When I returned to school nearly 25 years after completing my last degree, I was in for a shock. All my life I have loved reading, but reading the textbook in that first class was a real challenge. I would get to the bottom of the page and realize I couldn’t remember anything about what I had just read. Was this the fate for a student who was in her late 50s? That entire first semester, I had to read chapters over and over before I could get a handle on what was being discussed. It took forever to complete the reading assignments. I considered myself to be pretty smart, but this was a humbling experience.
Frustrated by the effort it took to comprehend text material, I almost dropped out of the program. This was a lot harder than it had been when I was a college student in my 20s and 30s. Maybe I was actually too old to learn a new subject in school. The phrase “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” haunted me as I struggled to keep up with my younger classmates. They seemed to just glide through the material. How could I compete with their energy level and quick comprehension?
I started to buy into the notion that there was an expiration date on my ability to learn, but eventually I got into the swing of things and lost my deer-in-the-headlights look. After that first year, some of my younger classmates were admiring me for my extensive experience and ability to stay calm under pressure. And I began to feel like I belonged in the program.
Learning new things—especially when the process forces you to concentrate and focus—has been found to be a way to slow the cognitive decline associated with aging. Although I had a tough time in the beginning, by sticking it out, I think my return to school has done my brain some good. I’ve noticed some of my memory challenges are less of an issue. While I used to routinely forget what I was talking about in the middle of a sentence (which is really embarrassing when standing in front of a class of students), it’s easier now to finish expressing a thought. And I’m able to remember some (not all) people’s names.
I love to read and have carried over my habit of highlighting or underlining passages from textbook pages to magazine pages. I have books and magazines in the bathroom, by my bed, and on the coffee table. I haven’t caught up with technological trends in that I still prefer turning a physical page and smelling a book to using a virtual book on an electronic device, but I may become a convert one day. Meantime, my years back in school have taught me that it is worthwhile to push myself to engage in mentally challenging activities. Not only do I get to learn new things, I enhance my brain’s ability to function. I plan to never stop learning new things. Being a lifelong learner is for me. That’s one way I can get the stimulation needed to delay cognitive decline as I age.