A Hacker’s Guide to Getting Old


It’s no surprise that things change as we age, and that tasks that were once trivial become difficult. Case in point: my son asked for help with the cord on his gaming headset the other night. The cable had broken and we could see frayed conductors exposed. When I got it apart, I found that I could barely see the ultra-fine wires to resolder them after cutting out the bad section. I managed to do it, but just barely.

This experience got me thinking about how to deal with the inevitable. How do you stay active as a hacker once your body starts to fight you more than it helps you? I’m interested mostly in dealing with changes in vision, but also in loss of dexterity and fine motor skills, and dealing with cognitive changes. This isn’t a comprehensive list of the ravages of time, but they’re probably the big ones that impact any hacker-related hobby. I enlisted a couple of my more seasoned Hackaday colleagues, [Bil] and [Rud], for their tips and tricks to deal with these issues.

The Vision Thing

It’s no secret that vision changes dramatically as we age. The one that impacts me the most, which I started noticing about 10 years ago, is presbyopia, or farsightedness. I’ve had myopia, or nearsightedness, all my life. But I was always able to shed my glasses and do really fine work right up against my face. [Bil] reports the same: “It was like having a built-in macro lens. Then one day, no more.” I find myself needing to hold work further away for it to be in focus, but now everything appears much smaller. I really need magnification.

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Luxo IFM lighted magnifier. A classic design.

The classic for benchtop magnification is probably the Luxo KFM. With a history dating back to the 1930s, the classic articulated arm and huge magnifying lens still grace many an electronic workstation. The really nice feature is the 22W circular fluorescent lamp surrounding the magnifier – 360° lighting means no shadows and fewer artifacts due to odd reflections. Luxo makes all kinds of bench-mount magnifiers, some with LED lighting rather than fluorescent, and many other companies manufacture similar units.

But some hackers don’t want to be tied to one spot on the bench. Sometimes you don’t need to intently study one thing – you need to find a test point to probe, then look over to adjust the scope, and then fiddle with the signal generator. As an aside, you’ll be amazed how small the labels on instruments become the older you get. To keep seeing things clearly while his head is swiveling about, [Bil] recommends a head-mounted magnifier. These have a couple of different lenses that flip in and out and an adjustable LED light. I don’t think you can expect much optically from a $9 tool, but [Bil] reports that work in his shop grinds to a halt when he misplaces his, so they can’t be too bad. He also says that slipping a terrycloth sweatband around the plastic headband helps with the comfort factor.

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Geeks-eye view. [W2AEW] fixes a handy-talky. Source

Other age-related vision problems include cataracts, which is clouding of the lens, and ptosis, or eyelid drooping. The only real cure for cataracts is surgery; until [Rud]’s cataracts get bad enough to be fixed permanently, he relies on boosting the light level in his shop to help. As for the drooping, it causes blurring by having eyelashes in your field of view. Surgical correction is the answer here too.

Dexter’s Lab

One of the many milestones of human development is the increase in fine motor skills in toddlers. Kids go from flailing their arms around to being only able to crudely grasp a chunky pencil to turning out fridge-quality art in just a few years. But the other end of a lifetime sees a similar if somewhat more gradual decline in manual dexterity, too. We tend to think of age-related changes to motor skills being primarily a musculoskeletal issue, with arthritis being the usual bad guy. But it turns out there may be another reason – decreased brain volume. Yep, one of the many treats we get to look forward to as humans is that fact that our brains start to shrink once we hit middle age. Cerebral volume tracks pretty closely with fine motor skills, so the more gray matter you have, the better your manual dexterity is likely to be.

Another fun fact of aging is the tendency to develop hand tremors. [Rud] says his doctor calls it an essential tremor, which is a clever way of avoiding the more descriptive term, benign idiopathic tremor. “Idiopathic” is just med-speak for “we don’t know what causes it.” Sometimes tremors are bad enough to require treatment with beta-blockers, botox or even deep-brain electrostimulation, but usually dealing with a tremor is more of an exercise in self-directed occupational therapy and ergonomics. I found that even as a budding electronics hobbyist of 12 or 13 I would get a tremor during long soldering sessions; properly supporting my forearms and building some upper body strength were helpful then, and I’d bet they’d help now.

Another way to fight the shakes: a fume extractor. This may seem a stretch, but hear me out. [Bil] and I both did EMS work back in the day, and he reminded me of a simple clinical fact – people tend to get shaky when they aren’t getting enough oxygen. Breathing control is critical to fine motor skills – hold your breath and you’ll eventually start shaking. This is where fume extraction comes into it. I know I tend to hold my breath while soldering and welding to avoid inhaling flux smoke and metal fumes. A fume extractor or even a simple fan can go a long way to clearing the workspace and keeping your hands under control.

Senior Moments

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Nobody you know. Source.

Perhaps the most subtle and insidious age-related changes are the cognitive changes we all experience. It sort of creeps up on you – is red-brown-brown 220 ohms or 2.2k? What was that part number again? But it adds up, and it can get to be a real burden. My dad, a life-long woodworker and cabinetmaker, started complaining about five years ago that he couldn’t follow plans and instructions anymore. I’ll be thrilled if I make it to 75 and still be as sharp as he was, but I know it’s going to happen.

Writing stuff down helps, as does engaging in any intellectually challenging activity. Our readers can and often do disagree that what we Hackaday writers accomplish counts as an intellectual pursuit, but as [Rud] points out, the challenges we get from reader comments are a great way to stay sharp. “I always do additional research to limit the number of ‘gotcha’ comments. That’s good for keeping the brain cells perking.”

A positive attitude and a little good humor are probably worth having too. As [Bil] quips, his essential bench accessories now include “a drool cup and portable defibrillator.” And [Rud] is quick to point out the silver lining of being a silver fox: being retired means you have more time for hacking.

The clock only spins in one direction, and entropy is a cruel fact of life. Changes will happen, and they happen much sooner than you think. Your only defense against it is to know what’s coming, plan ahead a little, and to face it with a little grace and a lot of humor.



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