TEACHING AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS

The SUDOKU number puzzle that became popular in US in the 1970s.

There is an age-old adage that says : You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Simply put it means that like animals, it is quite difficult for old people to learn something new. They tend not to be open to new ideas.

For anyone to learn something new, you have to trust yourself and your teacher then open up your mind and heart to learn new things.

Interestingly, the theme for my blog is: Learning is a lifelong process. I chose it because I have always been fascinated about learning new things; I have been motivated by curiosity. As I grow older, I have traded in control or trying to change the world for wanting to understand it. The environment we live in controls our behavior so the more we understand it, the better we enhance the quality of our lives. One good example I can give is that for the two decades I lived out of Uganda , where Malaria fever is endemic, I lost my acquired resistance to the mosquito- transmitted disease . If I went down with Malaria at this moment in time, it would be as severe as in an under five Ugandan child! I could easily die from it. To prevent this from happening to me, I persistently sleep under a mosquito net. Consequently, I have not suffered from Malaria for the three years I have been back in Uganda.

We are living in the Information Age or Digital Age where we have instant access to knowledge and information.

This demands that all of us, young and old have to continue learning to remain useful to ourselves and others and to stay relevant and actively engaged with the world around us.

As Alvin Toffler (1928-2016) an American writer and one of the world’s outstanding futurist, rightly said:  The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write , but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

 Every day, I have to learn a myriad of new things, unlearn what is outdated and no longer holds true and relearn what still holds true in this age.

As we are now living longer than any other time in the history of mankind, keeping ourselves literate presents a huge challenge to those in their Second Adulthood : 45- 85 or beyond, more so to those in the last phase of this Second Adulthood (65-85 or beyond). My mother is close to her 90th birthday. I have been observing her closely and watching painfully as she gradually lost control over her life.

 For as long as I can remember, she has been a strong, independent woman with a lot of enthusiasm for life. She was a midwife for almost forty years, retired into mixed farming in the late 90s. I had never known her to fall sick until two years ago when the degenerative arthritis, little by little confined her at home. The inability to go where she wanted to go when she wanted proved to be more painful than the arthritis itself. It was made worse by the loss of her youngest child from cancer of the breast.

There are times when she has been lost in abyss of depression. With the family’s love and support , she has gradually chosen to progress other than decline. We are all trying to help her to achieve a state of successful ageing. Thankfully, she now concentrates on what she can do rather than on what she has lost. She is committed to rebuilding the enthusiasm for her life.

She has always  been the type of person who enjoys touching , holding and sharing affection with us the children and grand children but the social distancing demanded by the safety guidelines of controlling COVID-19 pandemic, has robbed her of this. Being a Digital grandmother, she keeps her mobile phone within easy reach to call any of us at leisure. She ensures that her phone is fully charged and has enough air time bundles to stay socially connected with her loved ones.

I enjoy filling in the Crossword puzzles in the daily newspapers to keep my brain challenged. Two weeks ago, an idea occurred to me: though my mother reads the daily newspapers, books  about the Ugandan martyrs and listens to the Catholic –supported Radio Maria regularly, she had some idle hours and her brain needed to be challenged afresh. That is when I started teaching her how to fill in the SUDOKU Number puzzle in the daily newspaper.  Initially she found it difficult to understand the pattern of the rows and columns and the rules. But I left her to learn at her pace and rhythm not to frustrate her. I gave her an exercise book to record the missing numbers in each column and taught her how to play with those numbers. For two days, we filled in a number of them together as I showed her how to do it step-by-step.

To her excitement, she mastered the pattern by the fifth day and by the sixth day she pushed the exercise book aside and started filling in the missing numbers directly in the blank squares!

Like any good teacher, I cheered her on and celebrated the little successes.

The most touching moment was when she immersed herself in it for about forty minutes, corrected the errors and handed it to me with her trademark smile. “I hope I got a hundred percent.’’

She has become better at it and now scores a hundred percent most of the time. She enjoys doing it and owns the game. No doubt the daily small wins have made her feel good and inspired her to get more done.

  When I informed the grand children about our new fun times, they requested me to take several photographs of her working passionately at her ‘‘game’’ and share them with them.

 Since then, they have been calling her to cheer her on. Many of them will be soon sending her a selection of SUDOKU books and jigsaw puzzles from where they are scattered worldwide.

A brilliant student challenges you as a teacher; you do not want her to get so used to what she is doing  that  it becomes a routine. Like the high jump track and field event, you have to keep raising the bar to stretch the contestant’s ability to the maximum.

