 55 and about 10% between 60 and 90. The few women who play can be formidable. The oldest players clearly find internet chess obsessional fun.  (Last week a 79 year old German, who often beats me, gleefully messaged “Youth Triumphs again!”).

Not all psychologists recognise how rewarding it can be to persistently do something quite difficult quite badly for the rare successes that the Greatest Rat Psychologist of All, B.F. Skinner, called “intermittent reinforcement”. Skinner seems to have been  a rather joyless person – apart from a passion for ballroom dancing – because, in his retirement he warned: “Old age is like fatigue, except that its effects cannot be corrected by relaxing or taking a vacation. Particularly troublesome is old age plus fatigue, and half of that can be avoided.  Possibly you like complicated puzzles, or chess, or other intellectual games. Give them up. ..”2 . Feelings about Chess have always been mixed. Seven hundred years ago the author of Speculum Regiale3 warned “…….beware of, and shun like the devil …. drinking, chess, harlots, quarrelling, and throwing dice for stakes”.

 

dancing mice

 

I strongly disagree with Skinner, not only because playing chess badly  often gives me much  pleasure but because playing chess in old age gives special insights into two key problems of cognitive ageing that his simplistic theory could not address:   Does maintaining high competence at one particular, difficult mental skill preserve performance on others? How far can we preserve skills that we have brought to a high level by practising them while we were young by continuing to work at them in in old age? Chess has been a goldmine of answers.

On the first point Gary Kasparov, the longest lasting and perhaps greatest of all Chess world champions, believed that at any age brilliance at chess is not necessarily related to any other form of mental competence  : “Excelling at chess has long been considered a symbol of more general intelligence. That is an incorrect assumption in my view, as pleasant as it might be.” Lodewijk Prins, a Dutch chess champion and a knowledgeable and observant international chess arbiter and referee, remarked “The only thing that chess players have in common is Chess”. I can find no evidence in the  psychological literature that persistent practice at Chess, or Bridge or Crossword Puzzles in old age benefits ability on other mental tasks. In fact I think that one of the most interesting unexplored features of our brains is that learning is intensely specific to any particular skill you practice. Attributions of high general intelligence to chess-players, bridge-players or crossword addicts do not mean that these pastimes make us more clever but only that people who intensively practice mind games, especially in old age, are also likely to have been generally more intellectually active and competent throughout their lives. There is good evidence that continually practising Chess, or Bridge, or Crosswords or Sums keeps you very good at ……Chess, or Bridge or Crosswords or Sums.

We need many thousands of hours to become excellent at Chess – Neil Charness, the doyen of chess researchers, and other colleagues, estimate that expertise needs not less than 5000, and up to 10,000 hours of practice a year but also that excellent players can keep the maximum levels of performance they achieve in youth well into their seventh decades.

Retention of highly practised mental skills in old age strikingly contrasts with early peaks and declines in physical activities, such as competitive athletics where the glory times are very early and short.

World record times for athletics are accurate and comprehensive and are uniquely informative because they document the magic moments when supremely talented individuals who have trained for years, drive themselves to their uttermost limits and achieve a lifetime best that they can never repeat. A generous retired statistician, David Hewitt4  has compared world records for the mile achieved in successive age-decade groups in 1975 and 2002. In both years these were achieved by people aged 32-33. But between age 35 and 65 record times for men fell by 0.8% a year (Men) and 1.4% (Women); between 35 and age 65, by 1.8 %(M) and 2.4% (W) and  between 75 to 85 by 3.6%  (M) and 3.4% (W). Interestingly, although records for all age-decades improved between 1975 and 2001 the rates of age-decline across generations did not alter until age 70. That is, rates of decline remained the same, though starting from higher levels. Also, recent generations now seem to keep going longer because 75 year olds were much faster in 2001 than in 1975 and 80 and 90 year olds are now represented.

 

elderly sikh  runners

 

Schulz and Curnow 5 calculate that over the last century records for Olympic track, field and swimming events and also for baseball, golf and tennis illustrate that the ages at which outstanding individuals reach their lifetime peaks has remained constant i.e. about 28 for long distance runners 24 for tennis and 31 for golf. For all these sports records have greatly improved over the last 100 years. They ask, but do not answer the question whether current generations remain at peak form longer than their predecessors. Fair6 reviews similar data contrasting early peak and decline for athletics with tournament records often achieved by chess-players in their 60’s. Does this mean that we may keep our brains and mental skills intact though our bodies begin to decline well before we reach 40?

