Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 798 Mental advantages of Aging

This is Retirement Talk. I'm Del Lowery.

Advantages of aging:I know: I know. Advantages and aging are two words that are rarely connected. But, I was reading this article lately and it made me rethink this connection. According to it, there are advantages to aging – many of them are mental. Now that is information worthy of note…especially for some of us.

There seem to be so many advantages of aging that I don’t know where to start. But one that jumped out to me as most important was the ability to be a better judge of character. Thomas Hess, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University did an experiment which was designed to measure a person’s emotional intelligence and ability to judge character. He found that an older person could better discard irrelevant information and hone in on those things that really make a difference. Experience has given them an ability to more correctly identify when a person would be a bum, dishonest, kind, or competent. Now, how important is that?

I recall being a college  sophomore and having a term paper due at the same time we had a track meet in another state. At the last minute this guy in a restaurant told me he would take my paper; proof read it, correct all spelling and grammatical errors and have it ready for me the morning I was due back to town - the morning the paper was due. I took him up on it. My grade: an A over an F: A for content – my research and an F for his proofreading and correcting all grammatical and spelling errors. Oh, if I had just been a better judge of character.

Few things are more important in life than being a good judge of character. I’m always astounded at how that seems to depend on our intuitive sense. I’m sure it is related to how they carry themselves; how they make eye contact, how they laugh; intonations and inflections in their speech. How they comb their hair. Choose their clothing. Body language we use to call it.

Attributes register at lightning speed in our minds. The older you are the more experience you have had at recognizing and rating these minuscule indicators of whomever you’re trying to assess. It means my parents may have been better judges of my friends when I was a youth than I was. It means we older folks need to retain our own assessment of people and not be so quick to pass this task on to our children, or friends. Perhaps we need to give more weight to the thought that, "They just don't seem right".

A few years ago I was on a committee to hire a consultant for our county parks department. We interviewed four different teams. When I saw one of the team leaders get out of his car and walk just a few feet I turned to a fellow member of our team and said, “Looks like that’s the guy”. I had not heard him speak one word; I had never met him; but there was something about him that triggered this comment. Lo and behold, he was the guy we selected. Maybe some of this ability to judge subtle character attributes was at work. Then again, maybe it was just a coincidence. A popular book was written on this subject within the last few years entitled, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell who writes for the New Yorker. We listened to an audio version of this book on one of our road trips and it all made sense to us. His thesis was that many times in life we have an ability to make judgements in the "blink of an eye" that prove valid.

Thie magazine article by Hess pointed out that “Automatic functions are least sensitive to aging. So, if decisions are based on knowledge and skill, older folks may have an advantage over younger decision makers just because they have to do less mental heavy lifting.”

It is said that in later life, Pablo Casals, the famous cellist, was seized by arthritis and could hardly walk. Every day he hobbled into his music room with his hands clenched in spasms. He would seize the bow and magical cello music would flow. He could tenderly play the most beautiful and sensitive music right to the end. His last public performance was at age 94 at the United Nations. He lived to age 96. Amazing.

This same principle would lead one to belief that a lawyer or teacher would also be better with age. Not that they would be quicker at disassociated facts and clever mental high-jinks; but they would be better at sorting what is important from what is meaningless drivel. They would have mental templates to tap into and to leave out what is not important.  They would better understand what is really worthy of mention.

This is rather comforting. Life isn’t over when one reaches retirement. There are advantages. We need to know what these are and take advantage.

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