So I introduced something completely new: I bought the first jigsaw puzzle for her from the children’s book section of a bookshop.

 It was of a mother elephant with her calf.  I went back to the basics as I had done with my own children: starting off with puzzles made up of fewer big pieces and progressively introducing puzzles with smaller pieces as they became better at it.

Through trials and errors, she is rising to the new challenge and loving it. I do not mind whether she takes the whole day as long as she completes it.

To my amazement, I have observed that :

She has grown more confident and daring.

She is more alert and has made a conscious effort to continue learning new things.

She talks more and engages more with the people around her and her old dog. She spends more time walking around in the compound. It is as if she has been given a new lease on life.

It is increasingly becoming easier for her to remember old things than before.

She concentrates and focuses more at her “game” and the jigsaw puzzles. She gets so deeply absorbed in what she is doing that she loses track of time.

She is more relaxed and happier- her Blood Pressure and heart rate readings are more stable than before.

Her enthusiasm for life has increased and she confidently says that she cannot afford to bury herself alive.

My octogenarian mother enjoying her new Number Puzzle- SUDOKU.

 Despite the loss of her two children and a twenty year old grandson, previously she had somehow found something to live for: her children, grand children and great grand children. Now that she is keeping her brain challenged every day, life is no longer dull and draining.

The scientist in me went to work to read more about how to keep one’s brain young and healthy and the health benefits of Jigsaw puzzles.

 Decades of research facilitated by the Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the brain (MRI), have shown that as we grow older, our brains shrink in volume. Ageing causes changes in the size, the blood vessels and cognitive processes of the brain. The less you keep your brain active by not doing challenging  tasks like learning  something completely new, the faster it shrinks. The same studies have shown that the brain size decreases by 5% per decade after the age of 40 and much faster after the age of 70. This negatively affects your attention and memory and increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

To slow down the brain function decline you have to practice the following:

  1. Regular physical exercise like taking long walks, running and swimming if you able. The brain changes begin midlife. Exercise is good for your heart, brain and body. Exercise increases the heart rate enabling the heart to pump more blood to the brain.  The increased blood flow to the brain improves cognitive function- a healthy mind in a healthy body.
  2. Reduce the stress- the stress response releases hormones like Cortisol and Adrenalin which affect memory and learning. You can reduce the stress by reading books, regular exercise, gardening, writing, painting, meditation, laughing and listening to good music or playing a musical instrument.
  3. Get plenty of sleep- at least  6-8 hours of regular sleep in the 24 hours of the day.
  4. Eat a healthy balanced diet consisting mainly of fish, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, olive oil and Antioxidant nutrients.
  5. Keep the brain active and regularly challenged. This is what is referred to as giving your senses and brain a daily workout.
  6. Remain socially connected- the bonding releases a hormone called OXYTOCIN from the base of the brain. Oxytocin increases bonding and trust in human relationships.

The SUDOKU number puzzles and jigsaw puzzles entertain and keep the mind active and sharp. As you fill in the numbers or pick the right small pieces and put them in the right place, you are engaging both sides of your brain and most of your senses. It stimulates the brain to grow and develop new connections thus slowing down functional decline. Completing the challenging task stimulates the brain to release DOPAMINE, one of the “feel good” chemicals from the brain. You end up feeling good, motivated and alert.

I clearly understand why my mother now feels energized and more engaged with everything around her.

This interaction with my mother has reminded me that learning is a lifelong process and that it also a two- way process.  As I teach her how to fill the Sudoku number crosswords and how to build jigsaw puzzles, I am also having good lessons in patience, humility and successful ageing. We are having fun together and bonding more as mother and daughter.

Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks, it just takes longer. How I wish I had introduced my mother to these brain –stimulating exercises earlier on.

Unexpectedly, two days ago I stumbled on a sealed packet of playing cards. I shall not hesitate to use them to spice up our fun times.

QUESTION: The brain changes due to ageing start midlife and the earlier you start practicing daily workout for your senses and brain the better for you.

Apart from what you do at your work place, what brain- stimulating activities do you practice every day?

Published by

Jane Nannono

I am a mother of three, a medical doctor by profession, who has always been fascinated by the written word. I am a published author- my first fiction novel was published in March 2012 and is entitled ' The Last Lifeline'. I self -published my second fiction novel entitled ' And The Lights Came On' . I am currently writing my third fiction novel and intend to launch it soon. I also write short stories: two of them - Buried Alive in the Hot Kalahari Sand, Move Back to Move Forward were published among the 54 short stories in the first Anthology of the Africa Book Club, Volume 1 of December 2014. It is entitled: The Bundle of Joy.

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