The simplest measures of mental competence, such as speed of pressing the correct one of two keys to answer a flash on one of two signal lamps, do not support the idea that our brains change less rapidly than the rest of our bodies. Since 1960 my reaction times have slowed by 36 milliseconds, encouragingly less than David Madden’s better researched estimate that between 20 and 70 we lose about a millisecond a year and after that, rather more. This is not an alarming inconvenience but there are also convincing data showing that our scores on simple intelligence tests tend to peak in our mid-twenties and, after that, continuously decline. In contrast, at complicated tasks where there is a huge amount to learn before competence can be achieved, such as managing a business, writing novels or doing cutting edge mathematics and science, we build up to peaks much later in life and, after this, keep the plateaus we have won for two or more decades. By remorselessly practicing the skills we most value, or most enjoy can we mitigate the effects of the progressive changes in our brains that slow our reaction times and  our ability to  solve novel problems?

Studies of chess-playing give useful information. A vast body of chess theory has hugely expanded over the last century. Ways to begin a game – opening strategies- are intensively analysed for more than the first 15 moves by both players. One of the greatest pleasures of learning chess is to encounter the whimsical nicknames for some of these openings:  “The Fried Liver Attack”, “The Sicilian Dragon”; the “Hedgehog”, the Hippopotamus” the “King’s Indian” or the “Orang-utan” (said to have been invented, or at least named by Grandmaster Tartakower while visiting a Zoo during an intermission of a chess-tournament) are a few of scores of delights. New analyses of hundreds of opening positions, common middle-game positions and endgames appear monthly.  It is not too much of a stretch to think of this huge body of information as a collection of program-sub-routines to deal with the thousands of different situations that often occur during games. Weak players like myself do not try to keep up and only learn and use such fragments as we can. Champions cannot afford to do this, and must spend thousands of hours a year reviewing old and new discoveries.

As for computers, to have a superbly effective program is one thing but having the capacity to run it is another. The doyen of researchers into chess-play, Neil Charness has illustrated this distinction in many ways. He showed that the more skilled chess-players are, the more extensively and deeply they search through potential lines of play. Also older players thought of, and worked through fewer, though not necessarily less effective possible continuations than the young7. Charness also found that players in their early 20s can recall briefly seen chess-positions much more accurately than can players in their late 40’s and 50’s and that the age-difference increases if there is a lag between seeing and recalling positions. This is true both for weak and much stronger players.8 With Jastrzembski and Vasyukova 9  Charness also found that on a simplified quarter-chess-board older players even older experts, were slower to recognise opportunities for check-mates than younger players. Trevor Robbins and Alan Baddeley, and a large group of collaborators10, used distracting tasks to show how much appropriate decisions in chess depend on the ability simultaneously to hold in memory alternative, branching possibilities of a chess theme or program of play in working memory. All of these examples emphasise the difference between having spent many years successfully  learning strategies, and rapidly and accurately recognising when they are appropriate  and, at last, successfully carrying them through. Roring and Charness11 indirectly addressed this   by analysing the documented history of 5011 chess players who were able enough to be documented in databases of tournament statistics over their playing lifetimes. They found that individuals’ peak performance ages are shown to be older when careers are tracked longitudinally for the same individuals rather than compared between different individuals who were in different age-groups at a particular point in time. Also that, surprisingly, continued play in tournaments benefits people when they are young more than when they are old and, again surprisingly, that ages of peak performance and rates of subsequent age-related decline are quite similar for extraordinarily good and less distinguished players.

This does not mean that any young person with high general intelligence can learn to become a superb chess player if only she works long and hard enough. Gobet and Campetelli12 studied Argentinian players ranging from weak amateurs to grandmasters and found that, to reach master level, the slower players needed up to 8 times as much practice as did faster players. Those who had started chess younger retained a lifelong advantage. There is such a thing as natural ability, remarkably specific to chess, as is shown by the contrast between the brilliant early and superb later chess career of Bobby Fisher, and his sad incompetence in many other aspects of his life.

