I am still learning.” 
-Michelangelo, age 87

Must Reads

George R.R. Martin said: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one."

We love to read. Reading provides a window into new ideas and new ways of looking at ourselves, our world, and our relationships with all of it. Reading inspires us, motivates us, and broadens our horizons. Here we will share what we've been reading–both fiction and nonfiction–including titles for the young people in your life.

Join the Movement!

Technology Shy? Change Your Attitude

Technology Shy? Change Your Attitude

Positive Attitude

There are a remarkable number of studies in the academic literature that have shown that having a positive attitude toward aging is beneficial for a variety of things. For seniors, a good attitude toward aging can positively affect our quality of life, our sense of wellbeing and our longevity. Having a positive attitude toward aging can even reduce the risk of dementia1 as we age.

But day-to-day activities are also affected by our attitudes. One such activity is how we approach learning new skills, in particular, the technologies that are now so prevalent in our daily lives.

The American Psychology Association (APA) makes the following point:

The technological revolution has made it almost impossible to separate how we conduct our social lives, business, healthcare and education from the technology that allows us to do so. With vast information flowing to and from our fingertips, the way people interact with the world has fundamentally changed

In a previous blog, I talked about the importance of staying connected with the friends and family that make up our social network. These connections are vital to reducing the risks of loneliness, which can lead to depression, but equally important are the positive effects they have on our brain health.  

We all strive to maintain our social networks, but that looks very different for seniors in 2020 than it did for our grandparents. As the American Psychological Association points out, more and more, technology is used to stay connected with others, and mastering this new technology can often be a challenge for us seniors. When it comes to our willingness to embrace technology, having a positive attitude can help us improve our self-confidence and perceived self-efficacy.

Attitude, Anxiety and Self-efficacy

Let’s talk about self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is not the same as self-confidence. The APA defines  perceived self-efficacy as: “An individual’s subjective perception of his or her capability for performance in a given setting or ability to obtain desired results”. If we believe that we can learn something new and valuable, we are more likely to try to master that behavior. This is where self-efficacy comes in. If you believe you can do something you are  more likely to try it and be successful at it.

On the other hand, if we are anxious2 when we approach a new learning experience, we are much more likely to struggle to learn and much more likely to give up if we feel confronted by potential difficulty3. Having a positive attitude about life and aging makes us more likely to view new experiences as surmountable challenges rather than insurmountable barriers. Having a positive attitude creates a greater probability of experiencing perceived self-efficacy, resulting in greater willingness to take on new learning experiences.

Technology

Many older people are intimidated by technology. Probably because we didn’t grow up with it. However, technology is especially important for seniors. One study described the importance of web-based learning for older adults. “Web-based health information is particularly important for the increasing number of older adult online users. One strategy to deliver synthesized, evidence-based health information to these individuals is through Web-based learning modules.”

Another study drew similar conclusions. They described trends in the field of healthcare, specifically for an elder population including the rapid pace of technological development, the unprecedented growth in the aging population, and the growing and unsustainable cost of caring for the aging population. They see the use of technology for patient education as a means of getting ahead of these trends:

So, it is important that we be able to use technology to help us manage our interface with personal healthcare providers. Also, as mentioned earlier, it is important that we be able to use technology to maintain our social interaction with others as well as for capitalizing on the many benefits associated with technology.

In my last blog I discussed the aging brain and how our memory works. I discussed the importance of the hippocampus for creating long term memories. When I looked at positive attitude and how it affects our self-efficacy and hence our potential for learning new technology, I found an interesting study that talks about the relationship between a positive attitude and learning:

We found that positive attitude was associated with increased engagement of the hippocampal learning-memory system…increased hippocampal activity and more frequent use of efficient memory-based strategies mediated the relation between positive attitude and higher math achievement. Our study is the first to elucidate the neurocognitive mechanisms by which positive attitude influences learning and academic achievement.

What’s in it for You?

In the case of attitude change, there are myriad theories on how best to create change in our attitude. Offering you advice on how best to do this is somewhat difficult. There are a couple of theories that we can work with to help us change our attitude and hence our perceived self-efficacy toward the adoption of more technology. But before we look at possible strategies for changing our attitude let’s explore some of the many reasons why it would serve us well to adopt a more positive attitude toward exploring and using technology.

Social Media. Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook, and Twitter are just a few examples of social media applications. These applications are excellent for staying in touch with friends and family. Facebook, for example, can allow you to share photos and comments with others and gives you a chance to comment on material posted by your friends. Social media is very popular with younger people, but it can have a very positive effect on seniors looking to stay in touch and share life experiences with family and friends.

Tools. Electronic Calendars, Email, Skype, Zoom,. These tools are excellent for staying in touch with friends and family, and a no-cost way to see interact with grandchildren, even those living halfway around the world. Zoom, of course, is extremely important for almost everyone given our current struggles with the pandemic. Business, social groups, and individuals are using Zoom and other web-based conferencing applications for creating and supporting groups of people talking and interacting face-to-face online. What better way to have a weekly meeting with family and friends than to schedule a Zoom call? I know people who read bedtime stories to their grandchildren on Zoom.

