Much has been written about the brain issues of aging parents. Less has been written about the brain issues that impact middle age adults. Given that the majority of caregivers of aging parents are middle age, it is important to know how middle age brains are changing and how this impacts the demands of caregiving.
The most significant change in the middle-aged brain is a decrease in “executive function.” Executive function is the hub of multitasking and occurs in the frontal brain. It is responsible for prioritizing and keeping track of long lists of complicated, interconnected transactions. As this capacity begins to wane, it becomes harder and harder for middle-aged adults to keep “everything together.”
Complicating this setback in multitasking capacity is a concurrent decrease in the brain?s “staying on task” function. The impeccable filtering of distractions that comes so easy in youth begins to give way to the irresistible pull of distractions in middle age. The result is that middle-aged adults suffer from a failing attention span. Things get put in the wrong place, scheduling errors increase, “why I did I come in here” moments are more frequent, and “retrieval time” of information slows. This unwelcome and annoying distractibility has qualities that mimic ADD and make it harder and harder for middle-aged adults to “stay on task.”
Both of these brain changes complicate the job of caregiving for middle-aged adults where keeping everything together and staying on task are essential.
What can make this better?
1. Consider a “one-list” system Multiple “to do” lists can lead to disaster. It is more effective to work off a single, dynamic list that is constantly annotated, revised, rewritten, and reviewed. It becomes the focal point of a “keep track of things” system that is always identifying the most important short-term priorities and then quickly repositioning these items to the top of the list.
2. Fight the urge to “binge” multitask Binges of multitasking only exacerbate distractibility and prove inefficient and unhealthful. With the natural tendency of middle age brains to wander or lose their location “threads,” it is better to focus on a the task at hand and “turn off” as many distractions as much as possible (music, cell phone, email dings, etc.).
3. Optimize the continuum Mind-Body health is an interconnected continuum. The simple but powerful things that optimize bodies, optimize brains. Exercise, prayer, music, meditation, writing, dancing, being with friends, healthy food, support groups, and large does of humor open caregiver hearts, and, as importantly, give caregivers the creativity they need to build a new partnership with their middle age brains.