Embrace Possibility Why Old People Have a Hard Time Learning New Things

Why Old People Have a Hard Time Learning New Things

Learning? That's for young'uns

As we get older, we tend to believe the cliché "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" because we've seen many examples proving it to be somewhat accurate.

There are people out there who don't know how to use a smart phone, shop online or send email. It is not because they don't have access to the know-how but rather they have come to believe that they are too old to learn.

Most older people have a hard time learning new things but it is not because of their age. It is because they make the conscious decision to stop learning even though they may not realize it.

Think about it.

When we are born, we are learning non-stop about how the world works. Everyone around us is helping by teaching us new words and expressions. As children, we explore the world trying to understand what crayons taste like, how to get our parents' attention, etc.

As we get older, we enter formal schooling where we learn continuously about social interactions (making friends, dealing with authorities, dating etc), hobbies (sports, musics, art, etc) and academic subjects (math, science, language, etc). After college or grad school, we enter the workforce learning about our job functions and office politics.

After we gain a certain level of expertise in our current job, we reach a critical point. Up until this point, learning has been somewhat mandatory but it is at this point where learning becomes optional. We no longer need to learn new things to survive. We can just occasionally update our knowledge and still be ok. This is the point where some choose to continue learning new things while others choose to stop learning.

Unfortunately, many people choose the latter. It could be because they are tired of learning and "just want to relax" or perhaps they feel that they've "graduated" and learned all they needed to know. Some even use the excuse that they can't learn anymore because they are old. Once they make this choice, a habit forms and that person's ability to learn, like any unused muscle, weakens.

Old people can't learn because they stop learning new things.

That is why it is important to live a life of continuous learning. If you want to be good at learning new things, then you must constantly learn new things. All the old people I know who are vibrant and energetic are always striving to learn new things and it is because they continue to learn that their brains stay sharp.

What new things have you been learning recently? If you are not learning anything new, are you okay with losing your ability to learn? Think about all the people who don't take advantage of the internet because they refuse to learn how to use it. What are you missing out on?

Robert Chen

Robert Chen is the founder of Embrace Possibility and author of The Dreams to Reality Fieldbook. He helps people who feel stuck move forward by guiding them to see other possibilities for their lives. He specializes in working with high performers get to the next level. If you're going through a tough time right now, check out Robert's article on How to Feel Better Right Away and if you're having trouble getting what you want out of life, check out How to Always Achieve Your Goals.

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  1. Amy February 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    True and interesting! Many younger peole also choose to stop learning, which is unfortunate.

    • Robert Chen February 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm - Reply

      yea, the great thing is a person can always start learning again if they choose. Just have to shake off the rust. The longer you stop learning, the more rust that needs to be shaken off

      • Tom April 30, 2016 at 8:32 pm - Reply

        Is your article scientifically backed? Just curious because even though it is logical i want scientific evidence. Even if this is a hypothesis it is still a good one tough :).

        • Robert Chen May 1, 2016 at 11:22 am - Reply

          Hi Tom, the current research on neuroplasticity might be interesting for you to check out. Here is one place to start http://bigthink.com/think-tank/brain-exercise

          I haven’t personally done the research but do believe that our brains can continue to learn well into old age.

          • Tom May 1, 2016 at 6:43 pm

            Thank you for replying AFTER 4 years this article was posted :)

          • Robert Chen May 1, 2016 at 6:51 pm

            Tom – You took the time to comment – the least I can do is respond.

  2. MarianC November 19, 2012 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    You bring up a great point, encouraging older adults to actively engage in learning new things is important. There are psychological, social, and biological benefits to learning new things, such as, memory improvement, social interaction, and reduced risk of depression. I believe we are always learning new things, even if we have not made the conscious decision to do so. For example, every time you turn on the news you learn something new. I realize that this may not be as stimulating or require as much participation as other forms of learning but the information they are processing is new. We do not lose our ability to learn if we decide to stop learning (which I personally feel is not possible in normal aging). Losing your ability to learn is pathological and not part of the normal aging process. Healthcare professionals should encourage older adults to remain actively involved in learning and educate them on the benefits of doing so.

    • Robert Chen November 20, 2012 at 7:47 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Marian. Older people can learn and need to be encouraged, even pressured, to do so. We should not allow them to use age as an excuse and keep our expectations for them high. I find that people usually step up to your expectations if they know you are sincere.