So I am not at all inclined to take  B.F. Skinner’s advice and  give up things like work and chess that continue to bring me very great pleasure even as I become conscious that I am no longer as good at them as I once was. I do not think that taking up dancing would be a good substitute, even though a kind  one-time Oxford colleague, the eminent social psychologist Michael Argyle, repeatedly claimed, in his University lectures and in the public media that Scottish Country Dancing is incomparably the greatest and most life-enhancing of all possible human pleasures. I am happy that Michael merrily panted and capered throughout his cheerful and distinguished life, but

scottish country dancing

my own outlook remains as different as it was while we worked in the same Institution. I am very content to get my jollies spending  grey afternoons struggling against the devilish cunning and granite determination of outrageously clever Phillipinos, Argentinians, Russians, Canadians, Americans, Londoners, Germans, Dutch, French, Serbs and Scots until the pawky, brief sun dips below a lower window sill signalling time to call a truce for drinks and to cook my supper.

 

  1. Internet chess sites are nearly all free (at least to start with, and until you want to purchase useful privileges). I am particularly fond of chess.com which is very friendly and well run, offers lively articles with interactive games and (for a small subscription) excellent chess tuition facilities and also runs graded tournaments of 5 min to 10 min and 30+ min. games. It has also just launched very fine new app for ipads and other tablets. Another favourite is www.instantchess which offers a wide choice of opponents especially for brief (15 min) games. You also start for free but may wish to subscribe. One of the oldest and best, allegedly used by very distinguished players, is the Internet Chess Club, www.chessclub.com.
  2. Skinner, B.F. (1983). American Psychologist. psychnet.apa.com
  3. Larson, L.M. (tr.).The King’s Mirror (Speculum regale-Konungs skuggsjá). Scandinavian Monographs 3. New York, 1917. PDF and translation available from Internet Archive.
  4. David Hewitt, personal communication. Details available on request
  5. Schulz, R., & Curnow, C. (1988). Peak performance and age among superathletes: track and field, swimming, baseball, tennis, and golf.Journal of Gerontology43(5), P113-P120.
  6. Fair, R. C. (2007). Estimated age effects in athletic events and chess. Experimental Aging Research,33(1), 37-57.
  7. Charness, N. (1981). Visual short-term memory and aging in chess players.Journal of Gerontology,36(5), 615-619.
  8. Charness, N. (1981). Search in chess: Age and skill differences.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance7(2), 467.
  9. Jastrzembski, Tiffany S.; Charness, N.; Vasyukova, C. (2006) Expertise and Age effects on knowledge activation in chess.Psychology and Aging, Vol 21(2), Jun 2006, 401-405
  10. Robbins, T. W., Anderson, E. J., Barker, D. R., Bradley, A. C., Fearnyhough, C., Henson, R., … & Baddeley, A. D. (1996). Working memory in chess.Memory & Cognition24(1), 83-93.
  11. Roring, R.W. & Chareness, N. (2007). A multilevel model analysis of expertise in chess across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 22, 291-299.
  12. Gobet, F. & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess Developmental Psychology, Vol 43(1), Jan 2007, 159-172

 

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Old Age and Religion

Nun

This month, 73 years ago,  I was sent 1200 kilometers away from cheerful idleness to a boarding school run by Roman Catholic Nuns. Religion became as central to my life as for any madrassa student. Now that I am old I no longer go to church twice daily and pray before and after all meals. No colour print of Purgatory on the wall of a communal bathroom shows that, as surely as I shiver naked,  I must inevitably die and then thrash and scream for at least a few centuries in a customised, mini-tornado of bright orange fire. Unless I can jackpot an Act of Perfect Contrition so fast before I go that I have no time for another sin. Even for an unenterprising seven year old this might be a close thing because just a few milliseconds of apostasy is enough to earn a new Purgatorial tariff. Truly heartfelt denial will plunge my soul, illustrated in my Catechism as a white oval speckled with blackheads of veniality, into total Mortal Darkness. A direct ticket to Hell where, as we infants were told, though enough time may pass for a sparrow to brush the earth with its wing once every century, until it sops up the air and oceans and erodes the whole vast planet, our eternities of suffering will not yet have begun. Muslim acquaintances tell me that they were given the same news with the bonus that between death and judgement they will be conscious of the sights, sounds and smells of their future torments.

