If you’ve ever tried to start a fitness program or diet, or tried to stop smoking, you know that change can be hard. One might assume that making changes gets more difficult as we grow older. After all, you’ve likely heard someone referred to as “old and set in their ways.” But research shows that as we grow older, change is entirely possible and may actually become easier in some respects. Could this even apply to people’s feelings and beliefs about moving to a retirement community?

Changing your ways

While some people are naturally more adaptable to change than others, researchers have found that as a group, older adults are entirely capable of making changes.

For instance, a 2020 meta-analysis of 366 clinical trials, which included over 36,000 total participants of all ages, found that among those undergoing psychotherapy for depression symptoms, treatment was equally effective for middle-aged (24 to 55 years old) and older adults (those age 55 plus). It was somewhat less effective for children and adolescents, however.

Now, based on this particular study, you could posit that those older adults who have decided to pursue therapy may not be an unbiased sample of all people age 55 plus. Perhaps these are people who are ready and willing to work on making positive changes to their life and wellbeing, which of course, not everyone is. But additional research tells a more complete story …

>> Related: Uniting The Emotional & The Rational In Senior Living Decisions

Studying older adults’ ability to learn and change

A 2020 study conducted by Yale researchers sought to understand how well older people learn (or don’t learn, as the case may be) from feedback in comparison to younger people. As the study noted, “Aging is associated with structural and functional brain changes, which may impact the regulation of motivated behaviors, including both action and inhibition of action.”

The researchers set up an experiment where they looked at participants’ brains using an MRI as they performed a reward go/no-go (GNG) task with approximately 2/3 “go” and 1/3 “no-go” in the trial. In layman’s terms, the people were asked to figure out which button among several to press to gain a monetary reward of either a nickel or a dollar (the “go”s), and which button not to press in order to avoid losing that reward (the “no-go”s). In essence, the research team wanted to determine how quickly and accurately the participants learned from feedback.

The study found that the older participants were in fact slower than younger participants to learn which button gave them the rewards and which took them away. But importantly, that didn’t mean that the older adults did not learn; it just took them a little bit longer. The scientists speculated that this difference was likely tied to normal age-related cognitive changes such as impacts on short-term memory and older brains generally processing new information more slowly than younger brains.

But the bottom line was that even among the older study participants, they indeed were able to learn and make changes to their actions accordingly — even if it took a little more time to do so.

>> Related: Planning for a Life-Affirming Retirement

A lifetime of experiences and learning

There’s another important consideration to factor in as we look to analyze older adults’ ability to learn and change: life experience. Neuroscientists and psychologists would refer to this as crystalized intelligence — the knowledge, vocabulary, and reasoning skills you have amassed over a lifetime of learning.

A combination of book smarts and street smarts, crystalized intelligence also involves the ability to retrieve information you have stored in your memory and apply it to new and different situations. Some examples might be the ability to recall that George Washington was the first president of the United States, that two plus two equals four, and that you turn a spigot to the right to turn it off.

For older adults, their crystalized intelligence is a tremendous asset as they have simply had more time on this earth to accumulate experiences, knowledge, and skills — all of which can be applied to new situations. And this is what makes older adults just as capable of learning and changing as younger people.

Take a retired lawyer or librarian. He or she could draw on their talents for organization, their communication skills, and their administrative prowess, all of which they honed during their career. These same talents could be applied to starting an encore career or volunteering with a non-profit organization they are passionate about during their retirement years.

And remember: It’s never too late to learn something new — another language, a sport, or an instrument, for instance. In fact, lifelong learning has been shown to have benefits for older adults’ mental and physical well-being. That’s why opportunities to learn — classes, speakers, cultural outings, etc. — are often a key element of retirement communities’ programming.

>> Related: Everyone Wins: Why Society Must Tap into Seniors’ Experience & Wisdom

Weighing downsizing, moving to a retirement community

As people ponder their senior living options, it may be tempting to stick with the status quo. This is one of the reasons why a majority of people say they want to remain in their current home as they grow older. It can be easier to just stay where you are. It is comfortable; it’s familiar.

But it is important to draw on your crystalized intelligence as you weigh your senior living choices as well. What have you experienced in your lifetime that might tip the scales toward downsizing to a smaller home or even moving to a retirement community instead?

For example, maybe you witnessed your own aging parents struggle with home upkeep as they experienced age-related physical decline. Or maybe you saw a grandparent moved from one family member’s home to another as loved ones dealt with increasing caregiving responsibilities. All of this crystalized intelligence might factor heavily into your own senior living choices.

>> Related: CCRCs Help Avoid the “Senior Living Shuffle”

Making informed decisions about senior living

All of this brings us to another important aspect of older adults’ ability to learn and change. Research has shown that in general, older people are actually better than younger people at setting a goal, sticking with it, and achieving it. This is especially true when that goal relates to the older adult’s intrinsic values — things like family relationships, health, and wellbeing (versus extrinsic values like money or social status).

Put another way: When we know better, we do better.

For some people, they will have experienced things in life that make them not want to burden their adult children with all of their “stuff.” Perhaps this crystalized intelligence was created from the experience of having to clean out their own parents’ home after they passed away. For these people, they may set a goal to work on cleaning out their own home and eventually moving to a retirement community or downsizing to a smaller home.

For others, perhaps they witnessed their aging loved one being shuffled from one home to another and eventually to assisted living or a nursing home once their care needs exceeded loved ones’ abilities to provide for them. Such a life experience may have taught them that they want to have ready-access to the care services they may need so as not to have to move repeatedly or call on loved ones. This may be a motivating goal for choosing to proactively move to a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community), which offers residents a full continuum of care services.  

These are just a few of the motivators for choosing to move to a retirement community — these life experience-based concerns about the future’s unknowns. However, it’s also important to consider that there are benefits that retirement community residents can enjoy as soon as they make their transition to their new home. Among them, moving to a retirement community offers a chance to start a new chapter in your life, live with more freedom to do what you want each day, meet new friends, and increase your overall wellness, just to name a few.

>> Related: How Psychology Impacts Motivations Behind a Senior Living Move

Putting moving to a retirement community on the table

Moving to a retirement community won’t be right for everyone, of course. But we would argue that all older adults should at least consider whether a retirement community might be the best option for them. This is especially true when they factor in their personal retirement and aging goals as well as their crystalized intelligence.

To make a fully informed decision, retirees should take the time to learn about what various types of retirement communities have to offer. They should weigh the potential benefits of moving to a retirement community versus remaining in their existing home, and how it might work with their financial situation. 

It might just be that once they gather this information and analyze it—factoring in their own life experiences—they realize they are ready and willing to change their minds regarding previously conceived notions about senior living.

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