What happens to our language in our old age

McMaster professor Karin Humphreys and a team of graduate and undergraduate psychology students have been visiting nursing and retirement homes, conducting experiments on seniors' ability to retrieve and recall words.

'No one else values what we know anymore': 84-year-old research participant

McMaster students Kathleen Oliver and Raha Hassan quiz Caroline Place resident Nicki Croft, left, on words that may be on the "tip of her tongue." (Kelly Bennett)
That feeling when you know the word, or a person's name. It's on the tip of your tongue but you just can't get it out.

That annoying feeling happens more often as humans age, and McMaster University researchers have been testing that phenomenon and others with seniors in local nursing homes and retirement complexes this spring.

What bits stay and improve, and what bits change and become a challenge?- McMaster professor Karin Humphreys

"What do you call a group of spectators or listeners at an event?" 

"What is the word in which a building is purposely set on fire?" 

McMaster professor Karin Humphreys and several graduate and undergraduate psychology students have asked questions like these of 29 seniors, looking for clues about language retention and retrieval: "what bits stay and improve, and what bits change and become a challenge," said Humphreys.

In another word test, McMaster student Noah Vrooman shows images to Ruth Mathews. "Dinosaur," she answers quickly. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
For many seniors, understanding words when they read or see them is not a problem, but thinking of them out of thin air can be tricky.

The research is showing this doesn't always mean they are at risk for bigger memory problems down the road, according to Humphreys.  

Taking students into the nursing homes allows researchers to test a wider group of participants, and gives the students and the seniors a social experience. When studies on elderly adults are done in an on-campus lab, their subjects are going to be the ones who have the most independence, the most mobility and the best vision, for example.

But by visiting nursing homes and retirement complexes, the researchers can find a wider range of cognitive ability and memories.

'I can be frank'

Noah Vrooman shows pictures on his computer to Nicki Croft, left, and Ruth Mathews, centre, asking for what the image depicts in each example. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
Thursday morning, a team of McMaster researchers visited a contingent of octogenarians at Caroline Place in downtown Hamilton.

In that "tip of the tongue" experiment, the interviewee hears a question, then says whether she knows the word, doesn't know the word, or whether it's on the tip of her tongue.

Nicki Croft, 84, volunteered. 

"What is the word in which a building is purposely set on fire?" asked Kathleen Oliver, a PhD student who is publishing the results of one of the experiments in her dissertation.  

Croft paused.

She didn't know it. 

"Arson," Oliver said. "Were you thinking that?"

"No, I wasn't thinking that," Croft said. "I can be frank. That's where I am." 

When the word is on the tip of your tongue, Humphreys admits "it drives you crazy." 

"And it does happen more often when you get older," she said. "But it's actually better than just not knowing it." 

Harry Weaver, 88, was an English teacher who completed graduate work in English and taught high school English.

Weaver said it's encouraging to realize that the language and vocabulary hasn't vanished from his brain, but rather that it's just not as easy to retrieve it. 

Humphreys said the team might be coming up with some tricks to help with that retrieval.

Croft said participating in the study has been a validating experience. "Nobody else values what we know anymore," she said.

Eighty-five-year-old Ruth Mathews wished the students luck on their ensuing careers and research.  

"I hope it helps you, because it's damn depressing," she said.

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