Where Did the Time Go? The Effects of Aging on the Perception of Time

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Contributed by
Cheryl Krull,
Tanglewood Group

It’s September already? Where has the summer gone?
Falling leaves, football season and chilly autumn mornings remind us of how quickly the time passes. As we get older we remember the endless summers that we experienced when we were children and marvel at how, in what seems to be the blink of an eye, each season now seems to zoom by at breakneck speed.
The feeling that time passes more rapidly as we age is not just “in our heads”. Scientists have found that a person’s perception of passing time tends to speed up as they age. One explanation for this is that older people have more experiences, so their minds seem to edit them into shorter sequences – a sort of memory shorthand, if you will – making the periods between events seem to go more quickly.
Conditions that affect brain function can also distort the perception of time in both directions. Studies have shown that a person’s internal clock is related to the function of dopamine in the brain. Abnormalities in these levels have been found in individuals who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Dementia and Parkinson’s disease. These findings may help to explain why our elderly relatives, many of whom suffer from varying degrees of these illnesses, seem to have so many difficulties with the concept of passing time.
How many times has your loved one asked to leave an event or gathering shortly after arriving? Often they feel like they have been there ‘all day’ even though it has only been a short while. Conversely, does your elderly relative get agitated when asked to wait for something? What may seem like a few minutes to you may appear to be an eternity to them. It may not just be that they are impatient or demanding. They may, in fact, feel that the time has passed much more slowly than it actually has.
Remember when you were a child waiting for Christmas and it seemed so very far away? That is often what it is like for our older friends. Anticipating these reactions with regards to scheduling and planning may make things go more smoothly. Don’t make them aware of things such as appointments or family gatherings weeks in advance so that they have too much time to think about them. Use distraction whenever possible to make long waits more bearable.
Understanding of these differences in time perception can help us all in our daily interactions with our older AND our younger associates. Keep in mind that what may seem to you to be only a few minutes may seem like an eternity to someone else.