Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #5

The extensive crystallized intelligence available to older adults, which is not only stable, but continues to grow, does have a drawback. Although building on existing knowledge and skills is a good thing (see Tip #3), it is actually easier for an older adult to learn an entirely new term and concept than it is to learn a concept associated with a word that already has a familiar meaning. This is because the attentional processes, which involve controlling the attentional focus and excluding irrelevant information, decline with age. Learning to use computers requires learning new concepts and associations for familiar words, such as “shortcut” and “button.” But declines in attentional processes make it more difficult to exclude prior associations with familiar terms and replace them with the new associations.

Imagine going to a reunion after many years. People’s appearances have changed, and you must make new associations to continue to recognize them. But imagine finding everyone’s names have also changed. You can recognize them, but to learn the new names you must first suppress the tendency to associate the faces with the old names. The more familiar the name and face, the more difficult that is to do. As we get older it becomes even more difficult to exclude the prior associations when learning new concepts.

This can be made easier with visual cues. Consider the difference nametags would make at that imaginary reunion where everyone’s names have changed. Cues, such as “cheatsheets” and labeled graphics, when combined with repetition (see Tip #4), greatly enhance retention.

Tip #5: Give them visual cues

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