As processing becomes slower and memory acquisition becomes more limited, older adults begin making adjustments to compensate. They begin to draw more on their strengths (semantic and global memory) to compensate for the greater difficulty in learning new material. This is why analogies work well (see Tip #1). To put it in computer terms, learning requires blocks of short term memory for the process of laying down a block of long term memory. If that process can utilize links to existing long term memory, the demands on short term memory are lessened, and the new block of long term memory has links to something that’s already stable, increasing the likelihood it will successfully map. On the other hand, without links to existing long term memory, the process becomes more resource-intensive in areas that are losing efficiency (short term memory).
As we age, processing speed slows so that the blocks of short term memory fail by the time they are needed at the end of processing. For example, in a four part process where step one must be remembered for step four while executing steps two and three, step one, utilizing a block of short term memory, typically gets lost during the intermediate steps so that step four cannot be completed.
One of the ways older adults deal with the increased difficulty in learning is to limit what they try to learn. They are motivated by how important a thing is to them personally to learn it, and they will learn only what they need to know for that item. For example, keeping in touch is important, whether it is with a spouse, children, grandchildren, friends, or doctors’ offices, so that cell phones no longer seem to be a convenience, but a requirement, even to the older generation. But all the bells and whistles available, even on the cheapest phones, are just that to the older generation: non-essential items which have a high learning cost. They will learn how to turn the phone on or off, how to keep it charged, how to make a call, how to answer a call, and how to “hang up.” Those are pretty straightforward tasks, using visible buttons on the phone. Learning to navigate through menus on the phone’s screen comes at a higher cost. For most, the additional features don’t add to their core requirement, which is to simply use the phone to make and receive calls anywhere they go, so there is not much incentive to attempt to learn how to use those features. How many older adults do you know who have a cell phone? How many of them can use the phone to take a picture and send it to someone? How many even want to?
Tip #2: Teach them only what they need to know to do what they want to do.