Note to the elderly: Stop doing crossword puzzles to keep your minds active.

| November 19, 2007 | 30 Replies

There are other ways to keep older minds active. These other activities involve contributing to society rather than hiding out with a word puzzle.

I am really getting tired of reading articles that advise “elderly” people to pass the hours doing crossword puzzles in order to keep their minds healthy and active.  It’s really hard to think of anything more self-centered or useless then sitting at home, alone, and filling in the little squares to pass the time. Maybe it’s the sort of thing you would do if stranded in a lifeboat, waiting to be rescued, but why spend your precious hours on Earth this way when there are so many valuable ways to spend your time?

Am I exaggerating when I suggest there is a lot of this misguided crossword puzzle advice directed to elderly people?  Not at all.  You can spend an entire day reading articles if you Google “elderly crossword puzzle mind.” Check out this story from NPR.  And take a look at this and this and this

Who are the “elderly” in the context of these articles?  Presumably everyone who’s elderly or becoming elderly.  Presumably, that includes everyone who’s not “young.”  The bottom line of these articles is that we must do crossword puzzles or else our minds will atrophy. These article argue that our brains won’t shrivel up as long as we contemplate “14 across” and “43 down” (at least until we give up and look up the answer).  Telling a person to play crossword puzzles has that same snake-oil ring that recently publicized “mind development technique,” Baby Einstein.

I am aware that by dissing crossword puzzles I risk incurring the wrath of the millions of people who love doing crossword puzzles.  And I realize that some crossword puzzles do require some quite a bit of work.  But those who excel at these puzzles are not necessarily well-rounded.  They merely have the skill of being able to seek out and retain inert facts–facts that don’t require one to have an integrated view of what it means to be alive. In this respect, crossword puzzles are akin to trivia contests.  Both activities are opportunities to feel as though one has accomplished something merely by flinging about inert facts.

I am not saying that all people should stop doing crossword puzzles.  If you like doing it, have at it.  All of us like to take breaks from the stress of the real world.   But we don’t usually honor the way we take those breaks.  For instance, I occasionally play Tetris to “escape.”  I would be flabbergasted, though, were someone to tell me that I need to keep my mind sharp by playing a video game.

To the extent we truly value our senior citizens, there are numerous meaningful and mind-exercising activities available to them.  Why do we keep insulting them as though they are half-brain-dead when most of them aren’t?  Certainly, there are some elderly folks who have serious conditions (Alzheimer’s) that limit their ability to stay connected with their communities and to contribute to their society.  Perhaps word puzzles give them relief and I am not criticizing them.  For those who are not limited in their abilities, though (and many elderly people never face any form of dementia), it is not necessary to do crossword puzzles to maintain an active mind.  There are hundreds of other activities that both challenge the mind but also contribute to society.

It seems insulting and stereotyped, however, to tell elderly folks that they should diddle around with crossword puzzles instead of encouraging them to stay active by participating firsthand in critically important community activities.  What are some other activities they can do to keep their minds active?  There are hundreds of ways.  Here are a few:

1.  Volunteer your time and energy to help others in your community.  It doesn’t have to be your own children or your own children’s children.  Truly, there are thousands of people in your community who need your help in thousands of ways, and you might already have the skills to lend a hand.  You could help tutor a young child who is struggling to learn to read—the schools are full of such children.  You could assist people through numerous volunteer information services, by training to be a credit counselor or a crisis counselor. There are dozens of things you can do to help people in hospitals and schools.  You can work at a state historical site or a state or local government agency assisting in numerous ways. You can serve as a volunteer at one of the local museums or a zoo or library.  A retired cardiologist started up a successful organization, in my neighborhood, to teach low-income at-risk neighborhood children how to use computers.  I know that he keeps his mind active by running this benevolent organization.

2.  You can become the eyes and ears for all of your fellow citizens by attending meetings of public boards, such as your local school board or meetings of the boards of local or regional cultural or government agencies and institutions.  You can show up and help all of the rest of us by asking a few basic questions about how the money is being spent, especially when public money is involved.  You could spend a day at your state capital, to attend an important hearing and report back to your relatives and friends about it.  You can even blog about your private fact-finding (blogs are free and easy now-there is no excuse for not providing important information to others through a free website of your own, or writing a letter to the editor to inform the community at large).  For more ideas, just Google “ways to volunteer.”

3.  You can read extensively and take classes with regard to academic topics that interest you.  In this way, you can work toward becoming an “expert” in that field, enabling you to give lectures to community groups and to write articles and op-ed pieces with regard to that field.  How much effort you have to put into learning in order to become an “expert”?  In order to become a qualified expert, it is likely that you need to comply with the “10,000 hour rule.” This is a rule of thumb that applies in numerous fields: spend about 10,000 hours of serious study on a field and you will become a bona fide expert.  This works out to three hours per day for 10 years.  If you want to know more about this rule of thumb, listen to this lecture by Malcolm Gladwell or read about the rule here.  on the one hand, this sounds like a lot of hours to invest.  Many elderly people are currently encouraged to spend enormous amounts of time doing crossword puzzles when they could be spending that time developing an expertise.  I’m certain that many elderly people have spent 10,000 hours doing crossword puzzles.  I am certain that most elderly people spend many multiples of that time watching television (they spend between three to six hours per day watching television). Why not take some of that time to learn a new skill and to do something to be proud hiding out in your house?

4.  You can do research on the Internet to investigate the many bogus claims made by government officials, and then publicize discrepancies on the Internet.  You can attend important government hearings posted by agencies like the FCC.  You can go to your local courthouse and watch the courts in action. Again, you can then report your findings by writing a letter to your newspaper or blogging on it.  We are now firmly in the age of Web 2.0, the age of citizen journalism.  Every one of us can serve as eyes and ears for the rest of us.

