When do old people get stupid? We all age, but will we all lose our reasoning skills? And at what point in the aging process does that happen? If we knew, could we stop it?
We hear about old people falling prey to scams and crimes of opportunity all the time. And sure, some old people weren’t the sharpest knife in the block when they were young, but lots of them used to be smart. How do these formerly-smart people fall prey to everyone who wants to make a buck?
Let’s take the case of my father – he’s in his 80s. My dad called me two weeks ago to tell me his phone wasn’t working, so he’d be out of touch for a while. It was roughly the sixth time his phone went out in a year’s time. I said ok, and I’d talk to him when he did get a phone. He called a week later to tell me his phone was fixed, and he’d just signed a new deal with the cable monopoly.
“Didn’t you have Cableopoly before?” I asked.
“Dad, your phone has gone out six times in the past year. Why would you stay with them?”
“Well, they offered me a deal –free HBO for the next six months,” he said.
“It’s not a deal if your phone doesn’t work,” I said, “And your phone goes out all the time.”
“Oh, that was Phoneopoly. They own the lines coming into the house. That had nothing to do with Cableopoly.”
“Wasn’t Cableopoly responsible for keeping you in phone service?”
“Well, yes, but Phonopoly was the problem.”
“Are they still using Phonopoly?”
“Why do you let these people victimize you? You know there are other ways to get phone service,” I said.
“What, victimize? I got free HBO.”
My father made his living as a mechanical engineer, so I know he was, at one time, at least book-smart. He also maintains an exaggerated degree of paranoia. He once told me, “Everyone’s out to get you.” So how did Cableopoly convince a man who had smarts and suspicion to sign a new contract for unreliable phone service?
He’s old. And he’s cheap. And he must be bored with his TV channels. As we spoke, I got one more glimpse into how his mind works. He was telling me how difficult it was to get the cable people to fix his phone, because he couldn’t call them.
“You’ve got a cell phone,” I said. He does. It only works for outgoing calls, but he’s got one.
“It was out of minutes,” he said.
“You can buy more, can’t you?” I said.
“Well, then you’ve gotta buy a card and I didn’t need all those minutes.”
“YOU DIDN’T HAVE A PHONE!”
“Well, now I do.”
I gave up. So, my father signed another contract and I’m resigned to spending another year hearing a perpetual busy signal or “The number you have reached is not available at this time,” and wondering if my dad is lying on the floor having just dialed “9-1.”
Although I don’t embrace the process of getting older, I have made some peace with it. But I cannot accept the idea that age will render me stupid. I know people in their seventies who still function adeptly in society.
What’s the difference between them and the vulnerable people like my father?
That’s the million-dollar question. How do we maintain our faculties as we age? I don’t know. One thing I have noticed, though, is that the septuagenarians who seem sharpest are very social. My father sees people at the senior center maybe once a week. Even though he was never much of a social animal, I think the lack of contact limits his understanding of the world. Maybe the act of socializing doesn’t maintain your brain, but hearing about scams firsthand can at least make you wary of them.
The second thing I see in smart old folks is that they’re productive. They either work or they teach or they create things – even knitting a scarf can keep their minds juiced. But I think it’s more than that. I think staying productive keeps them feeling useful, and that’s a big self-esteem boost. My dad took care of my mom for 13 years when she had Alzheimer’s. When she died, he didn’t know what to do with himself. As difficult as it was, at least he felt productive while he cared for her. And at the time, he didn’t sign any contracts with Cableopoly.
I don’t have a third thing. I know that Alzheimer’s studies say that people who keep on learning are less likely to develop the disease, and that’s good enough for me. If I can prevent Alzheimer’s – it’s in my genes – by learning new things, then hopefully I can hold onto my intelligence throughout my golden years.
I want to live a long time. I just had a baby, and by the time he’s 20, I’ll be over 60. I wish I’d had my kids sooner because I want to see as much of their lives as possible. So I plan to stick around as long as I can. I just hope I can be old and smart at the same time. And now that I think about it, if I’m not social, productive, or knowledgeable, I’m not sure I want to be old at all.