EDITOR'S NOTE: Part 1 of A Mother's Final Best Lesson has been posted in the Transitions section of womansage.com, a fairly new non-profit organization "dedicated to empowering, educating and fostering mentoring relationships among midlife women." I would like to thank its founder, Jane Glenn Haas, who is also a columnist for the Orange County Register, and urge you to visit the womansage Website.
I've been trying to write this entry for weeks, but every time I try, I forget what I wanted to say...bada boom.
After about age 50, “they” tell us, memory becomes an issue. It is fraught with fear because Alzheimer’s disease gets a lot of publicity so every time reading glasses are misplaced, worries sneak in about whether this is the beginning of the end of one's mind.
That’s no small concern. Although some studies show that one-third of people in their mid-eighties will develop Alzheimer’s, most minor memory lapses are not Alzheimer’s. As Linda Hurst, writing in the Toronto Star explains:
“It’s called ‘benign senescent forgetfulfulness’ or AAMI, age-associated memory impairment, and it is not, like Alzheimer’s, a disease that kills brain cells. It’s merely a consequence of aging. It happens in varying degrees, to everyone.”
- Toronto Star, 31 July 2004
Forget the fancy names - they’re too hard to remember and anyway, the important question is, does it really affect everyone? Do we know that?
“The 10-year UC School of Medicine study of almost 6,000 seniors, age 70 and older, found that 70 percent had no significant loss of mental skills over that time. Those who lost mental ability had cardiovascular disease, diabetes or a gene associated with Alzheimer's disease.”
- applesforhealth.com, 9 July 1999
“When we are stressed and upset we naturally become more forgetful because we become more distracted. However as we start to get older we tend to blame this forgetfulness on age. The truth is that we do not actually lose our short term memory until the 8th or 9th decade of life, the 80's to 90's. Long term memory remains relatively intact throughout our life and does not begin to show signs of loss until even later in our lives.”
- brainevaluation.com, 2002
So it appears that we do not know if every older person is affected by memory loss. Perhaps it’s a myth perpetrated by a culture that wants to sideline older people from the mainstream. If society as a whole buys into the notion that old folks and memory loss go together, it makes ageism and age discrimination and bad jokes about old folks’ inability to keep up easier to justify.
I can’t remember when I didn’t have a poor memory, but when you’re young and forget where you put the keys, no one thinks your mind is heading south. At any age, don’t you hate it when you go into the kitchen and can’t remember why? When you walk to the corner deli thinking you can manage three items without a list and can only recall two – until you get home and have already taken off your shoes?
A smart young woman just out of graduate school with a shiny new degree in history asked me once, Which came first, Ronni, the Civil War or World War I?
No matter what the so-called experts tell us, it has never been only older folks who have memory lapses. Because we expect old people, from decades of insulting cultural references, to have poor memories, no one that I can find has compared the frequency of younger folks's forgetfulness with older folks'.
Lynda Hurst, in that Toronto Star piece, reports that a memory pill – "memory Viagra" - is on the way in a decade or so and in her due diligence, has collected a usual suspects list of supposed ethical considerations:
“If your memory is unimpaired, the drug may make you remember inappropriately.”
“People who want a magic pill are idiots.”
“It would also benefit society because it would increase people’s productivity in later life.”
“It would be like steroids and athletes. You couldn’t stop it without constant policing.”
Limited Phase II testing of one memory drug is still a year off with a Phase III, human testing, date not yet set, so memory Viagra is still a long way off. Long enough and untried enough that there is simply not enough information for any of those statements to make sense. I'm withholding my judgment until we have some usable data about the drug.
In the meantime, how about we replace age discrimination and bad jokes with a little help for all of us of every age?
Being memory-impaired since childhood, I started young devising numerous ways to avoid the irritation and outright foul temper misplaced items and forgotten errands can set off in me.
There has been a hook near the front door for so long that I don't remember hanging up keys when I come in, but I always do. Scissors go back to their appointed place when I’m done. It’s second nature now; I don’t even think about it. I gave up a cleaning lady years ago because she stored kitchen equipment in new places every week and I could never find the granny fork or the pot lid I was looking for.
On the other hand, I’m 63 and still haven’t decided where to keep rubber bands so when I see one on the floor, I leave it there until I need it. Oddly, I never have trouble recalling where the last one I saw is.
I have always kept running lists and sometimes I wonder if my memory wouldn’t be better if I gave it more practice by not keeping lists. But then I’d go to the store and forget half the things I need and because doing anything twice unnecessarily makes me irritable, it is an experiment that will not happen in my lifetime.
Besides, there is a special quality to lists beyond their purpose as reminders. Anyone who is not a list maker cannot know the sublime pleasure of checking off finished items. Maybe my memory is fine and I just like that check-off ritual too much.
Now if I could only find today's list...