Shopping. Amazon, Instacart, eBay, and Etsy. Online shopping is here to stay. Most retailers now offer an online shopping app. Online shopping has become so popular and necessary, that some brick and mortar retailers are going out of busines or switching over to online sales only. Grocery shopping is also accessible via technology. Using a computer or a smart phone, you can order your groceries to be delivered from places like Whole Foods, Costco, or your neighborhood grocer via the Instacart app. This can be a lifesaver for those with mobility issues.

Online learning. TEDTM Talks, One Day University, Udacity, YouTube, Museums, and National Geographic and Websites for research and exploration. Online learning is very important to me. I use it all the time, and I taught psychology online for over ten years at the University of Phoenix. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent online watching YouTube videos and TED Talks. (If you ask my wife, too much time.) I have even toured museums and traveled to many foreign places online.

Messaging. Smartphones, WhatsApp, and Facetime. Smartphones are a standard accessory and tool in modern life. If you don’t have a modern smart phone there are many for sale on eBay for as little as $100.00. Many people use the texting feature on their smartphone. It has become an international obsession. Texting is a great way of connecting instantly with friends and family. It has almost taken over from making phone calls. My cleaning ladies, dentist, and dog groomer use text messages to remind me of appointments and when to pick up my dog.

Wellness. Medical Interfaces, Meditation apps, Exercise apps for seniors. As described above, there are opportunities for seniors with some basic technological skills to interface directly with their healthcare providers. I belong to a large healthcare organization in Northern California that allows me to login to my online account and review notes written by my primary care physician or any specialists I may have visited. The notes are a recap of what was said or discovered during that visit. This is becoming an even greater trend for more and more medical professionals going forward. And my wife uses a meditation app on her smartphone, a practice which greatly affects her mood and attitude.

So now what? We have seen that a positive attitude can have a significant effect on how we age. We’ve seen that a good attitude can help us create better perceived self-efficacy and that can help us improve our relationship with an important element of our life, technology. We’ve explored some of the benefits of utilizing technology. Now we need to look at some possible ways to shape our attitudes and create an interest in technology.

Attitude Change

If your attitude in general, and your attitude toward technology in particular, needs adjusting, let’s look at some ways we might be able to work on it.

Attitude change advice is hard to offer since the strategies for creating attitude change typically involve forces from outside the person who is needing to change their attitude. In the academic literature there are numerous theories on how people develop and change their attitudes. A couple of theories I have been familiar with since college are cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on theoretical stuff, but I want to maintain some degree of academic integrity, so I need to acknowledge the authors of these theories. Dissonance theory was first proposed by Leon Festinger in 1957. It has become part of our vernacular. I’ve seen it and heard it in popular media. Self-perception theory was first proposed by Daryl Bem in 1972. Self-perception theory has been used in the context of psychotherapy for many years.

These theories basically say: Go and do what you think you’re not good at, and the fact that you are doing it will cause you to change your beliefs or attitude about that behavior. Instead of the usual method of changing behavior which is to change our thoughts about something which will lead to a change in behavior, instead we need to engage in that behavior to change how we think about it. This is the reverse of how we usually think about attitude change. Sounds great in theory but how do we get ourselves to begin to interact in a meaningful way with something we have no perceived self-efficacy toward?

As I see it, there are three thing we need to do. First let’s look at our self-talk. When we think about approaching technology what do we say to ourselves? Maybe it’s something like: Oh my God I can’t do this, this will never work, I’m too old to learn this, people will make fun of me when I can’t do it, people will think I’m dumb. None of those things are true! Let me share a personal story that illustrates my point.

I enrolled in a PhD program in 2001. I was 53 and apparently one of, if not the oldest freshman ever to enroll in the organizational psychology program at the university. I went to orientation and bought all the books (they were still using real books back then). I took a large stack of books home and decided to read through a couple of them. The first book I picked up was The Conduct of Inquiry by Abraham Kaplan. I started to read it. Chapter one page one. I read about half a page but wasn’t sure what I read. The language and writing style seemed odd and convoluted to me. So I reread the page several times and still didn’t understand what he was saying. I panicked! I mean really panicked. I got a knot in my stomach and started to sweat. I had the overwhelming realization that I was too old to be in a PhD program. My brain was too old, and I had been out of school too long. I wanted to drop out. My wife was out of town, so I called her and told her what happened and that I wanted to quit. She talked me through it, and I agreed to give it a chance. I went to class the first day and my entire cohort, made up of students much younger than me, was complaining about that very same book. We all thought it was bizarrely written and unreasonably difficult to understand. Long story short, I struggled through the book and passed the class, and went on to earn my PhD. That is an example of how negative self-talk can influence our prospects for achieving success.

In this example I didn’t talk myself into believing I would be successful, and I didn’t change my attitude toward the rigors of the program. I just agreed to take on the challenge, even if I failed. I stopped saying “I can’t do this” and started saying “I’ll do the best I can”.

This brings us to the second step in changing our attitude, which is to actually engage in the behavior we want to avoid. If you can clean up your self-talk long enough to get yourself engaged in the behavior you need to engage in, you have the opportunity to create that cognitive dissonance. If you are actually working on a computer or texting on a cell phone, then it will be difficult for you to believe that you can’t do it, since you are actually doing it and gradually becoming more proficient. Your attitude will change, and you will accept the new reality that you can use technology in a productive manner.