  3. Will November 12, 2013 at 11:20 am - Reply

    but how do we get them to understand that they are not willing to learn? if they do not have any mental illness, senile or whatnot, then there is ZERO reason to stop learning!!!

    • Robert Chen November 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm - Reply


      I completely agree with you that it is always better to continuous learn. As for getting others to see that and change, it’s much tougher. People do what they do because they receive a positive benefit from it. Perhaps they stop learning because they associate it with unpleasant memories from their past – think of how happy you were when you didn’t need to cram for school anymore. One way to get people to understand the benefits of learning is perhaps to show them examples of people they look up to who are still learning and leading lives that they aspire to live.

  4. Ricky April 5, 2014 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    I was searching for this topic and came across your site. Great article! Completely agree. I work in a cell phone shop where honestly a bunch of elderly folk purchase smart phones and just can’t seem to ever grasp certain concepts. The problem is they expect to do everything too quick and don’t understand that the young people who are “so smart” with things like technology spent years tinkering and learning the basics before being able to do much more things. They are honestly just being lazy about it. I’ve seen plenty if older people learn things really fast that they’ve never done before.

    It’s all about attitude and willingness to learn.

    Think of how motivated you are as a kid to learn and explore. Somewhere along the lines we focus on careers and being content and satisfied and lose sight on what makes us curious and what we want to find out. State of mind!

    • Robert Chen April 11, 2014 at 2:28 pm - Reply

      Great point Ricky – it is all about state of mind and the willingness to put in the time to acquire new skills. I think with older people, the fear of failure becomes greater since many of them have stopped acquiring new skills. They don’t even try because they don’t want to look dumb. It’s all about having that beginner’s mind. Thanks for sharing your insight and the nice example.

  5. speysidesimpleliving November 21, 2014 at 7:50 am - Reply

    I am 67 and I make an effort to learn something new and unique on a constant basis. I went back to Uni in my 50s and completed a Social Work Degree. My last project was making a patchwork quilt. I attended some local lessons and a few weeks later had a huge quilt for my king size bed (I have subsequently made 4 quilts). Luckily I have a veggetable plot and grow all my vegetables and fruit that will happily grow in the Highlands of Scotland. I am learning new ways of preserving and cooking my own produce. I keep my iPad at the side of my bed and often watch TV on it, chat on Facebook, and use the internet to purchase items, browse the news and other interesting topics. I’m a volunteer at my local museum and that is fun socialising with children and adults. There is so much more I could write but with the quantity of ‘i’ the post is beginning to look like self-obsession. Please never feel intimidated to learn new skills or attend courses. Some of my best times were spent with the younger students at University and they really appreciated my input on life experience. As the Nike advert says ‘just do it’.

    • Robert Chen November 30, 2014 at 2:26 am - Reply

      Speysidesimpleliving – thank you for sharing your examples from your inspiring life of continuous learning. I hope others will follow you in learning new skills and enjoying unique experiences.

  6. Steve May 19, 2015 at 1:04 am - Reply

    For me, (going to university at age 50) having a hard time learning new things in electrical engineering is not a matter of laziness or obstinance, it’s that each thing I learn cannot be just ‘accepted’ as is; it needs to be connected to all the other things I have already learned. We were told in a materials science class about the 14 Bravais lattices. I had a hard time with that because I already knew about Penrose’ non-periodic tilings. The knowledge we were taught in class was a special case that didn’t fit with what I already knew. I can’t just ‘accept’ the new knowledge ‘as is’ without essentially corrupting what I already know – the new knowledge’s idiosyncrasies must be resolved, one by one.

    • Robert Chen May 21, 2015 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      Steve – thanks for sharing your insights. You make a good point about connecting new knowledge with your current knowledge. What have you found as a good way to incorporate new knowledge without corrupting what you already know?

  7. Jeffrey July 19, 2015 at 1:56 am - Reply

    Perhaps the old people that quit learning had a realization they were just too stupid to progress. I turned 40 in August 2014 and it hit me hard. Not only is it likely that my life is half or nearly half over, I’m just not as smart as I thought. I attempted to get an amateur radio operator’s license so that i might have a new hobby. I did not make it far into the material before I realized I was in over my head in lieu of claims of kids and teenagers aceing the exam. It was then that I made the decision to just quit trying anything new. Sometimes I forget. I saw a cool moon and Venus tonight and tried to do a little astrophotography. It did not turn out as I had hoped. I forgot about my limitations and tried to do something and failed. Learning something new when failure is a possibility is not worth it.

