My kids took me to Hawaii as a big birthday gift during Thanksgiving.
I decided to prepare a bit beforehand by immersing myself in the culture. I read James Michener’s Hawaii and dropped into the Sacred Hula class at the Smiley building. What I thought was going to be easy turned out to be very challenging, yet joyful at the same time.
I’m in fairly good shape, work out every day and I am reasonably flexible, so I thought this would come easily to me. The hula is a very spiritual dance; it expresses many feelings and gratitudes, all translated through the feet, arms, hands, fingers, eyes, facial expressions and, of course, the hips.
We started with the foot movements, and I picked up on them fairly well. Then we added the arms. Yikes! It was like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time – very difficult. Others in the class who had more experience were cupping hands, flowing their fingers and focusing their eyes on interpretive images, plus moving their hips in the figure eight. So beautiful.
The point is that this was challenging and demanding for me. It forced me to think and move at the same time, and not just one or two body parts but a progression of many.
Research shows that learning a new skill can improve cognitive functioning, but it must be a certain kind of skill. Listening to classical music and completing word puzzles are not enough to bring noticeable benefits to an aging mind; we must do things that are unfamiliar and mentally challenging. They must provide a broad stimulation mentally and socially. “When you are inside your comfort zone, you may be outside of the enhancement zone,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Denise Park at the University of Texas.
Her study assigned 221 adults ages 60 to 90 to engage in a particular activity for 15 hours per week over a three-month time. Some were assigned a new skill, either digital photography, quilting or both – which required active engagement and working memory, long-term memory and other high-level cognitive processes.
Other participants were instructed to engage in more familiar activities at home – listening to classical music and working word puzzles.
Park and colleagues found that adults in the first group showed marked improvements in their memories. Only this group that was confronted with continuous and prolonged mental challenges had gains.
Some things helped me at hula – humming along with the music (don’t ask me why), and of course watching, watching, watching the teacher. Montessori early education says learning happens in three parts: naming, which could be interpreted here as the introduction or watching; then recognizing, which here could be identification that certain steps go next; and then finally, remembering, which is real cognition and the learning has happened. I am still very much watching my teacher but have fleeting moments when I remember and can totally absorb myself in it.
How can we translate new learning into our aging lives? I’m not sure joining a book club is challenging enough. It must be new, unfamiliar, difficult and include active interaction. Any kind of dancing or movement works as long as we’re new to it. Learning chess, bridge, a musical instrument or a foreign language sound like they would fit. I think the activity must also be fun in order to continue with it.
As we are all aging, it’s significant that demanding mental activity could really slow the rate at which the brain ages. Every year that we save could be an added year of high-quality life and independence.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at email@example.com.