Dante's inferno

I do not believe that my infant education only reflected an aberrant obsolete version of True Catholicism or of True Christianity any more than I think that the beliefs that have brought three unsuccessful, French, petty criminals to murder and world-wide publicity have nothing  to do with True Islam. These are  inchoate belief-systems, the sums of  parts, many of which are extremely repellent. Believers make up their own “faiths” from what fragments they please and then, like Sunnis and Shias or Prods and Catholic take licence to kill each other for discrepant selections. Like the New French Martyrs I was instructed by formidable authority-figures in black robes. While Sister Scholastica did not have a neck-beard or a scary paunch, or glisten with good living, she was so intimidating that if she had told me to strap on a bomb and blow up the nearest Anglican Church, Hindu Temple, Islamic Mosque, Lamasery or even a religiously-dodgy fast-parata outlet I would have snivelled piteously, put on the gear and trotted to oblivion like the little Nigerian girls Boku Haram abuses in the name of God and his Messenger.

J with child

Now, at last, old age has relieved me from speculation about which of the witty tortures described in Dante’s Guide Book I am most likely to suffer. Is this part of a change that we all experience or is it only personal?  Starter questions are whether the incidence of religious belief is declining and whether it differs between age groups.

McAndrew and Voas  ( 1 and in their many other reports) give a fine introduction to how religiosity can, and should not be quantified. One lesson is that we need to discover what people actually do, rather than what they say that they believe. In 1980 Religious Trends No 7  reported that 5,201,300 people, 11.1% of the UK population, had attended Church on a given Sunday. By 2005 this number was 6.3% and is predicted to drop to 5% in 2015.  This seems to reflect both falling uptake of belief among the young and progressive deaths of the more religious old.

A  UK Ipsos MORI poll in January 2007 found that 36%, (about 17 million adults) were humanist in basic outlook and, including these, 41% agreed that ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’ and 62% said that ‘Human nature, by itself, gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong.’ Only 27% agreed that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’. The 2013 YouGov poll found that only 25% of 16-24 year olds believed in any God and 38% neither believed in any God nor in any “greater spiritual power”. Only 12% were influenced by religious leaders. In the next, 2014, YouGov poll 77% of UK respondents said they were not religious.

World trends are consistent with those in the UK. A 2012, WIN/Gallup poll found that 36% of the world’s population said they were not religious and 13% of these were atheists. A significant increase on previous years. A  2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, found that most adults in all of the 9 European countries as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God necessary to being moral. In France this majority reached 85% and in Spain 80%. A 2014 WIN/Gallup poll found that scepticism of the benefits of religion is greater in Britain than in most other countries. Only 33% of British respondents saw religion as a force for good and over a quarter believed that it has a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religion is negative, particularly among the young and better-educated.  The jihadist term “boku haram” (Western Education is religiously impermissible) does  describe reality. Before and after the Galileo Trial Christian burnings and contemporary Muslim floggings and beheadings and  illustrate the tradition of brutally silencing dissident voices.

Declines in religiosity have recently accelerated but they are the latest stages of a long ebb noted by Matthew Arnold in 1859 2:

 

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Religiosity is diluted by secular education and also by assimilation into a different culture. The large European Social Survey (ESS) found that while 60.5% of Muslim immigrants who have lived for less than a year in Europe regularly go to mosque, attendance declines, after a year, to 48.8%. Over half of immigrants rarely or never go to a mosque to pray. Despite extraordinarily efforts, by energetic and intimidating fundamentalist movements, mosque attendance is falling in many Arab countries, particularly among the young and most especially in Iran 3. Functionaries of all religions unsurprisingly do their best simultaneously to avoid bringing the declines of their beliefs directly to attention and to counter them.  So protecting their influence, considerable privileges, political clout and relatively easy lives.

Declines in religious beliefs are paralleled by the desire to separate religion and government. In a 2012 UK YouGov poll 67% of people did not think that religion should play any role in public life. In the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey 75% believed that their religious leaders should not try to influence their voting behaviour; 67% believed religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. 45% believed that the involvement of religious leaders in government would damage policy; 25% believe religious involvement would produce better policy; 82% of those who classed themselves as non-religious and 63% of those who consider themselves religious believe that “people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others”.

None of this tells me whether my personal loss of religion as I have aged is typical of my generation. For this we would need longitudinal surveys of individual lifetimes and I can only find cross-sectional data. Representative of these are summary data from the combined 1973-98 General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. These US trends also appear for most countries and religions.