    • Robert Chen July 19, 2015 at 8:37 am - Reply

      Thank you for sharing Jeffrey. Whether something is worth pursuing is up to the person pursuing it. There is a difference between not wanting to put in the time to learn something versus being unable to learn something. Toddlers are constantly failing when learning how to walk but they persist on. I imagine that if you chose to persist in with either of your hobbies, you would get there. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to invest the time and energy.

  8. web October 27, 2015 at 4:37 pm - Reply

    Nice article

  9. shipdog7 November 13, 2015 at 6:46 am - Reply

    I am 72. And yes it is true. Old people don’t like changes. What worked for us should not be messed with. “If it ain’t broke….don’t fix it” . As we get older, we tend to believe the cliche “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” because we’ve seen many examples proving it to be somewhat accurate.There are people out there who don’t know how to use a smart phone, shop online or send email. It is not because they don’t have access to the know-how but rather they have come to believe that they are too old to learn. Most older people have a hard time learning new things but it is not because of their age. It is because they make the conscious decision to stop learning even though they may not realize it. I was stubborn enough to teach myself that the insides of a computer may be very delicate in nature,,,,,but a challenge to get into and repair. I always have a backup plan. Whether in a restore image or parts removed from friends and relatives non-working computers

    • Robert Chen November 13, 2015 at 8:47 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing shipdog7. That’s great that you’ve made the choice to keep learning and exploring.

  10. Marian November 16, 2015 at 9:41 am - Reply

    This Article is very useful for me to my English course speech. Thank you very much!

    • Robert Chen November 16, 2015 at 11:05 am - Reply

      Thanks Marian – good luck with your speech.

  11. Stash February 6, 2016 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    I tell you what. I did not have to read in detail all your responses because they all say the same thing. It is not old age that keeps us from continuing to learn it is lack of character. Aristotle said: Character is shown in action. I add at any age.

  12. Melody March 7, 2016 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    I am citing this article in a paper I wrote for English and I am wondering who your publisher is

  13. Miss Cellany April 29, 2016 at 10:33 am - Reply

    I was able to teach my old (7-8 years) rescue dog hundreds of new tricks when I adopted him. Why shouldn’t humans in their old age be able to learn too? Laziness? Lack of motivation? Or being told that “they’re too old to learn”? No one told my dog he was too old to learn and he loved learning – so I guess maybe it’s a self fulfilling prophecy to hear “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” ?

    That or humans are just stupid.

  14. Janet Liew May 20, 2016 at 3:42 am - Reply

    Hi Robert thank you for sharing this column with us …..yes i am an elderly
    learning a new community service course right now. honestly without the internet, social media interactive services , i am lost . But nothing is lost if the spirit of learning is strong
    and growing. i think interest to acquire knowledge is there all the time, is intrinsic, innate
    as the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention”

    why i came upon your site is now i am researching on the topic “to explore ways to help senior learn new things ”

    sorry it is a mouthful so at my age at 60+ , i am very much encouraged to find out there is so much materials for my course as i have to do on line research for literature reading .

    thank you so much for sharing and it is really helpful reading and sharing from so many of the contributors thank you for sharing too,

    With all honesty, funding for seniors to keep on learning is fundamental to all success in adult learning programmes. Yet adults refuse to attend classes . Why ?

    yes in order to answer that i ask myself many questions. Am i lazy ? yes, Am i shutting down mentally ? yes . I have no motivation ? hmm no i have been given many government grants . What if someone study with me ? ah yes it will be good right ? so that ‘s the more likely reason why elderly do not attend life long learning courses.

    i must admit that i have made many friends in attending previous courses be it a one day/ three day/ one week course or even the diploma course ( part time 2.5 year course).
    it has been certainly a wonderful journey for me . i enjoyed talking with the fun loving young adult learners and equally at home with the matured learners.

    as the chinese saying ” as like growing old carry on learning .” true and guess that’s
    all i can say and share in your column .

    xie xie thank you terima kaseh Robert

    • Robert Chen May 20, 2016 at 8:33 am - Reply

      Thanks you very much for sharing your story Janet. It’s inspiring to hear that you continue to learn.

  15. Jackie Smith September 24, 2016 at 3:35 am - Reply

    I must move in an unusual circle. I am 73 and I use a smartphone, computer and iPad. Almost all of my friends, even those in their nineties are regularly emailing, using Messenger and researching on the net. Many of us are participating in online courses. Some older people have not embraced technology because they don’t see the need for it but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to learn new things if they see a benefit in it.

