Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


The New Senior Moment

By Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD

Something that really annoys me is when a narrow world view is considered accurate, especially when the particular world in question is aging, a realm I have studied for more than three decades. A classic example is the  misinformed idea held by the general public and scientists alike for most of the 20th century—that we have all our brain cells by the age of 3, with no capacity to produce new ones thereafter.

From this misinformation, it was concluded that the stage for a gradual downward course was set early in the life cycle. We now know that this is false; we continue to have the capacity to produce new brain cells right to the end of life, a process known as neurogenesis. Moreover, brain scientists have found that neurogenesis in aging is associated with novelty and ingenuity.

Consider, too, the concept of the “senior moment.” When an older person experiences a “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon— having trouble finding the right word—too many shoot from the hip that he or she is having a senior moment, as if that handily captures the essence of aging. But what moment do adolescents have when arriving at the supermarket and realizing they forgot the shopping list their mother stressed that they remember to bring? Does the so-called senior moment really reflect the defining moment for a senior any more than forgetfulness should brand an absent-minded teenager?

In contrast, my research and clinical work with more than 3,500 individuals in the second half of life has identified not a characteristic moment that  defines aging but a considerable interval of time where remarkable psychological growth and development occur. This sets the stage for what may be called the new senior moment, a time of life which many older individuals experience as their “moment,” a new period in their life where they shine or come into their own.

I describe it as the liberation phase. During this phase, positive events happen not despite aging but because of it. Along with the experience of years come agile thought forms, reflecting a mature psychological development prominent among those in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s. With age can come a feeling of inner freedom, self-confidence, and liberation from social constraints that allows for novel or bold behavior, and this lays the inner foundation for the new senior moment.

I’ve identified four psychological growth phases in the second half of life.  They overlap one another, phasing in as we transition from one to the other. For example, in our mid-50s, we enter the liberation phase, which continues to be prominent throughout our 60s and as we move into our 70s. It is, in effect, characterized by friendly metaphorical inner voices saying to us, “If not now, when? Why not? What can they do to me?” These voices give us a new level of comfort, confidence, and courage to try different approaches in exploring new areas of endeavor, problem solving, and tapping into our limitless inventive potential. The liberation phase underlies what many  researchers have called the growth of practical intelligence and pragmatic creativity with aging.

Consider the following real-life story:
My in-laws, Howard and Gisele Miller, both in their 70s, were stuck. They had just emerged from the Washington, DC, subway system into a driving  snowstorm. They were coming to our house for dinner and needed a cab since it was too far to walk. But it was rush hour, and no cabs stopped. Howard tried calling us, but both my wife, Wendy, and I were tied up in traffic and weren’t home yet—this was the pre-cell phone era.  As his fingers began to turn numb, Howard noticed a pizza shop across the street. He and Gisele walked through the slush to it and ordered a large pizza for home delivery.

When the cashier asked where to deliver it, Howard gave him our address,  and added, “Oh, there’s one more thing.”
“What’s that?” the cashier asked.
“We want you to deliver us with it,” Howard said.

And that’s how they arrived, pizza in hand, for dinner that night. This favorite family story perfectly illustrates the sort of agile creativity that can accompany the aging mind. Would a younger person have thought of this solution? Possibly. But in my experience, this kind of out-of-the-box thinking is a learned trait that improves with age. Age allows our brains to accumulate a repertoire of strategies developed from a lifetime of experience, part of what other researchers have termed crystallized intelligence. Obviously, Howard hadn’t used that pizza routine before, but the accumulated experience of other successful strategies helped stimulate the thinking that produced his creative resolution. This was one of his new senior moments, occurring, again, not as a failing of aging, but a benefit of it.

— Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, is the founding director of the Center on
Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University. He’s a past
president of the Gerontological Society of America and, during his
20-year career at the National Institutes of Health, was appointed the
first chief of the Center on Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health
and served as acting director of the National Institute on Aging. In 2000,
he published The Creative Age, a book on creativity and aging, and in 2006,
published The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.



Interviewing and Hiring for Outreach Services

by Kathryn Totten, Manager of Outreach and Thornton Branch, Rangeview Library District, Thornton, CO

Writing a job description that will get results
Your Outreach Service department is running like a well oiled machine and then one of your valued employees decides to move or retire. When hiring for Outreach services you must write a job description that will attract someone with the “outreach spirit”. Include words such as flexible, enthusiastic, and co-operative in the job description. You need someone who can maintain accurate records, work with mobile services technology, and comfortably serve all ages and all cultures. If a particular foreign language would be helpful in your area, include this in the job description. Outreach is challenging, but fun. Be sure to let the job candidates know that this is a job they will love.

Determining the qualities you seek for outreach workers
What are the qualities you need? Outreach is physically demanding. Most outreach departments require the ability to serve toddlers, kids, adults and seniors with equal enthusiasm. The perfect candidate for outreach will be adaptable! He will enjoy the challenge of working in a bookmobile with minimal air conditioning and will think nothing of pushing 500 pound book carts into the lobby of a senior living facility. Your perfect candidate will enjoy the variety of going to several neighborhoods every day, and they will even remember most of the patron’s names.

Education and experience qualifications
While library experience is helpful, some of the best outreach workers I have worked with have come from other professions. Experience driving a large vehicle may be preferred, but willingness to learn to drive the bookmobile is most important. Skills such as organization, interpersonal skills and familiarity with literature may be developed in business, non profit work or teaching. Are you looking for an MLS librarian to manage the collection and develop programs? Are you looking for the fresh perspective and technological fearlessness that a college student will bring to your department? These questions will determine the education and experience qualifications for your open position.

Driving record, DOT physical
It is important for the candidate you select to have a clean driving record if they will be driving a library vehicle. Let them know that you will check! Some libraries also require drivers to pass a DOT physical. For most employees this physical qualifies them for 2 years, but for some with physical conditions such as high blood pressure, an annual physical is required. If your vehicle requires drivers with a Commercial Drivers License, you must determine if you are willing to pay for the training and test or if you will limit your search to candidates who already possess this license.

Choosing between 2 great candidates
Great interview questions can bring out the best qualities in the candidate or alert you to potential trouble spots. You may have two candidates with just the experience and skill you are looking for. How will you select the right one for your department? Ask a question that lets them think big. “Describe a perfect day in outreach services.” “Tell us about an outreach service you have dreamed about starting.” “Tell us why you believe you can give outstanding customer services to children, families and seniors.” This kind of open ended question lets you see the real personality of the candidate. Usually someone emerges as a bit above the rest. Someone will show that they really have “outreach spirit”.

-Kathryn Totten is the Manager of Outreach and Thornton Branch for Rangeview Library District in Thornton, CO. Before joining Rangeview, she served as the bookmobile librarian for Arapahoe Library District. Kathy has been an advocate for library support for preschool literacy and adult literacy. She is the author of Family Literacy Storytimes (August 2009) from Neal Schuman Publishers, and the very popular Storytime Crafts series from Highsmith Press.

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