Elder Music: Oddities and Novelties
New Books on Aging

Short Term Memory Shot to Hell

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Two more people have added their workspace photos to the Where Elders Blog feature: M.E. of XtremeEnglish and Ronni Prior of Ronni's Rants updated her previous listing now that she has changed the look - a before and after series. You can send a photo of your workpace too. Here are the instructions.

category_bug_journal2.gif ITEM: I go the kitchen for a glass of water. I am momentarily distracted because the cat wants a pet and then I return to the library before I recall that I am thirsty.

ITEM: I bundle myself into my winter outdoor gear and walk the six blocks to the local mini-grocery for a single item – a loaf of their excellent sour dough bread. While I’m there, the owner offers me a taste of a new cheese he has received. I buy a chunk and return home without the bread.

ITEM: I go to the bathroom to pluck a hair that is annoying me on my upper lip. But first, I decide, I need to pee. I return to my laptop where the hair again irritates me.

Basically, these days, I do many things twice. I shudder to think of the day it will take three trips and, eventually, more to get through each minor task of a day. Come to think of it, repeating tasks that should need to be done only once might account for why hours speed by without accomplishing as much as I want.

It’s not as though these memory glitches haven’t always happened. All through my life there have been episodes of, for example, finding myself standing in a room wondering why I’m there. I don’t know if the number of incidents has increased or if it only appears so because memory loss is so fearful to contemplate as we age – wondering if each glitch is a sign of incipient dementia.

Poking around the web and perusing my collection of books on aging over the past few days reveals a wide range of medical opinion. Generally, however, there is a (sort of) consensus that some memory loss in age, particularly short-term memory, is normal due to changes to neurotransmitters and chemicals in our brains.

The research involving memory tests of younger versus older people is mind-numbing. (If insomnia is a problem, I suggest you try reading these.) But I was impressed with some showing that elder brains have trouble ignoring extraneous information, resulting in overload. (That’s hardly the language medical researchers use, but it’s what they mean.)

“The [test] results showed that young adults had no problem ignoring irrelevant information. Some (but not all) of the older adults had a harder time overlooking unimportant information.

“Brain scans backed that up. The young adults' brain scans showed activity in a part of the brain that focused on the important images. The older adults' brain scans showed activity in the same area. But the seniors' scans also showed brain activity focusing on the irrelevant images.

"’These data suggest that older individuals are able to focus on pertinent information but are overwhelmed by interference from failure to ignore distracting information, resulting in memory impairment for the relevant information,’ write the researchers.”
- WebMD, 12 September 2005

It is certainly true for me that I almost never concentrate on one thing at a time. As I have been writing this post, I took a break, when a stray idea entered my head, to add a thought to another post I’m working on.

While I was off on that page, it occurred to me to check on whether I have enough cash on hand to pay the person who cleans the halls of the condo. I returned to the desk to make a note to get some cash and figured that as long as I’ve interrupted writing, I should check email. I followed a couple of links, answered two emails and made a note for a possible future blog post. All before returning to write this paragraph.

No wonder I’ve forgotten what I intended to say next.

Short-term memory can also be adversely affected by some medications, untreated hypertension, lack of sleep, a variety of other conditions and, as is true for so many health problems, poor nutrition and sedentary living.

The one drug I take is not known to affect memory, I eat well, sleep almost okay, but I don’t exercise enough. (Reminder to self: get off your butt.)

The usefulness of memory games that have become popular in recent years has not been proven, but one thing that is known to help maintain cognitive function, of which memory is a part, is the adage, use it or lose it. Learning new things is especially productive as it creates new brain connections and keeps them active.

Not a problem. I learn how to do new things almost every day, but it hasn't helped. A couple of months ago, after leaving laundry in the dryer (which is in a back room) for three days too many times while wondering why I can’t find a certain sweater or shirt, I determined to set the kitchen timer to alert me when it is done. In the short walk from the laundry room to the kitchen, I have remembered exactly twice to set the timer.

It occurs to me, as I write this, to tape a reminder to set the timer on the door of the dryer. I wonder if I’ll remember to do that.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Mort Reichek recalls his childhood in The Bronx in The Games We Played.


