ELDER MUSIC: 1949 Again
A TGB READER STORY: Annual Checkup Time

Concentration and Focus in Old Age

It usually goes something like this:

There is a whole bunch of stuff piled on a chair in the living room. It's been there too long and it is high time I sort it out to make the chair available again.

There are three or four cloth bags that should be in the car for shopping. That book I've been searching for over the previous week too. A bottle of hand sanitizer. A Theraband that belongs in a box across the room. A teeshirt that has no reason to be in the chair. A whole lot of loose pieces of paper with notes on them...

There's more, but you get the idea. I decide to walk the teeshirt to the laundry room (I can't remember if it was clean when I dropped it in the chair – hell, I don't even recall leaving it in the chair).

The washer is half full but, I figure, if I add what's in the laundry basket, I could get a good-sized wash done and be ahead of the game. I head for the bedroom.

The closet door, behind which is the laundry basket, squeaks – as it always does – so I check the cupboard to see if there is a can of WD40. Nope. Maybe it's in the storage room – I head in that direction.

On the way, as I pass the desk, it pops into my mind to check email – it will take only a couple of minutes - which is where I find myself a hour later at lunch time. That chair is still piled with stuff.

All too often these days, that is how it goes for me.

Relatedly, just a week ago we were talking about how greedy old age is, stealing our time in so many little ways – concentration among them - that I've been checking out what science knows about concentration in old age.

We are not imagining this phenomenon. From Harvard Health:

”...scientists now see the brain as continuously changing and developing across the entire life span. There is no period in life when the brain and its functions just hold steady. Some cognitive functions become weaker with age, while others actually improve.

“Some brain areas, including the hippocampus, shrink in size. The myelin sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fibers wears down, which can slow the speed of communication between neurons.

“Some of the receptors on the surface of neurons that enable them to communicate with one another may not function as well as they once did. These changes can affect your ability to encode new information into your memory and retrieve information that's already in storage.

There have been a few studies targeting distraction itself rather than the brain in general. Psychology Today reported on a study showing that compared to young adults, old people have decreased brain activity in areas that enable concentration.

Other studies reveal that old people tend to have difficulty ignoring distractions and irrelevant stimuli that younger people easily tune out.

There are easy ways to improve concentration most of which we could figure out for ourselves (if we could just focus):

Do not multitask
Try meditating
Exercise regularly
Try caffeine (don't overdo)
Take breaks
Turn off distracting sounds
Get a good night's sleep

One report tells us that about half of the older adults do not have this problem, and Harvard Health reports that as we age,

”...the branching of dendrites increases, and connections between distant brain areas strengthen. These changes enable the aging brain to become better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, capturing the big picture, and understanding the global implications of specific issues.

“Perhaps this is the foundation of wisdom. It is as if, with age, your brain becomes better at seeing the entire forest and worse at seeing the leaves.”

Now I'm going to go tackle the mess on that chair again.


Thank you for this good information, Ronni.  And Good Luck with "tackle the mess on that chair again".  

That pile of yours seems to be breeding and replicating itself over at my house....a lot like the Prions and assorted other viral stuff in our lives.

It is good time for me to avoid the news for a day or two...and brighten up a small corner of my part of the world.

I've found, if I don't do a task immediately after thinking about doing it, It may take days before I think again about doing it. If anything, it's procrastination that gets worse with old age. Right now I'm staring at a pile of receipts that need to be filed. They have been there for about two weeks. They are right here, on my desk just inches from where I'm typing this comment. It would take about four minutes to file them away. Am I going to do it? Sure, as soon as I finish this paragraph. Or not.

Yes indeed...the distractibility of every little thing is really a pain in the ---. I also own that I procrastinate in certain areas, and use this laptop as such an enjoyable avoidance tool. Glad to hear what researchers have to say about things. (Oh Bruce, I also have a pile of receipts!) I have recently returned to meditation (and noting anything significant into a journal afterwards.) It calms my "monkey mind" as a friend calls it, the mental chatter telling me what's right/wrong, what I feel, what I should be doing, etc.

I like the part of the article that recommended caffeine. Yes!!!!!!!


All the above. B

I loved this! One tactic that has helped me is making lists by time increments for areas of endeavor. For 30 minutes I will work on my computer list (ding, timer rings) for 3o minutes I will work on my living room list (ding, timer rings), etc. On days when I am more "flighty" I set the timer for shorter increments. It is much easier to stay present when I am on the timer and I accomplish a lot using this approach and feel good about it at the end of the day. The timer gives me an external prompt to stay on track.

Thank you! I love this post. From the comments so far, I see I am not alone. I am not a list maker, but I am a very good procrastinator and easily distracted. Saturday I decided to make a list of chores to see if it might prod me into action. I made sure each item was specific, none of this vague “clean house” stuff. There were 18 items. At the end of the day, they weren’t all completed, but 10 were! I’m pretty sure that’s at least eight more than would have been done without the list.

I think as wonderful as all our electronic gadgets are, they hinder our ability to concentrate. It’s so easy to get distracted by the next shiny thing and forget what we were doing or meant to do in the first place.

Ronni, "...piled on a chair." Only one chair???

Great topic, as usual and same for responses, which are easily relatable. Maybe we're just sick of the same old lists after 50+ years, so I'm including time-outs only for pleasure.

While I consider myself pretty-well organized, it's the sleep that determines what eventually happens. In lieu of none or little, I've developed a good sense of humor over my missteps, miscues and messes, then try to do one thing at a time.

I'm going to try the Marianne's timer hint.

A lovely elderly man, many years ago, told me "I live mostly in the hereafter. I go into a room to get something, then stand there saying "Now what am I hereafter?" Now I get it.