Of course, there is still the leap from zero to something. The best way to manage this is with the support of others. Instead of avoiding taking that computer class for seniors at the community center just sign up and show up. As the saying goes, 80% of success in life is just showing up.

Here is a link to an excellent website Senior Planet that offers a number of excellent self-help videos on a variety of computer and cell phone applications. You can use sites like these to get you started to help you adjust your attitude by realizing that you are in fact using technology.

Once you get even the smallest amount of success you can move to the third stage in creating a new and improved attitude toward technology. Acknowledge yourself!

This takes us back to the cognitive component of attitude change. Once you learn to do something, use positive rather than negative self-talk. Avoid saying things like: “Well, anybody could have learned that” or “That was simple, I can’t do the complex things,” etc.

Look at what you have accomplished and acknowledge yourself. Try saying, “That was awesome, I’m on my way” or “Good first step, I’m committed to learning this”.

This is how you make the change in your attitude. By doing!

Endnote: Some of the references used in researching this blog were found on a commercial digital library site (ProQuest). Because many readers cannot access them by hyperlink, I am giving the reference citation in case someone wants to look them up.

References

1 Positive attitudes about aging reduce risk of dementia in older adults. (2018, Feb 07). Targeted News Service  

2. Bandura, A., Reese, L., & Adams, N. E. (1982). Microanalysis of action and fear arousal as a function of differential levels of perceived self-efficacy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(1), 5–21.

3.Taylor, J. A., & Spence, K. W. (1952). The relationship of anxiety level to performance in serial learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 44(2), 61–64.  

 Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam. 

Thanks for the Memories

Thanks for the Memories

Give it up for the Hippocampus

How do we know things? How do we know each other, ourselves, names of objects and historical events? How do we know where we left our keys or why we came into a room? We know these things because we have a memory of them, of course.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that most, if not all, seniors are concerned about their memory and their general cognitive function as well. Fortunately, we need not be greatly concerned if we can’t remember why we are standing in the middle of the kitchen or where we put our cell phone. This happens to everyone, not just seniors.

It does happen more frequently with seniors than with younger people though. This age-related increase in mild memory impairment is normal. I sometimes laugh at myself when I’m standing in front of an open refrigerator wondering what it was I needed.

In his book Successful Aging, Daniel Levitin shared a joke that is apparently popular with memory researchers:

Two elderly gentlemen are sitting next to each other at a dinner party.

“My wife and I had dinner at a new restaurant last week,” one of the men says.

“Oh, what’s it called?” the other man says.

“Um…I…I can’t remember.” (Thinks. Rubs chin.)

“Hmm…What is the name of that of that flower that you buy on romantic occasions? You know, it usually comes by the dozen, you can get it in different colors, there are thorns on the stem…?”

“Do you mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s it!” (Leans across the table to where his wife is sitting.)

“Rose, what was the name of that restaurant we went to last week?”

 

As is true of other parts of our neurological systems, memory has evolved to help us adapt to the demands of the environment. There are several systems accountable for memory, and each is associated with specific anatomical area(s) of the brain. But before we start drilling down into brain parts, let’s look at how memory works and the types of memories we have.

Types of Memory

We have several different memory systems. Spatial memory allows us to know where we are. Procedural memory helps us remember how to perform simple tasks like using a faucet or activating the turn signal on our car. Short-term memory allows us to remember information we learned just a few minutes ago.

According to Levitin our memory systems form a hierarchy. Spatial, procedural, and short-term memory each use different neural circuits in the brain, and each is vital for daily functioning. But above them, at the top of the hierarchy, are implicit memory and explicit memory.

Implicit memory is the type of memory that we use to perform complex behaviors like playing the piano or tennis. Once these behaviors are learned, we do them automatically without having to think about them or consciously reconstruct them.

Explicit memory, on the other hand, includes two types of memory: semantic memory and episodic memory.

Sematic memory is the memory of general knowledge. This memory includes all the things and information we know but don’t remember learning. It’s knowledge we know so well that we take it for granted. For example, what is the capitol of Russia? Moscow, of course. But when did you learn that?

After so many decades spent acquiring knowledge, we older adults have a lot of information stored in sematic memory. According to professor Alan Castel in his book Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging we sometimes have trouble retrieving general knowledge because we have so many semantic memories in our brains that they become cluttered. The sheer volume makes semantic memories harder to find and affects our recall.

Episodic memory, on the other hand, is the memory of all those things we know from particular events or episodes in our lives. Your wedding, the birth of a child, the funeral of a loved one. We remember these events because we were in them. We were there. What differentiates episodic memories from semantic memories is they have autobiographical components to them.

I recall that in 2007 I was a graduate student sitting in a conference room with three professors giving an oral defense of my dissertation. My committee members asked me a series of questions and asked for explanations of various points I made in my research. When they were done, they asked me to leave the room so they could discuss my work. In about 20 minutes they called me back into the room. I sat down at the table. My Chair stood up and extended her had. I took it and she said, “Congratulations, Dr. Lopez.”

