How’s Your Memory These Days?

How’s Your Memory These Days?

Do you sometimes feel you’re losing it?
Do you remember details about the past, but often
wonder where your short-term memory has gone? 

July 20, 2022 Brabec Bulletin

Recently when I was looking through my journals for details about something I knew had happened in 2016, I found what I was looking for. But I was stunned to realize that nothing had changed in the past seven years. I’d written:

August 8, 2016: In reading The Devil in the White City—Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America today, a few words uttered by Olmsted, one of the characters in the book, upset me:

“It has today, for the first time, become evident to me that my memory for recent occurrences is no longer to be trusted.”

Later in the book, now ill and ready to quit the work that was taking its toll on him, Olmsted wrote, “I am older and more used up than I had supposed.”

Those words—“more used up than I had supposed”—made me realize that one day, perhaps sooner than I think, I may suddenly conclude that I am more “used up” than I want to believe. Maybe this is just the normal cycle of aging and nothing to fret about, but the memory thing . . . well, that’s a different matter.

Near to this 2016 journal entry was one about a conversation I’d had with two friends over coffee one Sunday after church. One asked if we were all going to the Air Force band concert the next Saturday at Cantigny Park (there was a reminder in the church bulletin about it). Only then did I realize I’d completely forgotten that the Sunday before I’d signed up for the concert and had talked to the friend I was sitting next to about her picking me up. Now the other friend said she could take me too.

As the two of them debated which one was going to pick me up, I was trying to justify how I could have forgotten the upcoming concert and my ride to it. I remembered that I’d made my usual after-church grocery shopping stops, but by the time I got home and put groceries away and thought about lunch, I’d forgotten to add a reminder about this concert to the calendar in my office, which I’d be lost without. At the close of this journal entry, I’d written:

“It’s a scary realization to accept that my memory can no longer be trusted and that I must make a written note about everything I need to remember.”

Even though my office calendar is always filled with reminder notes now, sometimes a note doesn’t do the job. Example: I make a note in the kitchen to remember to bring up paper towels the next time I go downstairs. Later when I go downstairs with that thought in mind, I may get distracted by deciding to load the washer or bring something up from my pantry. Once I’ve done such things, I go back upstairs and suddenly remember that I forgot the paper towels. (But at least this forces me to exercise a little more each day.)

The only thing that has changed in the past seven years is that my life has gotten more complex with each passing year. I’m busy every day with a variety of work and life-related issues from the time I get up until after dinner when I finally relax. Because I cram so much into every day, by Friday I can’t remember (without looking at my calendar) all that I’ve done that week.

Doing Things by Rote

I’ve come to some conclusions as to why my short term memory is so bad now. I believe it’s because as we age, we do many more things by rote, “a memorizing process using routine or repetition, often without full attention or comprehension.”

For example, every morning I walk the hall from the bedroom to the living room to open the blinds, then go down six steps to the entry level to flip the switch to shut off the porch light.

This is habitual for both me and my cat. When I excitedly say “Window!” to Liza, she races ahead and jumps to the back of the couch to “help” me open the window (and get some extra petting). Then she follows me down the stairs to help with the light, too. Quite often at the bottom of these carpeted steps, I grab an ostrich feather (gift from a cat-friend) that she loves to chase up and down the stairs. After playing with Liza, I go up the companion stairway leading to the kitchen. No sooner do I get there that I wonder if I flipped the switch or not. I have to go back down to see if I did this by rote with no memory of it, or simply forgot because my focus shifted to playing with the cat and caused me to forget why I’d gone downstairs in the first place.

So . . . how many things do you do by rote each day without thinking about it? Maybe take a pan off the stove, take it to the sink to drain water off the veggies, empty the pan and set it in the sink, completely forgetting that you didn’t shut off the burner before you lifted the pan? Or do you quickly take something out of the oven, place it on the stove to do whatever is necessary, and forget to shut off the oven? I sometimes realize this only when I return to the kitchen for a bedtime snack and either see the gas burner still on or feel the heat of the oven as I walk by.

I wonder if my forgetfulness is simply because I have so many to-do lists and so many things on my mind all the time that it’s simply too much for my tired old brain to deal with without a lot of visual help. Or maybe this is another reminder that I need to slow down and focus on what I’m doing in the moment throughout my active day instead of habitually projecting my mind to the next thing on my to-do list that day.

Comments, anyone?
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Related Article:

The Brain Connection between Writing and Remembering

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