What Older People Are Doing
THE athlete eyed his goal and started to run. He sprinted fifty-five feet, dug his glass-fiber pole into the ground and soared gracefully over a crossbar, nine and a quarter feet above the ground. The event? A track meet for junior high schools? No. The athlete was seventy years old, and this was a meet, reported in The Wall Street Journal, for 600 similarly aged athletes. At the same event, a seventy-seven-year-old ran the 100 meters in 15.7 seconds, and a seventy-year-old hurled a special discus to a distance of ninety feet.
Does it surprise you to hear of seventy-year-olds who are still competing in athletics? True, they cannot match what they used to do when in their twenties. But the fact that some can still throw a discus, sprint 100 meters and successfully pole-vault shows something important. It indicates that elderly people should not be “written off” as useless just because they have lived for a certain number of years. Unless some disease intervenes, older people have a lot more physical potential than they are usually given credit for.
Is this also true with regard to their mental and intellectual capacity? That is, can old people learn new things and adopt new life-styles? Sometimes the elderly themselves play down their potential in this field. They may shrink from the challenge of something new and say, ‘I’m too old to learn,’ or ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ But is this necessarily so? At what age does the ability to learn fade away?
Growing and Learning
It is interesting to reflect that the person who protests, ‘I am too old to learn,’ was once a young, bright-eyed child full of curiosity. In the vocabulary of the majority of little boys and girls, the most used words are ‘Why?’ ‘Where?’ ‘When?’ ‘How?’ ‘Who?’ There is no question about their desire to learn.
Sometimes parents wish this desire was a little less intense and that their children would stop asking questions for a while. Yet the Bible takes note of the importance of what a child learns at this stage when it says: “Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it.”—Proverbs 22:6.
Soon the child attends school, and for a number of years his major project each day is taking in new knowledge about different subjects. His natural desire to learn is handled to some degree by his teachers. He learns new concepts, new skills, and the world gradually opens up for him.
All too quickly school years are over, and a young adult steps out into the world. He now has to learn how to deal with grown-up people and acquire skills for making a living. In most cases he ends up in a regular job, and here the learning process starts to slow down. Most young adults get married, have children, are burdened with pressures and responsibilities, and they gradually cease to enrich their lives with new learning.
When the family grows up, the parents find that now they have time for themselves again. But, in many cases, the pattern of not learning has been established. They are not as inclined as they were when young to start investigating new things, or to ask questions. In Japan some speak of being born in another era. A man may say, ‘I was born in the Meiji era.’ That was the political era that ended in 1912. Hence, having reached an age of at least seventy, he feels his learning days are over and he could never pick up new thoughts in this modern, incomprehensible age.
But does that have to be the case? True, as a person ages his physical body changes. His joints may get stiffer, his muscles less pliable, his eyesight a little weaker and his hearing a little less acute. But unless he gets sick, this causes only a slowing down, not a stopping of all activities. The fact that a group of over-seventies could hold an athletic meet proves that. Is the same thing true for the mind? Or is it true that a person can be too old to learn?