I was so happy I almost started crying. Earning my doctorate at 59 years old was one of the seminal moments of my life. I remember every detail about that room and the members – their names, where they were sitting, even the items on the table in front of them. Heck, I even remember what color blouse my Chair wore that day. That is an episodic memory!

One thing we can glean from the example above is that emotion is a key factor in remembering. Even if the emotion is negative. This is true because the area of the brain that facilitates the storage of emotional memories–the amygdala–is active when we store emotional memories and less so when we store semantic memories. Semantic memory events rely more heavily on another area of the brain–the hippocampus.  

The Aging Brain Brain anatomy

One of the things we do well at when it comes to memory is recalling emotional information. This is probably because these memories carry greater importance for us and because emotions activate the amygdala. And the amygdala tends to continue to perform well even as we age.

On the other hand, the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for storing all memories, and general memories in particular, declines in volume by about 1% a year after the age of 50.

The hippocampus is a sort of gate keeper for all memories. Even though our memories are not actually stored there, the hippocampus is responsible for the dissemination of information to various areas of the brain where information is turned into memory.

HM: A Case Study

While researching this article, I dug out an old textbook I used when I taught undergraduate psychology–Foundations of Biopsychology  by Andrew Wickens­–and read the chapter on memory. In his book, Wickens describes a classic case study of a person known only as HM, a study from which we learned a great deal about the role of the hippocampus.

HM was born in 1926. At the age of 9 he had a bicycle accident and injured his head. He began having seizures, which increased in severity over time. By his late twenties, HM had such severe seizures that he could no longer work. After several attempts to correct the problem with toxic levels of medication, his doctor decided it would be helpful to remove his hippocampus. (What were they thinking?)

The operation was a success in that it stopped the seizures, but the side effects were disastrous. HM was no longer able to store information into long-term memory. HM suffered a profound case of anterograde amnesia. (Antero means “in front”.) He had good language skills, a good vocabulary, and above-average IQ. He could remember things from his past, but after the surgery he had only short-term memory. He could not consolidate any new long-term memories. A researcher who worked with HM for 40 years had to reintroduce herself to him every time she came to work with him.

What can we learn from this case? Maintaining the health of the hippocampus, is essential if we are to continue acquiring new long-term memories.

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, there are things we can do to support good brain health and even increase the volume of the hippocampus.

In Successful Aging1, Levitin references a book written by a neurologist Scott Grafton, Physical Intelligence: The Science of How the Body and the Mind Guide Each Other Through Life. Grafton points out that when thinking about brain health, the idea of a brain/body dualism is unproductive. The focus should be on the health of the whole organism not just the brain. You can’t separate the two.

Grafton argues that the single factor with the largest effect on mental health is exercise and physical activity in general. “We now have hundreds of trials with thousands of subjects” that show the benefit of physical activity.

In addition to exercise, Grafton also believes we benefit from “…problem solving, social enrichment, mind body coordination, and fresh air.”

So, should we all run out and buy a treadmill? Well, a treadmill may get oxygenated blood to your brain, but that’s not the whole picture. Yes, Levitin points out, “A systematic meta-analysis showed that for adults with mild cognitive impairment, exercise had a significant beneficial effect on memory.” But what about problem solving, social enrichment, and fresh air?

Okay, how about tennis? I don’t know how to play tennis. So, if I took it up, I would have to learn how to play. That would certainly involve mind-body coordination and problem solving as I dash around the court trying to figure out where the ball is going and how I need to swing the racket to be effective. Since, unlike a treadmill, I would need to find people to play with, I would probably make new friends. I think that would constitute social enrichment. And, unlike a treadmill, I would be outside in the fresh air.

Of course, few of us are likely to take up tennis as we age. So is there a happy medium?

The truth is, you don’t have to buy a treadmill or take up tennis to engage in healthful physical activity. Walking works. Just walk at a pace that moves you out of your comfort range to get your blood flowing.

Ideally, walk on a path in a park or in the wilderness. The constant need to make physical and spatial adjustments while walking on an unpaved surface stimulates the neural circuits in the brain and helps keep your navigational skills and memory systems in shape. The area most stimulated by those adjustments is the all-important hippocampus.

Need evidence? A study was done using a group of seniors that walked for 40 minutes three times a week and comparing them to a group of seniors that did stretching exercises three times a week. The study concluded that the average walking group member’s hippocampus increased in size by about 2% after one year.

So, if you want to stay sharp and slow the inevitable decline of your brain, and hence your memory, the best thing you can do is stay active. Do something that will get oxygen to your brain and require you to keep your brain focused on what you’re doing. And try to do it with other people.

Oh, and just for fun, see how a “memory athlete” can remember the first 10,000 digits of Pi.

 

Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam. 

Better with age: The Psychology of Successful Aging

Successful Aging Demystified

Better With AgeAlan Castel’s book on successful aging is a boon for seniors curious about how to age better and live longer. Castel is a professor of psychology at UCLA and a forward thinker in the field of aging. Better with age is a very readable book that provides an abundance of information on a variety of different aspects of aging. There is some brief information on brain function and cognition as well as memory issues that we confront as we age. His discussion on how to stay sharp as we age is worth the price of admission for this book. You can also rely on Castel to dispel some of the rumors and false narratives around brain training that has become such a big commercial success directed at seniors. This well written, well researched, and very readable book is worth reading and having in your library.