AGE: PRE-
1900
1900-09 1910-19 1920-29 1930-39 1940-49 1950-59 1960 ON
18-29 27 29 28
30-39 37 36 34 32
40-49 39 40 37 38
50-59 46 44 45 40
60-69 53 46 48 45
70-79 54 57 52 50
80+ 61 55 52
COHORT
TOTAL
59% 56% 49% 46% 43% 36% 33% 29%

The bottom row shows that more old than younger people say that they are religious.  The columns show similar trends but cells represent different groups so neither rows nor columns tell us whether individuals become more or less religious as they age.

A different possibility is that there is something about religion that is especially nurturing and comforting for the elderly.  Apart from the great promise of eternal life beyond the reach of pollsters there do seem to be earthly and temporal benefits.

Americans aged 65+ % “very happy” by health status and Religiosity

HEALTH=EXCELLENT HEALTH=GOOD HEALTH=FAIR/POOR
RELIGIOSITY:  MALES  FEMALES  MALES  FEMALES  MALES  FEMALES
STRONG 63% 58% 51% 45% 30% 28%
SOMEWHAT 61 59 32 32 30 20
NOT VERY 54 60 38 32 25 18
NO AFFILIATION 45 67 29 39 18 10
TOTAL 58% 59% 41% 40% 27% 24%

Strong religiosity seems to be associated with better health. Interestingly, more so for old men than old women. These numbers are consistent with data from other studies that also suggest that the faithful live longer. I cannot find analyses in which differences in affluence and lifestyle, possibly associated with religiosity, have also been considered. Also, belonging to particular religious groups may give elderly people many kinds of useful support. So I can favour no single explanation.

If, having religion prolongs life, for whatever reason, it might be good for me to take it up again as soon as I can. This is difficult because lifelong encounters with the weird Middle-East Trinity of ultra-punitive religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism make me consider their premises equally ridiculous, and their belligerence, (whether in Republican USA, in Saudi-Arabia or in Jerusalem) equally disgusting. An added bonus is that I try to base my interpretations of the world on logic and on generally agreed data with none of the legal protection from contradiction or mockery enjoyed by “Beliefs”. For comfort, longevity and legal protection there is nothing  to do but what countless charlatans have done, and invent a new religion. I shall base it on the Holy and Refulgent Gerbil, whose true name I can never reveal to you lest unbelievers profane it with their filthy heretical tongues and lips and sinful laughter. Nor may I devise and show you any image of the Sacred HARG. Human representations would be insulting because they cannot capture the Sacred HARG’s Infinitely Gerbilly Nature and might even mislead true believers into idolatry. (Of course HE is MALE, how could HE possibly be otherwise?).

J John

If unbelievers  insult the divinity of HARG by drawing images of Him, or  ignore the stern but just Laws  I have carefully derived from the wise teachings (made manifest to me, alone) that I have recorded for the guidance of all mankind in scrupulous commentaries and hadiths….I shall become very, very, very cross indeed!  I shall invoke the power of the Common Law to silence your insults and I shall also, personally, revenge your abuse of the Sacred Harg on your sinful body.  I have no gun and am squeamish of mess. Unlike the present head of my former faith, Pope (“Slugger”) Francis, I will not punch you in the face (he is younger and seems more limber than I am, and has the Swiss Guard to back him up). Like my sainted mentor Sister Scholastica, at the slightest hint of impiety I will hit you with a very heavy and very sharp-angled ruler, as hard and often as I possibly can, on the tender backs of your disgusting heretical legs.

  1. McAndrew and D. Voas (U of Manchester) SQB Topic Overview 4 (Feb 2011).
  2. Matthew Arnold. New Poems, pub 1867.
  3. M. Tezcur*, T. Azadarmaki & M. Bahar (2006). Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, 217–232.

 

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Old Age and Lang Syne: Tread softly for you tread upon my mnemes

crushed butterfly

Ray Bradbury told a story about a time-tourist on a dinosaur-spotting  safari who unknowingly stepped on a Jurassic butterfly. A tiny crunch started a time-avalanche whose  cumulated effects  hideously transformed the world to which he returned.

