by Myra Marcus, Ph.D
Have you ever walked into another room to get something and by the time you get there you’ve forgotten what you wanted to get? Or spent a half hour trying to find your keys only to discover them still in the front door lock where they’ve sat since the last time you came into the house? You may be having what is fondly known as a “senior moment” — those brief lapses in memory that make you think you’re on the verge of full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.
Not to worry, though. In most cases, momentary forgetfulness is just a function of normal age-related issues like sleep deprivation, stress, medication side effects, even changes in brain physiology. Many times what we think is a memory problem is merely the result of not having paid close attention to our actions or surroundings. Information needs to be imprinted on the brain in order to be retrievable — if you’re not paying attention, the information never gets properly input.
As we age the brain changes — it shrinks and slows down. This means that the speed at which information can be retrieved on demand slows down as well. How many of you find that, in conversation, you sometimes need to substitute a word for the one you really want but can’t seem to remember? The word usually comes to you after the conversation has moved on or ended altogether. It’s of no use at that point but there’s still a sense of relief that it came to you at all.
It’s important to remember there are many factors that increase our odds of forgetting. For example, it’s harder to pay attention to one thing when something else is happening at the same time. Daydreaming, thinking of that dreaded to-do list, the beeping of a text, ringing of a phone or the droning of a TV in the background may well distract you from what is occurring in the moment. Stress, depression, grief, illness, alcohol, malnutrition, insomnia, medications, and a lack of personal organization can also take a toll on your recall ability.
Once you understand why you forget things, you can be proactive in attempting to reinforce and strengthen your memory. Here are some useful steps you can try:
- Use a timer or alarm to remind you about a specific task.
- Play word games and brainteasers. Trivial Pursuit. Crossword puzzles and Sudoku. They all help to keep the brain active and facile.
- Use a calendar to keep track of appointments, events, and personal routines you wish to strengthen.
- Create a to-do list that you update every day. Make sure the list is manageable so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by it.
- When you are stumped trying to recall a word or a name, go through the alphabet one letter at a time to see if it brings the word or name to mind.
- Make sure your workspace is organized. Clutter interferes with focus and productivity.
- Create regular storing spots for everyday objects like keys, glasses, important papers, remotes, etc. All items must be consistently returned to their respective holding places for this to work.
- Use your computer, tablet or smartphone to manage tasks and to track and store information. You can also use your phone’s recorder to dictate reminders or notes.
- Post-its are invaluable as “spotters,” to remind us of events, deadlines, and appointments. Use them often and strategically.
- Make use of mnemonics, those simple word/letter associations that help us remember important words and phrases.
As for me, I really need to practice what I preach. As I’ve gotten older, I notice that words aren’t there when I need them, and I hope no one recognizes my difficulty. I fish around in my brain to quickly find a synonym, sometimes forcing me to change the meaning of what I’m trying to say. If I don’t leave my phone in an easily locatable spot, panic ensues because I fear that I’ve misplaced my lifeline. I have great difficulty in mall parking lots because I often forget where I’ve parked.
Like everyone else, I worry about these senior moments. I make my living relying on my brain to help others. What if I can’t . . .
No, stop! Don’t give in to that fear. Never go down that road. If you start now and use these tools, you will be managing and strengthening your memory. Don’t forget, we generate new brain cells even as we age. Be mindful as you move forward and keep doing that Sudoku.
Myra Marcus, Ph.D, is a clinical social worker with Family Centers, one of Fairfield County’s largest providers of human services, counseling, health and education programs. With offices in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, CT, Family Centers is a United Way, Community Fund of Darien and New Canaan Community Foundation partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. Family Centers is also affiliated with the Community Fund of Darien. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.