Feeling Old? Aging Brains and Higher Education

Last fall, I turned 50. My husband threw a lovely party for me, and the milestone did not create a sense of dread. Although I reflected on my personal accomplishments, my professional ones were also a cause for celebration: I had recently became a full professor, took on administrative responsibilities, and won university-wide awards for teaching and mentoring.

One year later, I’m noticing some differences in my academic performance, and they all center around my aging brain. The National Institution on Aging reports that older adults may have difficulty multitasking, experience mild decreases in paying attention, and find it difficult to think of certain words and phrases. All of these are changing the way I approach my work as a professor, administrator and mentor.

Academic positions require the management of teaching, service and scholarship, and these often happen simultaneously. In one day, I could meet with a colleague about an upcoming panel presentation, teach two classes back-to-back and observe an adjunct, and that evening, I could attend a university function where I network with colleagues and university administration. The 40-year-old self seemed to manage these easily and even relish in the pace. My 50-year-old self dreads those days because they overwhelm my brain. I often need to close my office door, set an alarm, and give my brain time to restart.

There’s growing evidence that interruptions adversely affect memory. Matt Richtel, in a New York Times article from 2011 reports: “Researchers said the key finding of the new study is that people between the ages of 60 and 80 have significantly more trouble remembering tasks after experiencing a brief interruption than do people in their 20s and 30s.” Although I’m a decade away from 60, I already notice that it is much difficult to return to a task when someone comes in the office to chat. As a result, I find myself doing more and more of my work at home. There I can work on a curriculum report without interruption.

More worrisome is my growing inability to recall words when teaching. I have never been that professor who lectures for the entire session; rather, I facilitate discussion, pose questions for inquiry and ask students to embody the content through teaching demonstrations and panel presentations. As an English education professor with 30+ years in the discipline, it is frustrating and embarrassing when a key theorist’s name or much-used concept eludes me. Suddenly, my confidence in front of the class erodes. I now rely more on Powerpoint presentations and notes to keep myself on track during a 75 minute class session.

At first, these changes had me constantly researching on the internet. Since I lost a father to Alzheimer’s, I often looked for signs of memory loss. However, as I become more comfortable with (or resigned to) this evolution of my brain, I have found several positive changes to the way I approach my work in higher education.

First, I am using the triage method I discussed in a previous ProF blog regarding emailing. I now put my emails into three categories: Immediate, Today, and Soonish. Those I can process in 60 seconds are addressed quickly. Those requiring more thought or some research are saved to the end of the work day. For those labeled “Soonish,” I jot down a note with a deadline. Those I deal with in a block of time, every other day, designated for longer correspondence.

Second, my office door is closed more. I prioritize a quiet lunch by myself, at my desk. At that time, I do a non-job related activity like reading a book for fun, checking the weather, or watching fun YouTube clips. When the door is open, I do not plan work on major reports or grading. In between visits from students, I work on reducing the stack of papers on my desk or organizing materials for meetings, classes, or speaking engagements. Sometimes I work on letters of recommendation.

I am also far more protective of my work-from-home day. Unless there is a major event or important meeting, I use that time to answer those longer emails, grade, or work on projects. There’s something calming about staying in my pjs most of the day and enjoying a quiet house and a loyal companion, my poodle Luna. I take a nap, make a nutritious lunch, and, most importantly, allow my brain a slow day, one that does not have to attempt multitasking or dealing with constant interruptions.

Finally, my occasional difficulty in recalling words made me reconsider classroom pedagogy. Research about Millennial learners suggests that they prefer “casual and friendly relationships with teachers.” Sophia Sanchez, in a 2016 blog for Inside Higher Ed, also describes Millennial learners as preferring “interactive, experiential, and collaborative learning” and “informal and stimulating environments.” If I cannot remember who created the VSS strategy, I have a roomful of avid “Googlers.” They would rather use the VSS technique with a collaborative group and then discuss variations for their prospective 6-12 classrooms.

As I draw nearer to my 51st birthday, I still do not dread getting older. I do realize, however, that my work in higher education will shift with each new physiological change. Instead of finding those insurmountable challenges, I hope to see them as opportunities to rethink practices and find new ways to connect with my students and streamline work. After all, retirement is still 15 years away.