In old age time travel is dangerous for exactly the same reason. Revisiting the past was once awkward.  School and university re-unions  were hard to organise, difficult to attend and it was laborious to weave collaborative records of the past from scraps of information got from Xmas cards, changes of  addresses, chance encounters and gossip. Usually no good came of such attempts. Now E-Mail, Twitter, Face-book and Linked-In dump far too much information on us at the speed of light, greatly increasing the risk of our pasts challenging our presents.  Peak Electronic Round Robin  is New Year.

Round Robin

E-mail  delivered  my fattest Round Robin ever:  a 500,000 word draft of an autobiography from a very old friend whose extended family’s arachnoid search-engines had sensed my feeble twitches in the Web.  He had been a most valued companion from 1952 to 1958 then disappeared to be a political historian working in Africa, Jamaica, Cambodia and, finally, Holland.  His very long second-to-last chapter, which he calls “Dutch Treats”, describes exhilarating  (so he says) patronage of more than 800 prostitutes (so he says), and some enduring and affectionate relationships that resulted. I was more delighted by  other great stuff about a far more vivid, eventful and grown-up life than my own: Cambodia under Pol-Pot, learning to read Vietnamese, the weird charm of Mangrove swamps and a student-rebellion in Jamaica, but I gradually  became alarmed that his versions of some early experiences that we shared challenged a model of myself that I have fabricated from my own story of the past.  I am certain that we deserted a desolate archaeology dig in Canterbury together, after a single miserable morning.  He says that he shared this embarrassment with someone else.  He claims that as a schoolboy he never visited my house. I believe that he did, many times. Our memories of futile attempts to re-map a stone circle that had tumbled down a chalk scarp a hundred years ago  are wildly discrepant. Though our cv’s exactly tally we seem to have been at different schools and universities.  Each  difference is trivial but, taken together, they challenge my sense of myself as a continuing consciousness , in firm possession of an  unalterable past and so a predictable future. I am forced to question the information from which, over the years, I have built this model of myself to explain what I do, why I do it, what  other people mean to me and what I may have meant and so, perhaps, may still mean to them.

As Alan Lerner wrote, and Hermione  Gingold and Maurice Chevalier sang 1 it is banal  for two old people to discover conflicting memories of a shared past:

H: We met at nine

M: We met at eight

H: I was on time

M: No, you were late

H: Ah, yes, I remember it well

Even Psychologists have grasped  this. The key to Freud’s exegesis of the human condition 2 is that we never forget fecklessly. We can only deliberately and provisionally suppress anything that an inscrutable part of our mind, a “sub-conscious”, deems too uncomfortable to think about.  If we can find no other way to avoid troublesome memories we hide them behind  “screen memories” of things that never happened (strangely it is key to Freud’s ideas that though we may become unaware of some memories we can never, actually, entirely obliterate any).  “False memories” are something else again. It is notorious that during supposedly therapeutic conversations psychiatrists and their patients have sometimes unknowingly collaborated to construct “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. Elizabeth Loftus convincingly shows that some harrowing legal confrontations between distressed adults and their appalled families were due to such inventions 3. Even dull experimental psychologists, like me, realise that all we know about how our memories work comes from studies of what we mistake and forget. These losses becomes an increasing problem in old age 4.

So why was I disturbed that my friend and I own irreconcilable bits  of a shared past? Partly because his massive book, updating my knowledge of his entire long life, arrived as part of the annual, inter-continental Round Robin migration. Every year people whom I wish that I still knew as well as I once did send me updates and annotations of their life-stories to establish new contexts for lapsed relationships. Most of this year’s out-reaches are one-liners on Christmas Cards (“Unemployed at last!”  “Byzantine History at the Open University”;” Just given up Whisky and Snuff, Sex went long ago, not a lot left”). Others are multi-page essays, all structured in exactly the same way, never beginning with news about the writer. There must first be cameo appearances by children, grandchildren and domestic animals, resolutely upbeat even when cryptic (“Daphne’s new ointment has made all the difference!”). Then the pace quickens and coyness is allowed to infiltrate (“We had a great day out with Joan to collect her DBE from the Palace! There’s nothing like a Dame !” ) Finally boastful self-deprecation (“My Department will be delighted to be rid of me when I become pro-Vice Chancellor for Research next year!”).