    As an older person I often find that younger people either ignore me completely or talk down to me as if I am feeble minded :-)

    • Robert Chen September 24, 2016 at 10:46 am - Reply

      Great for you Jackie – you’re right, it does come down to whether someone sees the benefit to learn something new. Also, it’s unfortunate that there is age bias – perhaps you’ll need to text them to get their attention.

  16. Cameren October 11, 2016 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Hi what year was this published?

  17. Robert Chen October 11, 2016 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    Originally 2012 and refreshed from time to time

  18. Gowri October 24, 2016 at 2:46 pm - Reply

    You nailed it right there! Can’t say any better

  19. Keith October 27, 2016 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    When we are young we learn new things, generally for our careers. We also learn a few things (playing guitar, Tennis, etc) for socializing with friends (jamming, playing a couple of set, etc). Most secretly have dreams of it going on to lead to a great career, mostly it doesn’t.
    But what is the point in old people learning new things? You’re not going to start a career at 65-70 and I think your sporting days are well and truly over as are any ambitions of being in your mates band. Like learning a language for a Country you are never going to visit, learning something just to learn it and then stick it on a shelf and say “well that’s that done with” what’s the point?

    • Robert Chen October 27, 2016 at 9:34 pm - Reply

      Nice argument Keith – I agree that people learn what they believe will be useful to them and what they learn will help them grow in a particular area (for example: career). I do believe there are other reasons to learn from a self fulfillment standpoint. You can learn for health or for mastering a particular skill even if you don’t get recognized for it.

      But no matter what, it’s always your choice. If you want to learn when you’re old, know that you can. If you don’t think it’s worth it to learn anything new, there’s nothing wrong with that as well.

  20. Radhe Shyam November 4, 2016 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    I love learning but I’m selective. I want to learn via the internet but I don’t want to learn how to use the internet.
    It seems very complex and time consuming.
    Really old and middle age teaches us to use our time wisely.
    We study what we like and we use skills we learned when our brains were younger and fresher. If you’re even as young as 40s you may not have learned computer technology in your childhood.
    I wish someone was around who could explain to me how technology works instead of me have to spend hours on Google to inquire.
    We don’t have do many hours.
    Also as bodies age you need more rest time so days seem shorter.
    Therefore it’s nice to use skills you already have to learn. Older people just know they don’t want to waste time.
    Also everyone knows that seeing young peoaddicted to their phones is not very attractive

    • Radhe Shyam November 4, 2016 at 12:33 pm - Reply

      Sorry for typos. Lol
      Just to prove I’m over 50 and impatient with technology😂

    • Robert Chen November 5, 2016 at 12:26 pm - Reply

      Great point Radhe – I think it would be wise if everyone was as thoughtful as you are about how they spend their time. There is a shift towards making technology more accessible and intuitive so hopefully that makes your life easier.

  21. Kristina January 2, 2017 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    Learning is not impossible but much slower and harder to retain. It’s not that we’ve given up trying to learn. We have a harder time keeping up with the ever faster pace of life. I disagree with this article, I don’t care what your research shows you. It’s BS. I know the difference by living with and helping care for elderly relatives AND my own personal experiences of seeing changes in my brain and slowing thought processes. I’ve been with the same employer for 29 years and I’m telling you that learning and retaining information is not as easy as it used to be and gets harder everyday. And it’s not because I don’t want to learn. It’s because it’s harder.

    • Robert Chen January 2, 2017 at 11:21 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing Kristina. I agree with you that our bodies (along with our brains) deteriorate over time. I don’t question that. I do believe that our capacity to learn even with the deterioration is greater than what most people make use of as they get older.

  22. Bev March 31, 2017 at 6:52 pm - Reply

    I found this article in my search on how to deal with the condescending and dismissive responses I get when I ask for tech help. I do want to learn! Do you think I don’t want to learn? Do you think I can’t learn? Which is it? I ask questions. I am trying. This article did not help older people who are figuring new stuff out. Do not dismiss me when I am learning something new just because I have grey hair. Work with me. I am not incapable.

    • Robert Chen April 1, 2017 at 9:52 am - Reply

      Sorry that you’re having such a frustrating experience Bev. I believe as long as you want to learn, you can.