 

Becoming a Volunteer

Becoming a Volunteer

 

A Social Quid Pro Quo

About ten years ago I started thinking about retiring. I lived in Mexico and was teaching university students online, having already stepped back from the most active elements of my career working as a consultant for large organizations. A few years later, I moved back to the US and slowly wound down my teaching work. It took me a few years to go from “thinking about it” to making it official, but for the last three years I have been fully retired.

At first it was kind of nice; I had no serious responsibilities. I had no clients to call, no student papers to correct, and no research duties. Life was good…for a couple of months.

However, after catching up on my reading list and binge-watching Game of Thrones, I started to get bored. I started to not have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I would lie there and think about what I had to do that day: Let’s see…coffee, read the local paper (bad news), surf the net (more bad news), and walk my dogs (the high point of my day). I started to wish I had kids and grandkids. Maybe I could offer some sage advice about something or nurture a sick child. Anything to make me feel like I was being of value as I had when I felt my clients and students held me in some regard. I had no real friends nearby so visiting them was out of the question.

I had lived in this state of mind for a few months when I started to realize it was affecting my mental health. I was starting to feel depressed...

Fortunately for me, my wife was beginning to wind down her career and that helped give me some much-needed social interaction. But still, I needed to be needed–like I was when I had a career.

Then one day I stumbled onto an article in the local paper written by someone who was a local “Master Gardener”. I figured if you were a master gardener then you must have a degree in botany or horticulture or something. But I was interested, and a blurb at the end of the newspaper column gave a web address for the organization, so I checked it out.

The first thing that caught my eye on the Master Gardener website was that they had something called the helpdesk. The helpdesk would diagnose your plant problems and give you possible solutions. Cool! The second thing I noticed was that they were looking for volunteers to join their organization. I wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a master gardener, so I inquired.

Long story short: I didn’t spend ten years thinking about this opportunity. I signed up, got interviewed and accepted, went through the formal training (quite extensive), and started doing my volunteer hours. Now, I am one of the people who mans the helpdesk.

Three things of value have come out of my master gardener experience. First, I am learning so much about plants and gardening, always been a casual interest of mine. Second, I have developed a new social network with a variety of interesting people with distinct backgrounds. Third, I am being of service to my community.

If you are a senior, and retired, volunteering is a great way to make friends and serve others in your community. It’s a great way to put some meaning back into your life.

Why Volunteer

Social participation. In a previous blog I discussed the relationship between loneliness and depression. I advocated for developing and maintaining a social network to stave off loneliness. Volunteering is an excellent way to do that and at the same time create the feeling of satisfaction that comes with being of service.

Research has shown that active and productive engagement in society is a key element in successful aging. When seniors increase their levels of social participation, we have a reduced rate of suicide, better physical health, reduced mortality in general, and higher levels of psychological well-being. Research has also shown that volunteering can help prevent depression.

Being of service. Even if your social life is robust, and your primary focus is not on expanding your social network, you can reap the psychological benefits of being of service to individuals and your community. Being a master gardener volunteer, I get to help people solve problems with their plants, develop and deliver library talks on a variety of gardening related topics, and establish a network of new friends in my community.

Another way I volunteer is by writing blogs for Love of Aging that, hopefully, inform seniors of things they can do in their lives that can support their successful aging.

Researchers have looked directly at the health benefits of volunteering as we age. One study concluded that for seniors, volunteering has a negative relationship with mortality; seniors that volunteered had a 44% lower rate of mortality than seniors that did not volunteer.

Another study showed other significant positive results for seniors who volunteered: Older volunteers reported a wide variety of benefits to the people they served, themselves, their families, and communities. More than 30% reported that they were “a great deal better off” because of volunteering, and almost 60% identified a benefit to their families.

Being of service to the community not only helps the members of the community that are being served but also those that are being of service.

Types of Volunteer Service

There are a large variety of volunteering opportunities available to seniors. One way to get our head around them is to organize them into different models. Here is an example of five distinct but overlapping models for understanding the nature of a specific volunteering opportunities:

Formal. These types of opportunities tend to be more formally organized and involve the delivery of services. These roles tend to be more strictly supervised and more highly structured.

  • Volunteering for the library cart in a local metropolitan hospital
  • Delivering meals to older adults through services such as Meals-on-Wheels
  • Providing activities and outing support in an aged care facility
  • Volunteer driver for a service organization
  • Volunteer animal care giver for organizations such as the ASPCA
  • Volunteering in tourism, museums, large charities and emergency services

Informal. Non-formal volunteering occurs in a variety of community settings. This type of volunteering is done in local communities and centers around specific social needs.  Volunteers work in unfunded, less structured settings.

  • Volunteering for a neighborhood group
  • Running the snack bar for a community sporting or recreational group
  • Coordinating the sale of merchandise for a self-help group
  • Volunteering for a specific hobby group
  • Providing services or support through a mutual support group

Governance. Governance volunteers serve on boards and management committees. They provide leadership and direction for the organization.