Why do we do this? Every Year?

happy new year

Maybe these  life-inventories are pious gestures like the exaggerated  Irish-Catholic Sign of the Cross (“Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet and Watch”) that also check that useful things are still there . I think  there is more to it than that: A compulsion to share. Each dwindling year reminds us that  some webs of association have frayed  so we try to knit in  fresh gossamer (“Little Tabitha grew a chilli-bush in the conservatory this summer! Well done Tabs!”) Perhaps this is also our species-legacy of primate grunting, as among chimps, mutually invisible in dense forest canopy, reassuring each other that all the troop are  present and functioning and that the leopard seems to have buggered off at last. At least for now.

No single explanation is good enough, so many are necessary. Perhaps Round-Robins are letters to ourselves to reveal patterns in our lives and find evidence of dependable continuity and causality in a world in which some things alter (“Desmond has put on rather a lot of weight”) others disappear (“Sadly dachshund Herman died in September”) and  still others replace them (“Amanda, our new goat, is thriving”). Also that the cycle is reassuringly endless ( “At this time of year it is great to see the days lengthen, if just by a bit, and to know that  Spring really will come round again” ). Do we exchange these signals because we only feel that our lives are real if we can persuade others that they are?  How can we recognise ourselves without mirrors?

It is not accidental that the  Round Robin migrations happen at this particular time of year. The  huge earth starts to tilt, new stars appear and, for a short while, change and new amusements  seem possible.  Briefly, the blood stirs.  Then Issa Kobayashi’s haiku reminds us “Second day of New Year. Apathy begins again”.

  1. In “Gigi” (1958) Directed by Vincente Minelli.
  1. Freud, S. (1966).The psychopathology of everyday life (No. 611). WW Norton & Company.
  1. Loftus, E. F., & Davis, D. (2006). Recovered memories. Rev. Clin. Psychol.,469-498.
  1. Rabbitt, Patrick (2015). The Aging Mind: An owner’s manual. London and UK. Routledge,
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Talking and writing about Ageing of the Mind

old_man_writing

 

To start conversations some strangers ask me what I do and, when I admit that I study Old Age, say “ interesting” and gently walk away. Others perk up and tell me about a remarkable geriatric relative. Several have looked pitying and some have, quite rudely, asked “Why?” I find the last response much the most interesting and the rest of this post vents some of the answers I would have liked to give if they had hung around long enough to listen.  These experiences are bad omens for interest in this blog, or in a book I have written that is due to come out on Dec 18 . Maybe an  apologia pro vita sua will help.

I began to study mental changes in old age 57 years ago and, consequently,  have probably thought about ageing every day since (i.e. about 20805 days with extras for leap years). In spite of this, like most people, I am absurdly surprised to find myself suddenly old. At first I made small experiments to find out how and why older people become slow at making simple decisions. Then, with colleagues in Manchester and Newcastle, I spent twenty years following  6500 remarkable persons who, when we first saw them, were aged from 52 to 92. This taught us something about how ageing affects our brains, and so our minds.   I am now older than most of these kind, witty and gallant volunteers were when I first met them and it is amusing to recognise the changes that my colleagues and I tracked in them appear in my own everyday life and lapses It was always exciting when new batches of data from volunteers gave us insights into how our minds and bodies change as we become old.  It is even more amusing to see how these changes shape my conscious experience of  daily life  and my ideas of who I am and what I still can do as I trundle around.  There is also contentment in finding that the work that my colleagues and I did has been useful: not just because it identifies the things that people can no longer do as well as they once did but because it highlights things that we can all still be quite good at and confirms that even late in life we can still learn how to do better.  We all know that ageing changes our mental abilities  in ways that we deeply resent and so do not like to think about. Descriptions of this process may seem scary check-lists of the diversity of the big and little dooms that will surely befall us. In fact the more closely we study the effects of age on our minds the better we recognise how slight they can be, how  slowly they happen,  how they can be further stalled and ameliorated and some things we can do to cope better.

Messages from cognitive gerontologists are no bleaker than those from any other scientists. The universe that we live in, and ourselves,  are all we can know, so  we must adjust as best we can to what we discover about them.  What we find may not always be comforting but there is always interest, great fun, and most of all some dignity in understanding our situation as clearly as we possibly can.

Age changes are inevitable and most of them are not what we would most prefer.  Many who talk to me seem to need to avoid thinking about the details. My job has not allowed me to do this. This has been absolutely fine because finding out new things about ageing has always been enthralling and now I have the added fun of experiencing as well as watching what goes on. I have been lucky to find many others who share these strange pleasures. Some of them are as dubious as I am about our reasons for doing so. One of these, Mike Horan, Professor of Geriatrics at Manchester, continually self-deprecates by saying that he took up his line of work because he has always been fascinated by the variety of ways in which things can go badly wrong. Warm relationships with family, friends and colleagues have only been possible by allowing each other space to exercise  our unattractive hobby horses in the pleasant pastures of our conversations.

