Monday, June 9, 2008

The Wisdom and Expertise of Old Age

One of the normal effects of aging is a general slowing down of motor skills, information processing and reaction time. But that isn’t necessarily always significant in practical terms. Researchers have found that, although younger people are faster, older people tend to make fewer mistakes thereby remaining competent and competitive with younger people.

I know, some will argue and offer anecdotal examples to make the point. And I will concede that there may be some activities, like driving, where a slower reaction time can be dangerous. Yet, in my own professional experience, I see many very elderly drivers who continue to successfully operate their automobiles without serious harm or incident.

How do they do that? It’s not just luck. In the field of geriatrics (the study of aging), there is a well-documented phenomenon to explain that. It is called the “speed-accuracy trade-off.” While younger drivers find that their rapid responses and quick reactions often enable them to be less careful or more aggressive, older drivers compensate for their slower reaction time by reducing their speed, looking further ahead and planning ways to minimize risks. Some older drivers limit their driving to times when traffic is light. Others move to more rural areas or smaller towns, or avoid freeways. I knew an elderly woman who planned her routes so that she never had to make a left turn.

Many people remain independent and productive in their old age because they have learned to rely more on experience, expertise and accuracy to compensate for their loss of speed or strength.

About thirty years ago, as a young plastering contractor, I hired John in his late 70’s. He was a skilled, journeyman plasterer but old age had certainly slowed him down. Although he never complained, I could tell, by watching him, that he endured a great deal of pain.

John had a very strange way of using his tools. Sometimes, when no one was looking, I tried to mimic his technique but I never could master his unconventional style. One day I asked Him about it. “Look at the way you youngsters work,” he said. “You take a trowel full of mud, bend over and reach all the way down to the bottom of the wall. That’s one move. Then you lift and drag it back up on the wall. That’s two. Then you have to bend over again and trowel it back down to the bottom of the wall. That’s three. Then you pull your arm back and raise yourself back upright. That’s four strokes. I just push the mud down the wall and come back up empty, one stroke down and one stroke up. That’s half the moves. I use gravity instead of lifting and I only bend over once. When you get to be as old and tired as I am, you learn to make every move count.”

By minimizing his movements, John could do the same amount of work as the other guys on the crew with only half the physical effort. Sure, the younger guys were stronger and faster. They often kidded him but old John just kept slugging away. He was dependable, consistent, and deliberate. He knew what he was doing and he always got the job done with finesse and style.

“The glory of the young is their strength; the gray hair of experience is the splendor of the old.” Proverbs 20:29

"…Be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." I Cor. 15:58


Anonymous said... really is too bad that youth is wasted on the young.

Daisy said...

Aaah, this explains why my husband can outsmart me on an untimed IQ test but I kill him at a timed one. LOL. Hmmm, I'm just going to tell him it is because he is old..."er".

I agree 100%. There is much wisdom to be had and much heartache to be avoided if we would learn from those who go before.

Daisy said...

By the way, "killing him" means I beat me by 5 whole points. He made me write this!