Tanzina: There's a common saying that goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but that isn't necessarily true today. More and more research tells us that middle-aged and older adults can learn new skills and they can even become experts in everything from musical composition to beekeeping, to learning a new language. First, we wanted to hear from our listeners over 60 about the new skills they've picked up during the pandemic.
Denise: Hi, my name is Denise Mcclain. I live in Dallas, Texas. I'm 67 and I've always ran and exercised and studied new things. I love music of all kinds, I like Black Pumas, Allen Stone, Seth Walker. I'm also politically active and I help register voters and I sent postcards to help flip Georgia blue. Just because you're older doesn't mean you lose your interest and sit down.
Nancy: Hi, this is Nancy in Berkeley. I didn't set out to acquire a new skill, but I have done so by accident. At the beginning of the pandemic, a cat rescue organization had to close down and empty out their adoption center. They asked me to take in a couple of their unsocialized strays. The idea with socializing cats is to get them to where they like people and we'll make good pets. I'm getting more skilled at it all the time. I might as well because I'm not going anywhere and this is something useful to do, which is good not only for the cats, but for the people who adopt them.
Tanzina: More of our listeners have used this time to tap into their creative sides, whether that's meant getting crafty or learning an instrument.
Renee: Hi, this is Renee Batten in Hillsboro, Oregon. I developed a new skill during this pandemic. I was going to make a quill with the sewing machine I've used like three times in the last 20 years and I couldn't get the sewing machine to work. I did the whole thing by hand and I ended up with a big quill and two pillow shams that I made.
Ellen: Hi, it's your friend, Ellen in Pittsburgh. I acquired a new hobby. I have been repainting furniture and having a blast. My especially favorite thing to do is to paint filing cabinets. Boy, is that a piece of furniture you don't expect to have such a punch?
Lucy: Hi, my name's Lucy and I'm from rural Northwest Washington. I've started playing the guitar and even with hit and miss practice, I've really found that it brings me so much peace and joy. I know too my husband has learned to sew and he's 69 [chuckles] so you can always learn new things.
Doug: This is Doug in Portland, Oregon. A few years ago, I decided to try to learn ukulele and in the last year, I'm proud to say I've gotten marginally better.
Tanzina: Your new-found musical chops aren't just instrumental, at least one of you is dropping beats in a different way.
Robin: Hi, I'm Robin Anderson. I am a retired woman in Portland, Oregon, and I wrote a rap tune about the COVID-19 virus and mask wearing.
It's a virus people, it's basic biology.
It's a virus, people, it can spread from you to me.
It's the virus, people, nothing political about it.
It's a virus, people and I'm sorry if you got it.
Tanzina: Rachel Wu is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and that's exactly what she studies. Rachel, welcome to the show.
Rachel Wu: Thank you for having me, Tanzina.
Tanzina: Why do we persist with this idea that older people are not good at learning new things?
Rachel Wu: I think because anytime you're learning, it's really difficult and you might forget how difficult it is to learn, or you might see kids and babies learning easily, but they're actually having a hard time as well, but as adults, we try to learn and then it's difficult and then we think we're having a more difficult time than infants and kids but that might not necessarily be the case.
Tanzina: Your research, you looked into this and you've had some research about the ability of older adults to learn new skills. We heard some older adults on our show earlier talking about all the new things they're doing. What does your research show?
Rachel Wu: We basically show that a large proportion of why we think learning might be difficult can be accounted for by the kinds of environment that we have when we're learning. If you have a teacher teaching you, if you have people surrounding you who encourage you, if you put a lot of effort in all of these things. What we did was we had older adults come in, they were about 60 to 80 years of age, around 72-ish.
They came in to learn three new things at the same time. These were really difficult skills like learning how to speak Spanish, read and write Spanish as well, photography, drawing and things like that. They came in for three months and in a way did one-quarter of university classes, if you want to think about it that way. After even just halfway through six to eight weeks or so, they increase their cognitive abilities, they increase their confidence, they were just all over-- A lot of them said they were different people by the end of it, for the better. In terms of their cognitive abilities, though, they were almost like middle-aged adults, looking 30 years younger in a way.
Tanzina: You mentioned it's hard, we don't assume it's hard for babies and kids to learn new skills, but in fact, it is a challenge to learn new skills. What makes learning new skills different from being an adult versus a child?
Rachel Wu: There are a few things that we've identified, one is babies have no bills to pay, no responsibility, really.
Tanzina: I have one, I know.
Rachel Wu: We do everything for them, right?
Tanzina: Yes, everything.
Rachel Wu: If you have an adult where everything is taken care of for you, how much easier is it to learn something? If you're a full-time job and more, is learning new stuff, how far can you get really? Some of the things that we have identified are that babies learn really completely new things. They're in this open-minded state where they're not saying, "Oh, I don't need to learn that." They're just learning whatever comes to them.
Another thing is they have somebody there pretty much 24/7 for whatever they need to learn, for all the skills that they need to learn. If they want to learn the language that they're exposed to, there is somebody there 24/7 to teach them. That's not something that you typically get as an adult unless you're trying to learn language from a spouse or something like that, but even then it's difficult.
Then there's also this sense of growth mindset. Instead of a fixed mindset where you don't think as a parent, for example, you don't think your kids can be any good at sports or something so you just don't push them in that direction, especially with babies, you would never say something like, "I don't think you would ever be good at speaking, so I'm just not going to teach you that." That's just not something you say.
You just help them and get them to where they need to go. There's this really important growth mindset, especially with infants and kids. Then there's a serious commitment to learning as well. Babies are learning for survival. They're not just learning for fun, like hobbies or anything. They're really learning to survive essential skills. There's this commitment to learning where they just don't give up.
There's also a sense of, it's okay to make as many mistakes as you want. In this recent book that was published by Tom Vanderbilt called Beginners. He notes how many times babies actually fall by this research with Dr. Karen E. Adolph. If you just look at, yes, babies eventually learn how to walk, but they also fall a ton of times. It also helps that their body is a little bit rubbery as well and so they can bounce back. The last bit is that they're learning a lot multiple skills at the same time. It's not just one thing here and there, there's something about learning multiple skills that keeps you going.
Tanzina: Also, we're talking about the vaccine rollout, for example, and how complicated it's been and largely, we're saying, "It's so complicated that it's largely because of all these portals and websites and the technology," but I even find some of that portals and websites and technology complicated at times. Is there a reason why older people might struggle more with technology than younger people? Or is that also just an assumption?
Rachel Wu: It depends. I think some people will be similar and some people will struggle but at the same time, there are younger adults who are probably going to be struggling as well. I don't think it's an age thing. I think it's more in terms of what kinds of systems you're used to. If you've never seen a smart device in your life, then trying to navigate all these portals and everything will be difficult, especially if they're all through apps.
Tanzina: Rachel, I have to ask you one more question though before we wrap because I think for older people who might be interested in learning something new, we've got you on the line, what advice do you have for them?
Rachel Wu: It's okay to ask for help, getting someone to teach you something. Not everybody is qualified to teach. Adult children are not always the best way to go but try to get some help and don't give up. Yes, just keep going. The main thing also though is that if we do or if we're able to learn and stay independent, then we're able to not have to rely on other people to do stuff for us.
Tanzina: That's something you think could be a motivating factor.
Rachel Wu: Exactly. Right. If staying independent is one of your main goals in older adulthood, then learning new things is the way around that to make sure that you're not dependent on other people.
Tanzina: Rachel Wu is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Rachel, thanks so much.
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