With strangers, such as most readers of this blog and my book,  communication must work differently.  Many young people do not really feel, in their hearts, that they will ever grow old and so twitch away from this grey idea to anything more congenial. Because it is likely that many young readers will be undergraduates, graduate students and health professionals who need course-notes in cognitive gerontology  my posts and book chapters have been referenced for this convenience. Because they read for their own practical purposes I need not apologise to them for providing more details than they may require but I must beg their pardon for how I have set these out.  I have done my best to be as accurate and comprehensive as I ought to be, so as to be of as much use to these potential readers as I can, but I found that, no matter how hard I tried, I simply could not bear to write another textbook. So I have done my best to describe not only what we know about all aspects of mental ageing but how we learned about them and, more importantly, to give a glimpse of the excitement and the everyday fun and comradeship that makes science research the happiest career that I can imagine. To keep writing I also needed to keep myself amused as best I could.  Hence the (mainly lame) jokes. I am sorry if they do not work for you but they made my task much easier.

Middle aged people may read what I have to say for different reasons. In their uneasy time of life many desperately want to be told something encouraging:  ideal news would be that theirs is the first generation of humans for whom ageing and mortality have been indefinitely postponed or, at least. that they personally will be spared the particular changes that they most fear. Of course most are far too savvy for such  breathless optimism. I can offer some good news:  the changes to come are far smaller and more gradual than most of us imagine and there are simple ways to slow them and reduce their effects on our lives. Though most of the changes I describe are barely detectable in middle age it may help, at this point in life, to have a map of the territory ahead and to plan the journey to come. Middle age is also a time when changes in parents and older family and friends becomes an issue. To be as helpful to these as we possibly can we must try to understand what they are experiencing and, in particular, to grasp that most of their problems have many different, and some unexpected causes and consequences. It is crucial to be aware of what older people can, and cannot help.  More exact comprehension of what is going on really does calms irritation and worry, allows more insightful and so more affectionate and useful relationships and encourages more effective and compassionate care. I have never understood why many people mistake attempts at scientific objectivity for cold indifference.   This is certainly not true of medics like Mike Horan. Nor of cognitive gerontologists who do care very much indeed, and want to do the best they can to help, but realise that they have no chance of being any use unless they can find out, and explain, precisely how things are and how they came to be this way.

 

old man on front

The readers I feel most easy about are in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. With them I find conversations an easy joy. We do not have to worry that we don’t understand each other. We do not want to talk about grand panaceas for our condition because we have long lost any belief that these exist. People of my age are sharply knowledgeable observers of their own difficulties and those of their partners and friends and do not flinch from recognising the changes that they are experiencing just because they are unwelcome. They are happy to talk about their problems in detail, and in neutral, practical terms.  Some of the best and most illuminating conversations I have had since I have become old are with my age-peers about the big and small things that happen to us and how we can best take the edge off them or put up with them by understanding them better.  These chats have probably taught me more about how our minds have changed  than any of the laboratory experiments that I once so carefully planned and thought about.

My blog and book are tries at a conversation with my generation about the changes that we must all share, how and why these things happen to us and what we can do about them. I hope to show them that research  has done something  more useful than illustrate that ageing is an inevitable series of disasters escalating to a nasty end. What research actually  shows is that, as with all our problems, at any stage of our lives, the only effective  way to cope is to understand what is happening to us as clearly as we possibly can. It is superstitious to hope that changes will not affect us if we succeed in ignoring them.  It does help to recognise what these changes are, how they come about, how they affect our lives and how we can minimise their effects and even become happily amused by many of them. Perversely, writing about the changes that I am experiencing in as much detail as I can has cheered me up enormously.  I will be very content if what I have to offer cheers up others, by even a little.

My book, which  is due to appear on Dec 18 2014, is “The Aging Mind: An Owner’s Manual”, by Patrick Rabbitt, and is published by Routledge, available in  luxurious Hardback,  quite natty paperback and Kindle (and other) electronic editions. All available from Amazon.co

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