  23. Sunny April 5, 2018 at 2:35 am - Reply

    I found this article by searching google. This is because I’m getting old. I’m a fast learner, I’m worried about I would lose this advantage soon. You are exactly right. I like to learn new things. Now I’m 58. My brain is still like my 20s. Learning new things is not a problem to me. I hope That I will still have a sharp brain when I reach to 60s.

    • Robert Chen July 10, 2018 at 6:46 am - Reply

      Sunny – thanks for being living proof that you can keep on learning no matter how old you are!

  24. Jakoe April 27, 2018 at 3:23 am - Reply

    I don’t agree that we give up. With regard to tech, I taught myself basic on a Texas Instruments computer and have always maintained my own equipment (Smartphone, PC, wifi, TV). The problem is when you get older is you have other interests or obligations and don’t want nor have the time to be constantly fooling around with tech. Also, and I use Google as an example, instructions are non-existent and one often finds bogus or conflicting and out-dated information. We don’t have the hours upon hours to be fooling around in forums. Terminology, acronyms, and slang are a huge barrier (I taught my 92 yr. old Mother to text OVER THE PHONE! The terminology “swipe”, “notifications”, “wifi”, etc. was meaningless gibberish to her.) When you are learning, it is so very time-consuming and when you run across a problem you can’t find the answer to, your stuck. When you can’t hear the tech rep over the crackling call center phone system, they speak with a heavy accent, don’t speak loud or slow enough, and don’t explain anything, you finally give up. The fact one doesn’t even know what phone or computer to buy without being a tech expert and you can’t trust the sales reps to not upsell. And understand, by this point in our lives we’re not stupid enough to keep throwing away our money on something we don’t need just so we can have the latest. I blame the industry for not knowing their aging customers. I have a 5 day old laptop (yep – Windows 10) and am getting an error message. Contacted the manufacturer, have spent hours on-line to no avail. In order to fix I have to spend $199/yr for Microsoft service. I even tried running Linux Mint (will function for email and surfing, but otherwise I see that as a huge job to learn). Never thought I’d say it, but I think I’m just going to throw in the towel. It really doesn’t make life better, but eats up a lot of my ever dwindling time. The internet isn’t all that great anymore anyways. It’s just one big mall with a bunch of scammer kiosks scattered throughout. Don’t blame it on age.

    • Robert Chen July 10, 2018 at 6:42 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing this perspective Jakoe. I’m sorry for your experience with technology and I agree that the internet can be quite the time waster especially when it encroaches on your real life experiences. The article was meant to empower and not to blame. I was hoping that people understand it’s not age but the choice to not learn that’s stopping learning. I’ll have to do a better job if that message isn’t coming through. Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

  25. […] as how to manage their finances and make a success of their personal lives. But there comes a critical point in one’s life when learning becomes optional rather than necessary. At this stage, […]

  26. The future of technology in adult learning – TechExpect August 30, 2018 at 11:16 am - Reply

    […] will end. While professional development can mean acquiring new skills, we generally reach a critical point where the frequency with which we learn new information and disciplines slows […]

  27. Saitheja September 20, 2018 at 9:56 am - Reply

    There is NO entrance test in heaven to get prepared. So, Let them peacefully enjoy the nature of this earth.

  28. waterfallmagazine.com June 3, 2020 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    You should be a part of a contest for one of the
    finest sites on the web. I will highly recommend this site!

    • Robert Chen June 20, 2020 at 3:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your kind words!

  29. Tyler July 30, 2020 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Hey Robert, Thank you for the article!! I found it very interesting and can’t help but agree. I’m still a young guy, but work with many older people at work and love to use Microsoft Excel to demonstrate the “choice to stop learning.” Some of the older folks take time and learn how to use Excel AND USE IT JUST FINE!! Unfortunately, others simply ask me to do many little things like highlighting cells or bold text, because they think you have to be a “whiz” to use Excel. I try to show them the ropes and be patient, but they won’t even the simplest things won’t stick. I don’t expect an older person to be quick with Excel, but I can tell when someone simply doesn’t care to take the time to learn a simple tool. To all the old people in the working world, stop saying you’re too old!! Excel has been out for 20+ years, make the choice to learn and quit wasting my time!

  30. Bugra January 20, 2021 at 2:35 pm - Reply

    thank you for great article.i’m trying to teach my grandmother how to read and she’s going pretty difficult. i hope i can make it.

    • Robert Chen January 21, 2021 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      Good luck Bugra – patience is key

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