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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Certified Gerontologist

Set in our Ways

July 8, 2019

I recently had lunch with a dear friend who is in his mid-eighties. In our many years of friendship we have covered a huge variety of topics from politics to the latest James Bond movie to the best kind of pajamas (cotton, with dog print, of course.) A couple of years ago, I noticed a shift in his thought process and responses. He is still as sharp as a Swiss Army knife, however, when we hit on a topic and I offer a counter perspective, in the past he would nod, contemplate my words and offer a considered response. Lately, he has gone from doing that to simply dismissing my opinion as irrelevant. The pitch of his dismissal has also escalated. He has developed a habit, which I see is a variation of the Socio-emotional Selectivity Theory in action: Selective Exposure Theory.

This can happen at any age, but it is a behavior often adopted by the elderly. This behavior is happening in the US in greater numbers and is becoming a growing concern for the seniors’ friends and family. More and more these seniors refuse to hear anything that defies their set beliefs, or their worldviews. Why does this really matter? It matters because it is a sign that these people no longer want to be fully engaged in the world, learn new things, or think deeply about important life/cultural issues specific to their areas of interest or expertise, as in the case of my friend who is a literary scholar.

This decision, whether conscious or unconscious, halts the intake of new information, a critical part of keeping our brains engaged, active, and challenged; all key components in opposing the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We become what my sweet grandmother used to call, “set in your ways.” I have said many times before, (and will again!) our bodies are “use it or lose it” cellular machines, and that is equally true for our brains, our emotional hearts, and our physical bodies. I call this behavior Locking In, and once we start to lock in, our brains in all areas, begin to atrophy. The first to falter are our memory functions followed by our higher reasoning skills. From there we start to favor re-runs of I Love Lucy and twenty-four-piece puzzles. Maybe not right away, but the die is cast.

Now for some good news! You, or a loved one can avoid the above scenario by making different choices. Remember, if you don’t like the way your life is going, you have the power to re-choose.

Here are a few ideas to engage your mind if you begin to feel the Selective Exposure Theory surfacing in your psyche or see it creeping into a loved one’s: 1) Go to a lecture/discussion group on a topic you are only mildly interested in, listen to the comments, and keep an open mind; 2) Even better, learn about something completely new that you have no prior knowledge of; 3) Listen to music other than what you prefer, and try to appreciate its value; 4) Take a break from your usual reading preference and try something different. If you like mysteries or romances, check out some historical non-fiction, true crime, or sci-fi. Then, find a friend who loves that genre and share opinions; 5) Sign up to volunteer in a field you know nothing about. (For me that would be childcare ;-))

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The goal is to challenge your brain, force yourself to think and learn about new things. Before too long, I wouldn’t be surprised if your memory is better, and you look five years younger!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!