Ronni, I could have written every bit of this! I have always been someone who does several things at the same time and an eternal procrastinator, but as I grow older, I'm getting worse and worse!
I will (if I remember to do so) set up a doctor's appointment. The thing I am worrying about is not getting old, but getting Alzheimer, and here they say that if you take it when it only shows light signs, it can still be ... not avoided... but delayed.
So I'm making a note to talk about it to my doctor!

Reading an interesting book titled "Where Did I Leave My Glasses" by Martha Weinman Lear. It reassures me I probably do not have a memory disease and also helps me laugh while indicating it may not get better.

Ronni, I return to the blogosphere to find you're still writing cogent, informed, wonderful posts every single day. You're fine. I've seen dementia, as I guess most of us have by now, up close and personal and it's very scary. One thing I'm sure of is that when if it happens to us, we'll the last to know. Another is that it's not a big deal when you forget what you went to the store for. It becomes worrisome when you forget where the store is when you've gone there regularly in the past.

There is just so much going on around us. I am constantly distracted by dozens of things just like you are. And the internet is the worst or best (depending on how you look at it) place to be. Starting out with one internet site I can end up so far away that I can't get back to the original site through my back button. But it was fun and I learned things.

“The [test] results showed that young adults had no problem ignoring irrelevant information. Some (but not all) of the older adults had a harder time overlooking unimportant information."

Perhaps the older adults have learned that one cannot always predict what will be important information. Think how much good pure research has contributed to the world, and of how little value it may seem at the time it is launched. I now know that, information that seemed unimportant at the time loomed large, later.

P.S. This comment comes to you from one who at age 17 missed a college final exam, or three, from getting distracted. Distraction is more common in some of us than in others. My husband has always thought that I am a complete scatter brain; but, you know that my educational/professional background means that useful work was being accomplished.

You have just described my day, more or less. I use post-its to remind me of things (when I remember to write them).

I have to respond because this strikes such a chord with me. I have chalked this behavior up to simply having too many things on my mind at one time, too many things to do, etc. I have tried to ignore the thoughts that these behaviors might in some way be related to the fact that I am soon to be sixty-eight, but alas - it must be true.

I believe it is also true that learning something new is helpful (I am currently studying German to prepare me for a trip in June), but learning something new is so much slower at this age than when we were kids! It takes real perserverence.

Thanks for letting us all know that we are not alone in these behaviors -- uh, what was I saying?

There's a study where people were told to watch a video and count something, it seems like it was the number of times someone bounced a ball. During the video, a guy in a gorilla suit wandered through the scene. Many people were so intent on counting the bounces, they didn't even see the guy in the gorilla suit. Maybe our problem as elders is that now we notice the guy in the gorilla suit. Not such a bad problem.

I saw another study that said that if elders would remember to drink more water many problems with mental confusion and clarity would be lessened. Your brain needs a drink.

I wonder if there's a difference between the chronically organized listmakers and those who, like me, tend to rely on memory? It pains me to admit it, but being well-organized is not one of my virtues. I get by, but nobody is ever going to call me anal. My boss is a the complete opposite: she's a chronic, almost compulsive maker of lists, schedules, and folders. Any thoughts?

If I've put a load of laundry in and then we go take a walk,I put a bottle of detergent at my (eating) place in full view for when we get back. Always works and the clothes get to the dryer! My dryer "dings" when it's done. The bottle trick would serve as well if I didn't have a noise to respond to.
Question: Do these tricks further reduce the memory's responsibility?

Great post, Ronni. All so true.

One tip I might offer. We used to have a baby monitor to keep tabs on the kids in their crib. It was like a walkie-talkie (but wired) and allowed us to hear the sounds in their room while we were in the kitchen, etc.

My daughters are grown up, young ladies now, and not having a use for the baby monitor, it went into storage. Sometime ago, the dryer beep (to alert when it finished) died. Would have cost a few bucks to fix but remembering the baby monitor sitting doing nothing, I brought that out of storage and use it now.

My wife can work on her stuff upstairs and listen to the dryer downstairs to hear when it ends. No setting required. It always on. (Not exactly "green" in terms of energy use but that's another story).