  • Secretary for the local soccer club
  • President of a service club, such as a local chapter of the Kiwanis
  • Serving on the board of an NGO

Social action. Social action groups are similar to non-formal groups in that people come together around a shared interest but differ in that social action groups have an interest and passion for bringing about defined changes.

  • Volunteering for an environmental group
  • Political lobbying
  • Getting out the vote
  • Volunteering for a community action group
  • Lobbying for change for a specific target group of people or cause

Projects. Project work is for people with specific periods of time available and are seeking out volunteer opportunities with clearly defined timeframes. These opportunities typically involve high levels of volunteer involvement over a short period of time. The idea is that the volunteer has a specific set of skills that can be brought into an organization for a specific project.

  • Volunteering to oversee the plan and construction of a new building
  • Running or assisting at a specific event
  • Redesigning the website for an organization
  • Volunteering to write a marketing plan for a community group

Volunteer Opportunities

Ready to stop thinking about it and volunteer? If you type into your web browser “volunteer opportunities” the search results will be overwhelming. There are thousands of opportunities out there. Here are ten examples from one website I found:

1. Animal Rescue Shelters. Local animal shelters almost always need volunteers. There may be administrative opportunities or working with the animals like dog walking.

2. National Parks. You can help maintain trails, gather scientific information, and even act as a docent.

3. Food Pantries. Food pantries and soup kitchens can always use a helping hand organizing a local food drive, raising money, or simply handing out hot meals to those in need.

4. Habitat for Humanity. Brush up or develop home DIY skills while helping other less fortunate folks find shelter.

5. Local Libraries. Libraries typically need help organizing shelves and assisting patrons, and you may also be of help setting up and running public events, such as author signings and book fairs.

6. Art Museums. Get involved in the community by volunteering for family programs and children’s activities at your local museum. Once you build up your knowledge base, you may qualify to be a tour guide or event planner.

7. Political Campaigns. No politician gets elected without volunteers manning the phones, distributing fliers, raising money, and answering emails. This kind of work can provide you with valuable experience on many levels and can be applied to a host of different industries.

8. YMCA. You can volunteer to help both children and adults, strengthen your leadership skills by coaching a sports team, or pick up some valuable teaching experience by tutoring literacy courses.

9. Retirement Homes and Senior Centers. Offer to give a lecture or teach a class. Offer your services utilizing your set of skills

10. Red Cross. If you don’t feel like giving blood, why not greet and assist customers looking to do so? Your skills may make you a good fit for grant writing, performing clerical tasks, or managing other volunteers. If you’ve got the drive, you can draw on any number of talents to help the Red Cross

Win-Win

Volunteering can make you feel better and actually help you live longer. That’s a big win for the volunteer, but also there is a win for the organizations we support and the individuals we directly assist. Put yourself out there and meet people and support your community. It’s good for you and good for them.

 

EdLopez 300x300Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam.

 

Loneliness, Depression and Sociability in Seniors

All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?

There have been very few times in my adult life when I really needed to cry. The one time that stands out for me I was stationed in Vietnam with the First Infantry Division. You might think that there is a lot to be emotionally distressed about when serving in a war zone and you would be right. However, I wasn’t crying because I was afraid, I was crying because I felt incredibly alone. I was far from home, living with a bunch of men I hardly knew, and I was not sure if I was going to make it back. I thought about my family and friends and how much I missed them. These thoughts all came together to create an overwhelming sense of loneliness. 

Even now, 50 years later, I find myself sometimes being lonely. My wife and I have no children, and my wife is frequently away from home traveling on business. I can spend days in the house alone with my two dogs; reading, writing, surfing the net, gardening, and watching TV. Having been an academic, I’m used to spending a great deal of time reading books and journals. A very solitary endeavor.

To my advantage I don’t require a lot of social activity. I enjoy my own company and easily find ways to entertain myself. But the truth is, even a recluse needs some human interaction, which is why I’m always happy when my wife, who is very sociable, comes home. My biggest problem when it comes to feeling lonely is that I’m not very sociable. Sociability is important if we want to ward off loneliness. A lack of sociability can even affect our mortality, if it leads us toward depression.

Loneliness

Loneliness can be defined by two factors: one is our desired level of social interaction versus two, our actual level of social interaction. If you desire more social interaction than you have, you are at a greater risk of feeling lonely. The research on loneliness seems to be broadly divided into three areas: childhood and adolescence, early adulthood, and senior populations. In the younger groups, the variables that tend to get looked at are personality traits, social skills, and cognitive processes. For seniors, there tends to be more focus on longevity issues such as health, income levels, transportation, and social power.

Social power seems like a candidate for a lot of loneliness issues if we assume that being in ill health and not having transportation to visit others, which may result from reduced income, can cause us to lose control over our ability to interact with our social network. Regardless of the reasons, it is not a good thing to be lonely. Just the emotional experience of it is negative, but also, and perhaps most importantly, it can lead to depression.