But the laundry...did you ever get back to the laundry? That's really bugging me. 8-)

At 80 I can relate. Probably could at 40 too. lol

No - I sailed right past that part. It's on the list for today. Or not.

Oh how I can identify. My wise mother-in-law used to say "One thing at a time and that done well, is the very best way, as many can tell." I wish I could do that.
I do try: I have lists, and cross off items when they're done. But so many items drop off or climb onto the next, and then the next, and then the next, list. I may try the timer.

It is comforting to know that science agrees that wisdom increases as perspective and experience increase with age. That means realising that finishing the list isn't all-important. Enjoying life is - my current mantra is "what if I die tomorrow - do I want to spend my last day of life doing this?"

Thanks, Ronni. Very useful, as were the comments that followed.
I’d note that I was heading for the shower when I picked up the iPad and saw this message. Compelled to add my .o2 cents (sic), I’ve now gotten thoroughly chilled. Perhaps I should have a touch of coffee beforehand....

That’s the story of my day. I have 2 chairs piled right now. One with stitching which will have to be moved before I can stitch in that chair-another has ancestry work in front of my laptop on the kitchen table. My nemesis is actually the kitchen table holding the “don’t move it or I won’t find it again” stuff I need for this week. Working on that “pile” today

The gift I've given myself since retiring from a high stress career is "hey, no need to be perfect anymoe" who cares , who is looking? Only moi! I did drag my organization skills with me and my type A personality still lingers. I've always been an anti clutter gal, so no piling up of anything lol Just great to be moi and free from any touch of perfect 😊

My husband and I finally cleared off the dining room table + the top of an antique trunk near by. This after our solemn vow some months ago that the dining room would always be our "perfect" room. This is the first time we have broken down over this.....

But you should see parts of the rest of the house....or may be you shouldn't....

You just reminded me that I put a load of wash in the dryer yesterday and forgot about it.
I guess I better get it out (all wrinkled) and get to folding.
If I don't forget or get sidetracked on the way.

Sidetracked? Oh, yeah! Another thing that helps: Clear the clutter. Too many undone projects (looking at you, printer table!) and other detritus just makes things worse. Simplifying really does help.

Tax info was waiting for me to get to it. For weeks I knew it was waiting but couldn't make myself process it. Finally I decided to fill in one line on my spreadsheet at a time. So I added up one item and entered it. Then I went back to reading forums. I actually got most of it done in two days once I got going on it.

Sometimes making those new connections (which I mostly love) actually contributes to the inability to be single-minded.

Give me a flat surface and I can have it covered in 10 seconds with all manner of stuff! Mostly paper...paper...and MORE paper! Weren’t computers supposed to give us a paperless life? Hah!

My personal hell would be me standing in papers up to my nose and no matter how much tossing, shoveling, recycling, shredding I do- it never goes away...never. I weep for the trees.

Guess I’ll go file those receipts from last month...

Love the wisdom and humor in the post and comments. What works best for me w projects from tax prep to laundry is taking steps toward completion. That is, not raising the bar to completing in a single pass any one multi step process or project and simply taking the first step. The second, etc., more easily follow. And, I steadily, sometimes daily divest...physical stuff, online feeds, FB so-called friends. Clearing such “noises” and keeping earplugs at the ready help me to relax and focus.

Not often that My Favorite Blog starts off our day with such smiles - but hubby and I will be gigging each other all day long with " NO MORE MULTI-TASKING !"

I'm just getting back to finishing reading this post and all the comments. It seems to fit in with others that have been shared here -- the slipping way, or deliberate letting go of daily habits that used to keep us at least appearing to be organized and on track. I have come to believe it's the perfectly normal , and almost inevitable, trajectory of aging.

Since taking up the hobby of attending estate sales about seven years ago, my husband and I have had weekly glimpses into the lives of the ordinary and elevated households in our city. Before doing this, we had no idea how much unnecessary stuff many people accumulate and don't or can't get rid of before something happens to prevent that. I honestly don't know how people managed to live and maneuver around in many of these homes as long as they did. Some even fill additional outbuilding space.

Last night a popular national television show featuring two men who visit people to pick among and possibly purchase some of their old stuff for resale featured a visit to my city. Their business is located just 2-3 hours away and they have been here a few times over the years because we apparently know how to accumulate good stuff here. Turns out I know the couple whose business they were plundering they were plundering on this trip.

The husband is 84 and owns an enormous commercial property (more than 50,000 square feet!) that has been in his family for nearly 60 years. He was rather resistant in his dealings with the two men, but still ended up selling a van load or two that amounted to about $5,000 in sales for him. My heart was aching for this couple, as I cannot imagine being responsible for a five story one hundred year old building that has been condemned by the city and holds five floors of boating related old stuff in mostly unusable condition. That is why the estate sale, clean-out and demolition business appears to be booming.

So, as burdensome as our small homes with tables pile with stuff may feel to us, imagine being in this couple's position. At least they don't live there, and their home is probably much more organized, but that would be small consolation to me if I were in that situation. That transition seems much harder and more complicated than it should be at age 84.

I've always had an aversion to clutter, so when things start piling up, the clutter itself distracts me from doing anything else, till I either clean it up or leave the room. But I can make several painfully slow trips up the stairs and come back down again without doing the task I went up there for in the first place.

I began to lose the ability to multi-task in my 50s when I was still working. It kept taking me longer and longer to get things done. Technology certainly contributed, with my email dinging and my phone ringing and the fax machine whooshing, not mentioning people stopping at my door with "have you got a minute?" I had to come in early or stay late to get anything done that required much concentration. And this was 15 years ago. Can't imagine working in an office now. My son tells me multi-tasking is no longer a "thing" at work. That they now emphasize doing one thing well and not getting distracted. Maybe he's just saying that to make me feel better?

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