Mary Jamison: I'm a serial list maker, although not large numbers of them. During the day and before I'm done at the desk each evening, I jot down items I need to do in a notebook organized by day.

I've often wondered if having done this all my life has contributed to my memory deficit.

notdotdot: My dryer dings too, but it is a hallway and two doors from the kitchen and the entire, 80-foot distance of the apartment from my desk, so there's not a chance of hearing it, even when I'm in the kitchen.

I've tried that trick of leaving out something to remind me of any number of things I want to remember. It is remarkable how long I can overlook them.

Another thought: Many people are poor "finishers". Their whole lives, they start new tasks and aren't inclined to rush to the end. They are happier in the doing but not in the ending.
There are people who have always been poor at remembering names.
Now these people become old and are tagged as "forgetful" due to age as if that is the primary reason. The sad thing is that the ones who have been this way all along should be made to feel bad about themselves when they do become old and are made to think that the behavior has a new meaning.

Also, regarding Virginia's note above about drinking water, I've read several reports that elders don't always feel it when they are thirsty and I've sometimes noticed that I've gone an entire day without drinking water.

So it's a good idea to drink a glass of water now and then whether you feel thirsty or not.

Ronnie, I've always cleaned house in the way that you describe your day - dusting one room, going to another to put something away and cleaning a drawer there, washing a floor and then going down to the basement to put away the mop and cleaning the shower there, forgetting to take the laundry up when I go....I still do things that way. I get a lot done, but not one project at a time. I also get lots more exercise that way.

Some people are more distractable than others. We're a generation or two before ADD - maybe some of us have a touch of that.

I learn to do new things sometimes happily and sometimes not; drink plenty of water; eat well, exercise regularly, and sleep reasonably well. I am able to identify with all you write on your blog today.

I experience the same thing and have for a long time but now I can blame it on something. Both my husband and I have turned on the outside water for the sheep, gone off and only realized the next day that we have not gone back. The last time I did it, I thought I'd come into the house and turn on the timer which by the time I got in here, possibly stopping to put out birdseed and pick up firewood or maybe not, I had forgotten to set the timer which would have worked-- if I had remembered as then I'd have had to work to remember why I set it.

It is interesting to read everyone's commentary today. I tend to think it is information overload.

For quite some time I am having a love/dislike relationship with computers and online time. Glitches in memory - oh yes, at times.

Steps I have taken to work with this - less time online. Very little television and reading a book after dinnertime. For those who have a shared living situation, talking about what we read or learn during our online time helps us to get back on track and also rediscover the pleasures of conversation.

The internet is wonderful and is a great source of info, entertainment and meeting/making new friends. For those of us at home, it is an important connection - yet, we should take measure and balance.

I find that when I tire at night, I close my book and think about what I've read - more or less a pleasant recap. Since I've been doing a little re-reading, I've found my perceptions have changed on situations. Re-read Pride and Prejudice today - see how you feel or take a favorite and spend some time just absorbing.

Crosswords/jigsaws are another way of focusing.

We live in a whirlwind world with everything being done in an instant - we need to take time and just be - time to think and dream or just watch the clouds drift by.

All this talk of writing things down reminds me of a favorite.....

An elderly couple was having problems remembering things, so they decided to go to their doctor to get checked out to make sure nothing was wrong with them. When they arrived at the doctor’s office they explained to the doctor about the problems they were having with their memory.

After checking the couple out, the doctor tells them that they were physically okay but they might want to start writing things down and make notes to help them remember things. The couple thanked the doctor and returned home.

Later that night while watching TV, the husband got up from his chair and was leaving the room when his wife asks, "Where are you going?"

He replies, "To the kitchen."

She asks, "Will you get me a bowl of ice cream?"

He replies, "Sure."

She then asks him, "Don't you think you should write it down so you can remember it?"

He says, "No, I can remember that."

She then says, "Well, I also would like some strawberries on top. You had better write that down cause I know you'll forget that."

He says, "I can remember that, you want a bowl of ice cream with strawberries."

She replies, "Well, I also would like whip cream on top. And I know you will forget that so you better write it down."

With irritation in his voice, he says, "I don't need to write that down! I can remember that!" He then fumes off and into the kitchen.

