The Old Girls Calendar
Ronni and Meredith

Fear of Getting Old – Part 1: Memory Loss

category_bug_journal2.gif In commenting last week on From an Old Woman To Her Son, Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles expressed her fear of losing her mental capacities as she gets older. She is not alone. In a recent survey about attitudes toward aging conducted by HSBC, 65 percent of Americans said they are afraid of losing their memory as they age.

The most frightening form of memory or mental capacity loss is dementia of which Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common. There is no known way to prevent AD, but it might be some comfort to know that out of a total 50-plus population, in 2000, of 297 million, it is estimated that about 4.5 million Americans are victims – about .015 1.5 percent.

More benign memory loss – forgetting names, words, where we left the keys, etc. – is commonly believed to be an unavoidable affliction of old age. According to the latest research, this is a myth:

“Between the ages of 30 and 90, the brain loses about 10 percent of its volume. Forgetfulness isn't an automatic result, however. Scientists have recently found that loss of brain cells due to aging isn't as steep as once thought. In fact, they now believe memory problems aren't a natural part of growing older. Studies have shown that people with bad memories as older adults probably had the same deficiency when they were younger. But later in life, we may attribute it to aging.”
- Psychology Today, July/August 2003

Memory research is not an exact science nor are there yet definitive answers, but progress is being made in our understanding. Some studies indicate that we don’t forget so much as it takes longer to learn new information as we get older.

“Memory studies have shown that about a third of healthy older people have difficulty with declarative memory [facts, people, places and things], yet a substantial number of 80-year-olds perform as well as people in their 30s on difficult memory tests. More good news: once something is learned, it is retained equally well by all age groups even it takes a bit longer for the older people to learn it.”
- Staying Sharp, 2004 [pdf]

[This ten-page research publication, from the AARP Foundation, is packed with information about age and memory including reminder lists of strategies for maintaining our cognitive abilities and characteristics common to people who do.]

No one can predict the future, but living in fear of the unknown can be its own debilitating affliction. One way to defeat it is to bring it out into the open and face it head on. Ram Dass has an interesting exercise on this subject:

“…identify the thing that frightens you and come as close to it as you can before you freak out. For example, if you are haunted by the fear of going blind, allow this thought and attendant images and feelings – the helplessness, the reliance on others, the darkness in your visual field – to arise without resistance.

“Watch how the fear manifests in your body, and guard against the desire to pull back. If this fear becomes too overwhelming to you, take a mental step back – our intention is not to create more drama, but to teach ourselves to hang out with our own fears or bogeymen, rather than to feed them by ignoring them.

“As we become more aware of the degree to which our fears are mind-states, rather than realities, we take our power back.”

- Still Here, Ram Dass

I’m not saying it’s easy to do this; it takes courage to shine a light on our deepest fears and confronting them as directly as Ram Dass advises doesn’t happen in one sitting. But the release from our fear and a less burdened life are the rewards for the effort.

Fear of Getting Old – Part 2: On Becoming a Burden


My housemate, R., has severe short term memory loss as a consequence of a stroke that occurred 3 years and 5 months ago. Her inability to retain facts varies with how she's feeling physically, how tired she is. There are days when I have to tell her something every five minutes.

Of all the effects of the stroke -- a crippled left hand, an uncooperative left leg, a face that will always "crawl" -- she hates the memory loss most. The hardest thing to deal with is how she treats herself as a consequence. Every other phrase out of her mouth is "I'm sorry."

When she realizes she's asked me to get something out of the refrigerator that was there three years and 5 months ago she often becomes so depressed she wants to go straight to bed.

Living with her has made me look at my own fears for the future and truly think about them for the first time in my life. It is a process and one that life sometimes thrusts upon you when you don't even see it coming.

Some years back, I went to a psychologist to discuss something and I said I felt paranoid on it, and his response was it's only paranoia if it isn't based on what is possible. I think the fear of aging is a genuine issue and some worry now when we have our faculties will make it easier for our family in the future if certain negative things happen-- and some of them just plain will as a product of the body wearing out. We probably all know too many people who have lost mental faculties as they got into their late 80s to kid ourselves we couldn't, but we can do mental exercises, have good physical practices including keeping body healthy, regular check ups on things like cholesterol, sugar levels (adult onset diabetes can be really detrimental to life quality if it's ignored), tell our family (or responsible friend) what we want if certain things happen.

I went to the eye doctor recently and when he was checking my retina, I mentioned my mother having had macular degeneration and my concern that it might be hereditary. He said it is-- but as a product of being human-- and if we live long enough it will happen to most of us. He said what you want to do is delay its onset through good health practices as long as possible. I think that's the case with us in all aging issues but preparing is wise and constant fear of what might not be our lot is not going to help--- face the fear, prepare for it, and then release it. Fear is only positive if it helps us do something about it.

Not to be picky, but ... 4.5 divided by 297 equals .015, which is 1.5 percent, about 100 times more than .015 percent.

Not picky at all, JXF - I'm not good at all when the numbers get big. Thanks. I've fixed in the copy.

I like to contribute some of my memory loss to: I have so much info in my head that something has to go so I can cram more into my brain.
True or not-it's what keeps me sane *Ü*

Ram Dass is one of my favorites. We heard him speak in VA at the A.R.E. many years ago.

Watching the degeneration of parents and others of their generation (80s)over the last couple of years, I have often thought about which would be worse to loose: mind or body. People I have been close to fit into both of those camps, so I've had a good laboratory for observation.

While my internal debate is always fierce, with many pros and cons on both sides of the issue, the final answer is always the same. I am my mind. As long as I have control of that, I am me. If my mind takes a hike, then it can be accurately announced that Winston has left the building. A mind really is a terrible thing to waste! Fear that...

Doesn't cure my fear, but I feel the love, darlin'!

Memory as described above is a terrible thing to lose. An interesting observation I've made has been that any sort of therapy for the function of the mind, including memory, is highly resisted by many people. Even their family members can be resistant to the idea their loved one could benefit from that sort of help. They find it very threatening with concerns that an effort is being made to establish "I'm crazy" or determine "my intelligence."

One of the most frustrating experiences with which I witness people trying to cope, is an impairment, or loss of their communication abilities. The loved one may or may not know what they want to say,or be able to say it. Written words and pictures may not help either. This, too, presents untold challenges to a caregiver.

We never imagine we could have difficulty swallowing water, food and other liquids. We just take the functions of our body so much for granted.

Don't even like to think about the possibility any of this, and more, could happen to me, but know I'm not immune.

The comments to this entry are closed.