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.
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