5. You could also help your children raise their children.  You have much wisdom you can contribute to your grandchildren’s lives and this is certainly work that will keep your mind active. Many young parents who are currently raising children are struggling to do so.  Isn’t it possible that those grandparents could help out with this shopping, cleaning or child care? 

I think it’s sad when we so blithely recommend that our elderly citizens spend so much time doing an activity that amounts to mental masturbation, as though all elderly people have been reduced to incompetence by age alone.  Yes, it’s true that some brilliant people do crossword puzzles.  On the other hand, there are brilliant people who have no interest in crossword puzzles because such puzzles take away significant time from other activities they consider much more important.  Many of these people stay sharp by engaging with the real world as world-class scientists, authors, doctors and teachers.  In order to contribute to society, there is no need to do any crossword puzzles or to engage in any other mostly passive amusement.

If we value our elderly citizens, we won’t disparage them by telling them to retire from community life and to cloister themselves with crossword puzzles.  Instead, we will urge them to stay connected to their communities in important ways so that the rest of us can benefit from their life experiences and wisdom. When we tell our elderly citizens to focus on things like crossword puzzles, we are setting up glass ceilings for them; we are engaged in a form of bigotry.  Instead, we should tell them that their lives are not over until they are over and that we value their abilities to contribute to society. The new 75 is the old 50 (or something like that), so life is just beginning for many people who are being tricked by crossword puzzle advocates to think otherwise.

To tell “old folks” to go do crossword puzzles in order to keep their minds active is to tell them that there is no longer any place for them out in the real world and that they should spend their time doing something that won’t hurt anybody if they screw it up.  Telling older folks to do crossword puzzles to stay alert is barely better than telling them that it’s time to put them out to pasture.  Shame on everyone who has given this horrible advice to senior citizens.

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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Education, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (30)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's an article that fits in right here. It's an anti-ode to crossword puzzles:

    Isn't it a tragedy, then, a criminal shame, that all their amazing brainpower gets wasted on word games? If they're as smart as they think they are and there were some way to channel their alleged brainpower to something other than word games, we could cure cancer in a month!

    Seriously, if their awesome problem-solving brainpower were somehow harvested like wind energy (maybe they could wear little beanies on their heads?) they could solve all the world's problems and have time left over to do an extra double-crostic.

    You'll find the full article, by Ron Rosenbaum, "Crossword, Sudoku Plague Threatens America!" at Slate: http://www.slate.com/default.aspx?id=2198171

  2. rachael says:

    I appreciate what Jack has said about stimulating particular parts of brain. I hope he will reply to my email and answer my questions. I am in my 60's, in good shape and well. I had brain damage when young that significantly affected my short term memory, which had been excellent. School work, etc in college became much more difficult; reasoning was fine, but notthe memory. I worry that as I age short term memory loss could worsen. I am an avid reader, and am working my way thru the encyopedia as well, which I really enjoy. The books I read are fairly 'heavy' stuff. Is this enough, or would doing crosswords be enough for me? It would be of real assistance to get your input, Jack. Thanks, Rachael

  3. If people really would want to do something for their memory than I suggest they learn a new language. Lots of new words to remember, lots of new grammar to remember, maybe lots of new signs to remember. It's an activity that strikes me as more useful and brain stimulating due to its complexity than sitting there and doing crossword puzzles. Unless someone gives me a study with the sources I'm not going to believe that crosswords are more successful at preventing dementia than the green apple you're supposed to eat every day.

  4. Carles says:

    Jack, I one hundred percent agree with you. Thanks for commenting with such clarity and precision that I don't feel the need to argue the point much further. I assume the others have never tried doing a crossword , or are "not good at them" I get so frustrated when people say they, " can't do crosswords." of course you can't when you first start out. Like anything else it takes practice. I'm currently in the process of becoming a neuro nurse, I'm 27 and I enjoy doing crossword puzzles. I'm not locked up at home like Howard Hughes with stacks of crossword puzzles lining my home, and jars of my own urine festering. I spend most of my time working, in school, and studying. I probably do 2 or three crossword puzzles a week, while I'm on the bus, in a waiting room, at the laundromat… You see my point. I like to keep my brain occupied. Crossword puzzles are a very specific type of exercise. Looking at clues in multiple ways. Once you figure out a wordplay answer your brain flips a switch in a certian way, like looking at an optical illusion you can see both possibilities flip back and forth in front of you, and bang a new connection is made. A new meaning to a word or phrase that you didn't see before. Your neurons can't regenerate you're born with all you'll ever have, but your brain develops by making new connections. The dendrites which recive electrical impulses in your brain are constantly making new connections and pathways. New channels so if one fails another one can take it's place, that's how your brain develops. That plasticity is what you want going into old age. I would never say to a patient do only crosswords, don't be an active member of society. But in the evening instead of watching tv, or during those times where we are waiting, at a doctors office, on the bus, etc, it's a stimulating challenge that keeps your brain "plastic" and making new connections and pathways. Every time I do a crossword and see the answer I was searching for "flip" in front of my eyes and suddenly make sense in a new way, or context, I think of the tiny little dendrites making new pathway in my brain where there wasn't one before.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    I recently ran across a book that claimed that people who do more crossword puzzles decline mentally at the same rate as those who do fewer crossword puzzles, citing to T. A. Salthouse, "Mental Exercise and Mental Aging: Evaluating the Validity of Use It or Lose It Hypothesis." Perspectives on Psychological Science 1 (2006); 68-87. "Practice improves specific skills, not general abilities." I've lost the name of the book, but I believe it was "The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us," by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (Hardcover – May 18, 2010).

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