Loneliness and Depression

When I was studying psychology at UCLA back in the 1970s, I recall hearing a professor refer to depression as the common cold of psychology. By that he meant that we all get sad or down or even depressed at various times in our lives, but things change, and we recover and move on. As we age, we may have bouts of depression that are more difficult to recover from. This is especially true when we experience a sense of loneliness.

There is a mountain of research on the relationship between the cognitive states of loneliness and depression. Some of these studies seem to have conflicting results. The one thing that is consistent in these findings though is that loneliness and depression are highly correlated , especially in older adults. That is to say, if you are experiencing loneliness you are much more likely to experience depression. I believe, however, that even though there is a strong correlation between loneliness, aging, and depression, this does not mean that as we age, we will automatically get depressed.

So, what counteracts loneliness? Certainly, one important way to ward off loneliness, and the resulting potential for depression, is that thing I rely on my wife for: being more sociable.

Sociability

The American Psychological Association defines sociability as: “Sociability is the need or tendency to seek out companions, friends and social relationships.” As we age it becomes more difficult to maintain our social connections. We may lose our spouse; our children may move away; and we will lose friends due to the normal rate of mortality for our age group. One certain way to ward off loneliness in the wake of these circumstances is to work at being more social. Sociability is important in seniors because it can help keep us from feeling lonely. If we have a fulfilling social life, we are much less likely to feel lonely, and hence depressed.

Improving Social Interaction

So how do we maintain our social network when we can’t drop by to visit our family and friends? How can we enhance and maintain our already existing social structure?

First, the answer is to actually be sociable. Yes, I know that can be difficult if you’re a bit reclusive like me or even if you want to develop and maintain new friendships but feel awkward trying. The thing is, you need to make an effort to stay in touch with the family and friends you already have. Invite them over. Host a game night. Establish weekly or monthly get togethers, so being together becomes routine and you have something to look forward to. I have found that it’s better to have an occasion in the calendar, and then move it if something gets in the way, than to schedule nothing.

To increase your sociability, you may also need to make an effort to meet new people. Where do the older people in your community meet? Is there a senior center nearby?  Where do the locals play bridge? There are groups for everything. Find the people who are interested in what interests you. I joined a gardening club and became a Master Gardener.

Second, you have to find a method that will allow you to achieve your social goals. This becomes more difficult as we age. We may not have transportation to actually go visit friends, or we may be dealing with health challenges that keep us from getting out at all. We may even be self-quarantining in the face of a pandemic.

I don’t think there is a perfect substitute for shaking hands, hugging, or kissing family and friends, but if it is just not possible to be with them physically, then technology can help.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article described a series of social apps that can help us stay in touch with family, friends, and colleagues. Among the apps discussed, I think two have the greatest potential for helping us stay in touch with our social networks. The first one is FaceTime.

The trusted FaceTime app, available for all Apple devices, connects you to friends and relatives from all over the world, and it couldn’t be easier to use. Once downloaded, your contact list will show you who’s already using the app, and from there the route to a smiley, live face-to-face conversation is very short. Marco Polo, available also on Android, offers the same mood-boosting closeness, but on your own terms; short video messages can be recorded, decorated with funny backgrounds and effects, and sent to anyone who needs some love.

Here is a link to a You Tube video for beginners on how to use FaceTime.

The second app which I have just recently begun to use is Zoom. Zoom is especially good for communicating with more than one person at a time. You can see dozens of people at a time on your computer screen and they can see you and talk at the same time. My wife and I recently hosted a virtual baby shower using Zoom with about twenty people online talking and playing games. Zoom can be a valuable tool for staying in touch with friends and family, and a basic subscription is free.

The star of the COVID-19 crisis, Zoom is a conferencing app that’s intuitive, easy to join and allows participants to share their screen with the rest of the group. The Basic option limits your meeting to 40 minutes a session, and doesn’t allow recording, but you can “host” an endless amount for participants. While meeting, your friends and colleagues can secretly message each other in the Chat window (hello, gossip!) or chat with everyone at once. Currently popular with workout-class instructors, Zoom is also perfect for a collective dance party.

Here is a link to a You Tube video on how to use Zoom.

So, there it is. The two most important aspects of sociability are to want to be social and to have a method for being social if your social network is not readily available to you. Working toward greater sociability, and thereby fending off depression, can help us feel better and live longer.

  

EdLopez 300x300Ed Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam.

 

The Zen of Gardening

The Zen of Gardening

Science and Beauty From the Garden


The dichotomy of gardening

It has always occurred to me that there is a sort of fundamental dichotomy in gardening. On one hand gardening takes work, energy, perseverance, and money. On the other hand, it is relaxing, fulfilling and provides a sense of accomplishment. I am of an age where spending time on my hands and knees planting spring bulbs is taxing. Carrying bags of compost and potting soil taps into my back and knees. After a day in the garden, I need a hot bath and time to relax my aging muscles.

So, what is it that keeps me coming back and putting more effort into my small plot of land? There is not always an immediate sense of satisfaction. Bulbs takes months to come up and flower. Bare root roses take time to grow and bloom. Of course, there is the ongoing and sometimes time-consuming tasks of controlling weeds and pests. Unless I’m planting a bed of annuals, I’m not likely to get immediate gratification.

