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Dubious Maxim 7: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

A statue of a dog that is holding a smart phone in its mouth.

The phrase was originally meant literally. In John Fitzherbert’s 1534 Book of Husbandry, he warns shepherds that they had better train their dogs to herd sheep when they are young, because “it is hard to make an old dog to stoupe.” (Stoupe is an obsolete spelling of stop; Fitzherbert meant it was hard to teach an old dog to stop its bad habits.) The observation soon became applied to elderly humans, the implication being that once we reach a certain age we stop being able to learn anything we don’t already know. The notion, even when not tied to the phrase itself, persists into these enlightened times. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, for example, Hua Hsu, reviewing a new album by Paul McCartney, suggests that “it may be impossible for a septuagenarian ex-Beatle to grasp the anxiety-filled world that his musical descendants have inherited.” Hua Hsu evidently thinks McCartney should stoupe.

The older I get, the more I find myself arguing with the idea that people come with a best-before date. Miguel de Montaigne is a dear friend and life-long companion, but I sometimes wish he would listen to me now that I’m older than he was when he died, in 1592, at the age of 59. In his essay “On Aging,” published when he was 47, he noted with approval that Cato the Younger committed suicide at the age of 48, saying that the Roman senator “regarded that age as quite ripe and quite advanced, considering how few men reach it.” What Montaigne doesn’t mention is Cato killed himself because he refused to live under the rule of Julius Caesar, and that his great-grandfather, Cato the Elder, lived to be 85.

“If I were to enumerate all the beautiful human actions,” Montaigne wrote in that essay, “of whatever kind, that have come to my knowledge, I should think I would find that the greater part were performed, both in ancient times and in our own, before the age of thirty.”

Many of us still think that our intellectual, corporate and even sexual powers peak at thirty. If you haven’t established yourself by then, you’ve somehow missed the last ferry. Child prodigies are cited, many of them now working in Silicon Valley. Mozart so astounded his music teacher when he was five that the teacher suspected he was a midget disguised as a child. Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz, born in Mexico in 1651, published her first poems at the age of eight, confounded forty university professors when she was seventeen, and went on to become one of Mexico’s most famous poets. She still is: when Merilyn and I stayed in El Meson de los Poetas, in Guanajuato, we were given the Sor Juana suite.

However, child prodigies are rare (unless you watch You Tube a lot). The average age of millionaires in the US is sixty-two. Few of them would consider they had performed their most beautiful human actions before they were thirty. Both my daughters started having their children when they were in their thirties. Einstein was forty-two when he won the Nobel Prize in 1921. I was sixty-five when I published my first novel. We had a friend, Ellen Stafford, whose first novel, Was That You at the Guggenheim?, came out when she was eighty. She’d been married in the 1930s, ran away to New York, returned to Canada and started Fanfare Books in Stratford, Ontario, and raised two generations of writers: her daughter, Laurie Lewis, who published her first book, Little Comrades, at age eighty, and her granddaughter, novelist Amanda Lewis. And Ellen read like a writer, which is to say, like an inspired editor. In every book she read she kept a bookmark on which she noted the book’s typos and errors. We have her copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, published in 2000, when Ellen was ninety. Tucked in it is Ellen’s bookmark, on which she’d written things like, “Page 64, ‘bite the bullet’ – was this used in 1913?” and “Page 197, ‘a good shagging’ not used in the 1930s.” She knew because she’d been there. At the bottom of the bookmark there’s an enigmatic, poignant entry: “Page 394. I look back at what I’ve written.”

Ellen died quietly, as they say in obituaries, meaning of natural causes (the code word for accidents, heart attacks and suicide is “suddenly”), as we expect with a ninety-two-year-old. In Montaigne’s day, dying of old age was so unusual he thought it should be called unnatural. “Death of old age,” he wrote, “is a rare, singular, and extraordinary death, and hence less natural than the others.” In Montaigne’s day, it was more common for “a man [to] break his neck by a fall, be drowned in a shipwreck, be snatched away by the plague or a pleurisy,” than it was to have the “very rare privilege” of dying of old age.

This sounds unnatural to us, now that life expectancy has risen from 64.7 to 82.3 (despite Covid-19) in the past hundred years, and most of us expect to die quietly. According to Statistics Canada, of the 238,418 people who died in Canada in 2018, the three most frequent causes were cancer (79,536), heart disease (53,134), cerebrovascular diseases (13,480). (In 2020, influenza, including Covid-19, will take over the number three spot, with over 26,000 deaths.) But the death certificates of people who die quietly or “after a long illness” do not give “old age” as cause of death. A clinical euphemism is found. A directive issued to medical professionals by the American Association of Family Physicians notes that death certificates must record only “the proximate, most recently developed, final diagnostic entity causing death.” This final diagnostic, if the death is “natural,” i.e. not accident, suicide or homicide, “must be a specific etiology (e.g. Escherichia coli sepsis, acute renal failure, hypoxemia), not a general concept such as old age.”

So Montaigne was right, as usual: today, as in his time, no one dies of old age.

Where Montaigne erred, however, was in supposing that our mental faculties “wither and decline” as we age. A recent study comparing the abilities of two groups to learn and retain information – one with a median age of 25, and another with no one under 65 — dispels this proverbial assumption. The subjects were shown photographs of eight faces, each associated with a different key on a computer keyboard. When the subjects were shown a photograph, they had to hit the appropriate key, and the response time (RT) between seeing the photograph and hitting the key was measured. The photos were then configured in pairs; the subjects were shown each photograph separately and asked to identify which second photo made up the pair. The older group had somewhat slower RTs – it took them fractions of a second longer to hit the correct key, because signals do travel from our brain to our fingertips more slowly as we age – but otherwise the older group scored as well as or better than the younger group: “Older adults can learn configural response relationships as well as young adults,” the researchers concluded. “Young and old subjects demonstrated equivalent configural learning rates; in fact, there was evidence that older adults were able to continue to reduce their RTs after the young adults reached asymptote.” (Asymptote simply means the point at which it becomes obvious that a line and a curve are never going to get any closer to touching. The relationship between Romeo and Juliet became asymptotic in Act III).

In other words, old dogs continue to learn new tricks while the young pups are patting down grass for a nap.

Which is fortunate, since older adults who have worked at the same job for most of their lives find themselves having to learn entirely new ways of living once they retire, and most of them do just fine. Since becoming old dogs, Merilyn and I have been spending winters (except this one) in Mexico. We still work as much as we always have, but in Mexico we’ve had to learn to live in a different culture, speak a new language, become familiar with new birds, insects, food, weather, and adjust to new perspectives on politics and the United States (which looks like a different country when seen from below). These were all new tricks for us, and albeit with a slightly diminished RT, we learned them.

As food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote in Sister Age, her testament and tribute to growing old (published when she was a mere 72), “the art of aging is learned.” In other words, growing old itself is a new trick. Fisher lived another eleven years (she died in 1992) and wrote eight more books; she seems to have learned the art well. W.H. Auden thought Fisher the best prose writer America had produced. In his Commonplace book, he quoted large swaths from her books, including a lengthy description of the nastiest meal she ever ate. Under the heading “Aging,” he also quotes John Ruskin, the 19th-century art critic: “Everything which has hitherto happened to me, or been done by me, whether well or ill, has been fitting me to take greater fortune more prudently, and do better work more thoroughly.”

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