“Muscle Memory For Aging In Place”

We develop habits at such an early age – many of which remain with us throughout our lifetimes. We don’t have to be reminded of how to perform basic life skills.


Learned behavior gets us through life

All of us have muscle memory, some with a stronger recollection of it than others but all experience it.

Call it a habit or learned behavior, but all of us develop a subconscious response to repetitive behavior that serves us well as we go through life. This occurs at a very early age and continues as we get older.

Mostly, muscle memory results in positive outcomes, but it can be less positive if we are engaged in activities detrimental to our overall wellbeing.

How it’s learned

As children, we learn how to get out of bed – even when it is completely dark. We find our way to the bathroom – whether they are any lights on or not or regardless of the time of day. We know how to help ourselves with our favorite breakfast items in the kitchen – and use the toaster, refrigerator, or microwave as necessary.

We learn how to groom ourselves and take care of our personal needs. In essence, we perform the seven activities of daily living (ADLs) without further instruction, monitoring, or supervision.

After a few times of getting out of bed, changing into an outfit for the day, heading into the bathroom and coming out ready to begin the day, and eating whatever we care to (possibly nothing, just a bite, something we grab to take with us, or a large sit-down meal). We know how to turn on the faucet and at what pressure to receive the desired volume and temperature of water. We have mastered the kitchen function.

Putting habits to good use

Maybe it’s going from the second floor to the main level, and going down the stairs to do so. Maybe it’s turning on the light switch to help us tell if we have picked the correct colors of clothing – and if items match – although we are perfectly capable of performing the basic aspects of this in the dark (from memory).

If we are leaving home and driving someplace to get there, our muscle memory kicks in again. We go to where our car is typically parked – unless we leave it in different places depending on the needs of other drivers in the family. We know how to unlock the door, how to put on our seat beat, and how to start the engine. Likely no one consciously thinks of and follows these steps – and hasn’t in recent memory. We just know what needs to be done, and we perform these steps. Call it habit, call it learned behavior, or call it muscle memory.

We have taught ourselves – perhaps unknowingly or consciously – how to do the tasks that get us through the day. We can drive to the market, our kid’s school, a neighbor, or our office without using the GPS or a map because we have done it so often. Sometimes we even remark that we don’t remember turning onto a certain street or noticing much along the way and seemed somewhat surprised that we arrived at our destination without incident. Muscle memory!

The implications for aging in place

Knowing that people can get through their home along pathways they have defined – even if we might not use that same route when we came into their home, that they know where light switches and faucets are located and how to use them, and that many other necessary activities in their home can be accomplished without much conscious thought by them, means that muscle memory remains very strong as we age.

Only when we interrupt years of learned behavior do we have issues.

If we suddenly change the amount of rise in a step or the width of the tread, or the degree of rise or pitch – making something longer or short or more or less steep, do we begin to interfere with people using their muscle memory to accomplish their everyday tasks. Someone should be able to get out of bed in total darkness and find their way to the bathroom or kitchen without incident – unless they were experiencing a physical symptom that made this more difficult or if something had been left in their path.

Let’s count on people remembering how to perform the basic and necessary tasks in their homes and think twice before interrupting that scenario. Unless there is a very good safety or ergonomic reason for making the changes, let’s count on people being able to keep doing what has gotten them this far in life.

There needs to be a compelling reason for asking people to retrain themselves to perform certain tasks differently than the way they have been doing things for years.


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