Arithmetic in old age

Orange pen and yellow post-it on a grey bench. Words: leave 2.20, walk to Harb. Func. Venue opp Circa. arrive 3 pm for 3:20 afternoon tea. Te Aro Rm 3:45 Commun. @ 99
In my old age, arithmetic happens on paper, not in the brain

Why is arithmetic in old age suddenly difficult for me? One mental skill that is eroding now that I’m 83 is arithmetic. This was never a strength: I was a big fail in primary school already. I can partly blame my lack of mental pictures: other kids maybe had a mental snapshot of the times-table table — who knows? When calculators arrived, and then smartphones, I managed.

But now… desk and kitchen bench are littered with rough notes as I struggle to work out very basic problems. How long will it take me to walk to X, Y or Z, and if so, when should I leave home? One popped up last week that stumped me.

  • I’ve got 20 slides
  • I start at 3:45 pm and want to stop at 4:20 pm
  • how many minutes per slide?
  • at what time should I be finished with every four slides?

I made lots of mistakes before I worked this out. If only there were 100 minutes per hour instead of 60! Or there were some correlation between the time of day and the number of minutes! Poor little brain struggled long and hard. I got anxious. But finally I had it sussed. And written down on five pieces of paper. I was ready!

Ready for what?

Speaking to the NZ College of Gerontology Nursing 2023 Conference

Flyer for College of Gerontology Nursing NZNO Conference 2023. Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 May 2023, Harbourside Function Venue, Wellington. New Zealand Nurses Organisation. Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa. Cute pictur of nurses holding balloons. One says "Onwards and upwards."
Flyer for the NZ College of Gerontology Nursing conference 2023

I was sooo excited to be speaking to this special conference. Perhaps that made the arithmetic harder. Anyway, finally I got the sums right and set off at 2:20 pm for the conference venue.The moment I fronted up to this wonderful audience, I was happy and on a roll. (My topic was “Communicating at 99” and I spoke about Doris Carnevali’s way of communicating with health workers. More about that later.)

About arithmetic struggles

Next day I thought about my struggles with arithmetic in old age. Why was it genuinely more difficult? Why do I need to check and double-check my arithmetic, every time? And I do make mistakes, believe me!

Luckily I’ve learned from Doris Carnevali to scrutinise the way my ageing brain is functioning.

When some cognitive activity changes, I resist the temptation to throw up my hands and sob “All is lost!” I don’t jump straight to the worst-case scenario: it’s completely wrong to see all changes as signs of impending dementia. Instead I try to notice specific changes, to name them with objective language, and to differentiate among them. And I find this approach not scary but rather interesting.

Do you know someone with similar problems with arithmetic in old age? Do you have problems with arithmetic yourself?

Six myths about dementia. Harvard Medical School.

“Let’s talk about dementia” symposium 2022

15 thoughts on “Arithmetic in old age

  1. judibwriting says:

    I was also never good with numbers- as a young child each number up to 10 was either male or female and wore costumes of specific colors. All that vanished when my little friends had to work and perform functions together- all that arithmetic. So as I age, yes, it is that much harder than it used to be when I am asked to do simple cognitive number oriented tasks for this or that evaluation by a nurse. Dementia- no- but challenging for me nonetheless.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      How interesting that you began life giving human characteristics to numbers, then lost that magic at school. My friend believes that lack of practice is largely to blame and has just explained how she has improved her number work by doing sudoku — on paper!

  2. The Scottish comedian Susan Calman confessed (if that’s the word) to being ‘mathsphobic’ when she was on the quiz show QI. She almost had a panic attack when given a maths question. I have always been mystified by numbers too and have recently decided that it could be because I can’t visualise them as easily as I can everything else. It’s interesting that you mention a similar difficulty. I’m working on more mental arithmetic – if not in an organised way – in the hope it is something I can improve.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Great idea : see my answer to judibwriting, and let us know what techniques you are using.

  3. cedar51 says:

    My arithmetic was never a problem, still isn’t (most of the time) I’m in my 70s. My father taught me a card game that scored in 5’s and I used it forever – especially when I was a shopkeeper handling cash. People thought that was odd, but I noticed many of my assistants often had the customer, saying that’s not right…

    Now I play a number of games that one needs to be able to add up certain numbers, in your head but also say them out loud, that keeps you on your toes.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a good tip. And the card game was obviously powerful training 🙂

  4. cindy knoke says:

    I am much better at arthimetic now than when I was younger. I can easily do computation in my head. My husband has his PHd in biostats and no longer pulls out his calculator for arithmetic. He just asks me! It may be culmulative experience of increased calmness.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This is downright exciting!

  5. I’m OK with sums, but then I don’t have much call for them – certainly not to pace myself for a presentation which would not be something I would have confidence in

  6. Sadje says:

    I think the mental maths slows down a bit as we grow older. But it also depends on how it was previously

  7. The standing in-joke amongst Math Majors (I doubled in Math and Biology such a long time ago!) is that we get differential equations but can’t balance our checkbooks (yeah, back when checkbooks were a thing!).
    So….you’re in amongst a good group of people, Rachel.
    Such fun to hear of your spotlight lecture – wise of the program director to invite you to speak!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hello Laura! Yes, a very special audience doing great work.

  8. Dan Antion says:

    I’m impressed that you prepared and delivered the presentation. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I always loved math in school since it had provable answers, unlike so much of my childhood life. I think the problems I have now come from not practicing often enough between times of balancing the checking account.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I hear you!

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