Certainly, there is a sense of accomplishment at the end of a day in the garden that can reinforce our hard work behavior. Of course, there is the satisfaction of knowing that in the not too distant future there will be beauty, but I think there is more to it than that. In my career I was a researcher and a teacher. My area of expertise is psychology. Since I have retired, I have more leisure time on my hands so I turned to gardening as a fulfilling pastime. I signed up and went through the Master Gardener training with the University of California Cooperative Extension. I thought I might be able to combine my career knowledge with my developing knowledge of gardening. I started looking at the psychological impact gardening has on us as humans and how we can use gardening as a way to recover from stress, help us heal, relieve our depression, and enhance our sense of wellbeing.

This is your brain on gardening

There are some interesting changes that occur in our brains when we spend time in the garden. In a well-controlled, peer reviewed study that I found quite interesting, experimenters used thirty gardeners to see if gardening resulted in reduced stress and an increased sense of wellbeing. The researchers measured levels of cortisol in the saliva of a group of 30 gardeners (average age of 58) after they were required to take a stress inducing, computer generated test. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone, and it’s associated with your fight or flight response. It is generated by your adrenal glands and is regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in your brain. High levels of cortisol are associated with a bunch of unhealthy conditions including: anxiety, depression, headaches, digestion problems, sleeping problems, weight gain and memory and concentration problems.

Immediately after the test they sampled each person’s cortisol at its highest level, then they sent them to participate in one of two activities. Half of the subjects stayed indoors and read books, while the other group went outside and worked in a garden. After 30 minutes of engaging in these activities, the researchers took another sample of each subject’s cortisol level. They found that while both groups had lower levels of cortisol, indicating a recovery from stress, the subjects that worked in the garden had significantly lower levels or cortisol in their saliva than did the subjects that read. Also, the subjects from the gardening group reported a greater sense of wellbeing than did the book reading group.

This study shows one of the many values of gardening. We can use our time in the garden to help us recover from stressful events and experience a sense of wellbeing.

Healing effects of gardening

Over the past few decades there has been an important movement toward using gardens for therapeutic and rehabilitative purposes. Having a background in clinical psychology, I was fascinated when I discovered the field of horticultural therapy. This is an area within clinical psychology that uses gardens as an intervention for therapeutic and rehabilitative purposes. Gardens have been shown to both improve the social psychological and physical wellbeing of older adults and help us overcome the depression that is sometimes associated with aging.

The healing powers of gardens and nature in general, have also been shown to have a positive effect on people recovering from injury. A group of researchers followed 46 post-surgical patients that were assigned to one of two groups. Half of the patients recovered in rooms that had window views that faced a brick wall and the other half of the group had windows that faced a small stand of deciduous trees. The group that had the view of the trees spent less postoperative time in the hospital, received fewer negative evaluations from the nursing staff, and took fewer strong pain medications than did the patients who viewed the brick wall from their room.

Research has also shown that exposure to natural settings can make people feel better when compared to people exposed to urban scenes that lack natural elements. Compared to the urban scenes, people exposed to nature scenes had an increase in positive affect including feelings of affection, friendliness, playfulness, and elation.

We can see the profound importance of gardens when we look back in history. The Koran and the Bible both refer to the garden of Eden as being the wellspring of humankind; an idyllic world of peace and harmony. In the Persian culture the idea of a garden of paradise goes back 6000 years. Even the Neanderthals valued the beauty and serenity of flowers. In graves dated back as far as 60,000 years ago, there was evidence of cornflowers, hyacinth, and yarrow being placed around bodies at burial.

Gardens can heal body and spirit and have subtle yet profound effects on us as we age and our lifestyles change. When we move away from the challenges of a fulltime career and toward a more leisurely life, retirees long for leisure activities that offer the possibility of engagement, self-fulfillment, and satisfaction. Gardening is one such activity. We can improve our mood and sense of well-being through the power of beauty in nature.

Carol Cumes, in her book Chakra Gardens, describes our wholistic relationship to gardens:

In the Andes mother earth is referred to as Pachamama. Throughout the world, healers, shamans and sages hear Pachamama’s cry to restore the planet to balance. ‘First heal the world, by healing yourself,’ She whispers, while extending an invitation to mankind to return to Her gardens. Go where nature draws you. Breath in the energies. Inhale the fragrant perfumes. Listen deeply, with your eyes closed, as Pachamama works with you to provide all you need.

There is much made in the literature about Zen gardens–gardens specifically designed to give us a sense of wellbeing and to focus our healing energies. I, however, think that we do not need a specifically designed garden to give us peace of mind, a sense of wellbeing, and soothing comfort from the stress of day-to-day life. Being in any garden, being with the beauty of nature, and touching, feeling, and smelling all that the garden holds will heal us. Even if you don’t have a yard, you can make your own garden space with a potted plant in a window or for that matter you can build your own Zen garden in the smallest of spaces. The important thing is to be with the beauty of nature and allow it to restore us.


EdLopezEd Lopez, PhD, Love of Aging’s Science Editor is a retired organizational psychologist, university instructor and researcher. His research has been presented at international conferences and published in a peer reviewed journal. Ed is also a decorated Army veteran who served in Vietnam.

 

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