By Marianne Delorey
Two well-known social psychologists named Alter and Oppenheimer did an experiment in which they had groups of people take a quick, three-question intelligence test called the CRT. This particular test is rigged so that the most obvious answer is wrong. Eighty-three percent of people miss at least one question. However, the researchers found when they made the test harder, people did better. They did this by writing the test in a font that was difficult to read. The conclusion the researchers drew from the experiment is that making people slow down their reading made them make fewer mistakes. In this case, less speed made for more processing time, which in turn led to more careful answers.
Perhaps we can extrapolate these findings to aging. Most people would consider their aging, slowing bodies a detriment. Most people consider physical limitations such as poor eyesight, a measured gait, or even memory loss to be a barrier or a hurdle to living life fully. Perhaps, though, that is not entirely true. Perhaps slowing our bodies down means we have the chance to think more deeply about life and determine the best course of action more thoughtfully. Perhaps, slowing ourselves down means we get to live life with more forethought, resolve and therefore more meaning.
Meet Veronica. Veronica is a very determined lady. She lives in an apartment with stairs but uses a walker. She has learned how to scoot up the stairs while sitting and dragging up her walker with her groceries or whatever else she needs.
Eve is another person who struggles with limitations. Eve’s eyes don’t work like they used to, but she refuses to move away from her home. She has taken the initiative to melt crayon wax onto her stove and burner knobs so she will be able to feel when the burners are off. She still enjoys cooking, but just has to be a bit more careful about doing so.
Max is another elder who gives his family a run for their money. Max goes out every day, downtown to the old neighborhood, to see his friends. He is in a scooter, and the neighborhoods are not quite as safe as they used to be. Max does not care. This was home to him and he feels safe. Worse, when it snows, Max takes his scooter out into the road because the sidewalks are not clear. His family has offered to drive him when they can, but Max refuses help.
Most people I know who work with the elderly are reading these stories with their heads spinning. We have all met many elders who in our view are taking unnecessary risks because they are too proud or too stubborn to ask for help. But maybe we helpers are the ones who have it wrong. Maybe these people are challenging themselves by determining how they want to live their lives. They encounter an obstacle – stairs, New England winters, and what-have-you, and decide they are greater than these challenges. They assess what needs to be done and are very thoughtful and determined about coming up with a solution. Perhaps they are taking the only intelligence test that really matters – how to live life on your own terms.