Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Genealogy One Byte at a Time -- Part Four

For some time now, there have been studies correlating a decline in text-editing capabilities with an age-related learning difficulty. Quoting from the following book,

Rogers, Wendy A., Arthur D. Fisk, and Neff Walker. 2014. Aging and Skilled Performance: Advances in Theory and Applications. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Egan and Gomez (1985) conducted a series of experiments concerned with identifying and isolating individual differences in learning a text editing task. They found that age was a significant predictor of learning difficulty. Age was related to [the] number of first try errors and execution time per successful text change such that errors and execution time increased with age. The participants in their studies ranged in age from 28 to 62 years. In terms of isolating the components of text editing that accounted for learning difficulty, they found that age was associated with difficulty producing the correct sequence of symbols and patterns to accomplish the desired editing change. This finding supports the conjecture that age-related decrements in memory may contribute to learning difficulties. The text editor was command based and necessitated remembering a command language and producing a complicated command syntax. In fact, they found that when a display editor was used, in which changes were made by positioning the cursor at the location of change and using labeled function keys rather than a command language, the predictive power of age, with respect to the difficulty of learning, was greatly reduced.
Although this particular study dates back to the 1980s, there is a positive correlation between participation in genealogically related activities and the decline in learning difficulty referenced in this study. Not only does genealogical research require a significant amount of what the study calls "text editing" but it also requires advanced motor skills. In this regard, the Sage Journals have produced a review of this book with an extensive list of related references. See Technology and Aging. Nearly all of those publications listed are available on Google Scholar.

One fact that seems to be discounted, however, is that some of these older adults began using computers when they were much younger. In my own case, for example, I began using computers back in the 1970s. As a result, I have over 40 years of computer background. For me and many of my cohorts, using computers is not an issue of acquiring new skills but in maintaining old skills.

If doing genealogical research was merely the equivalent of an online computer game than you would certainly see a dramatic difference between young users and older ones with younger users having the advantage. But as I have pointed out previously, genealogical research involves a broad spectrum of skills and is not particularly dependent on small motor skills such as those that are used in playing online games. In developing genealogically important research skills we are not teaching monkeys to push buttons.

What I have noticed is that the gradually progressive cognitive decline that accompanies dementia-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease have a negative impact on an individual's ability to operate and conceptualize the visual interface used by computers. My own father died of dementia-related issues. I was able to observe his decline in cognitive function over a ten-year period. For reference, see the following:

Albert, Marilyn S. et al. “The Diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment due to Alzheimer’s Disease: Recommendations from the National Institute on Aging-Alzheimer’s Association Workgroups on Diagnostic Guidelines for Alzheimer’s Disease.” Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association 7.3 (2011): 270–279. PMC. Web. 17 May 2017.

In my continued contact with thousands of patrons over the years, my personal observation is that a decline in genealogical research skills may be a valid predictor of the symptomatic predementia phase of Alzheimer's disease. The tragedy here is that a lack of adequate diagnostic tools for identifying early dementia-related illness results in a general impression that all older adults are incapable of adequately functioning in a complex environment such as online research conducted for genealogical purposes. This unwarranted assumption results in a complete lack of interest in developing genealogical software that addresses the needs of older adults.

In addition, it is entirely possible that much of the frustration suffered by some researchers with regard to arbitrary changes to online family trees and other issues may find their origin in cognitive impairment.

As I have repeatedly pointed out, genealogical research is a highly complex skill that requires a number of associated skills. In my own experience, I find that young people seldom have the interest, time, or motivation to acquire these skills. But unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum, older adults who have the skill set necessary may lose it due to the onset of cognitive difficulties associated with memory related illnesses.

Here are the previous posts in this series

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