After about 20 minutes he returns from the kitchen and hands her a plate of bacon and eggs.

She stares at the plate for a moment and then angrily says, "You forgot my toast!"

ronni...been there, done that...over and over. my cure? go back to school. you'll be amazed.

Happens to me too -- but far less so when it involves my work. Guess I'm agreeing with m.e. above. There seems to be a switch I can turn on when I feel remembering is a necessity. Maybe the switch gets worn out -- or we come to understand that less matters are "necessary"?

I was also struck by what cop car said: "Perhaps the older adults have learned that one cannot always predict what will be important information." Yes -- that discursive side to apprehension feels very valuable to me -- the times when I can afford to let my mind wander. That's a pleasure, not a curse.

Sometimes I see people (mostly younger) confronted with a new piece of information -- and see the reaction as something like "no drawer to put that in." Maybe as we age we acquire many, many drawers. Then, though we have somewhere to put information, we lose track of where some of the drawers are??

UPDATE: I put a load of laundry in the washing machine this morning at about 9AM and remembered to put it in the dryer in good time.

I hadn't put a reminder on the dryer door (yet), but made a mental note to set the kitchen timer. Once again, I ended up at the other end of house without doing so but, lazily, told myself I'd remember at about 10AM to take it out.

Just now, at about 12:40PM, I remembered, but only because I got hungry and was heading toward the kitchen.

On a day when this is the topic of my blog!!! Geez.

Regarding janinsanfran's point about memory operating better when it is for work, that's true for me too.

Although I don't have a paid job any longer, I don't forget too much about the blog and I'm good at remembering when I've made an obligation to someone else.

My husband died from multiple brain tumors. The first sign of his illness was memory loss. After his death I became acutely aware of short term memory loss and worried every time I did something like you describe.

My son started telling me memory jokes to ease my mind. I went to a party and a very nice distinguished man sat next to me and we started talking about aging problems. I told him of my qualms about not remembering things and said, with great gusto, "My son told me two jokes on aging today. They are ------------" My mind was a total blank and I couldn't remember either joke.

Ronni: As long as you remember to take care of yourself physically and remember to treat yourself emotionally whenever possible, you will be fine.

I have a family history of Alzheimers and worry about short term memory loss and especially vocabulary loss. One thing that has helped me is just doing things right away and not writing them down or putting them off.

I'm sure I had something else to say, but I forget...


Oh I really enjoyed reading your post and all the comments. Now I know I'm not alone. . . . Thanks everyone!

This morning I headed to the post office and remembered that there was something in the Sunday paper ad section that I wanted to check out at Walgreen's so I ran in.

As I perused the aisles of Walgreen's, I kept awaiting a miraculous vision of what it was that I had been interested in.

After several minutes of mindlessness, I asked to see the Sunday ad section from the woman at the cash register. I had hoped that it would give me a clue as to what I was looking for.

It didn't.

I walked out of the store empty-handed...and, feeling quite foolish.

(I feel your pain and totally identified with your post...thanks for reminding me that I am not alone in this aging process!!)
: )

All of these examples of forgetting sure sound familiar to me. Several times lately I've forgotten to close the lid to the washer. I also burned up an expensive pot.

I too seemed to be able to focus on my day when I was at work. I used to go over what I needed to accomplish on my morning drive in.

During the years I was at home with young children, it seems to me I was more like I am now--more forgetful and absent minded. I think of it as lack of focus.

I worry far less about the unfinished laundry than the forgotten pot on the cooktop, though!

I'm about to go speak to the Alzheimer's Association, so I can't forget what I'm going to say. But let me add by two pennies: Just a few years ago, when the words senile and old were synonymous (sp?), it was thought that we lose neurons as we grow older. Not so; We keep growing neurons for al lomg as we live--and use our brains. That's one reasons computers are a blessing. But as we read here, older brains are not as flexible and quick. And we quickly forget that which is relatively unimportant, like wash in the dryer, or the water that you can always go back for. But we learn more deeply; we hold onto values more strongly; we think more wisely; we understand better. Kids do have quick memories, but they learn nothing from them in the way older brains do. They know a lot of little nothings.

I arranged my morning in order to be free, coffee in front of me, for the prearranged phonecall at 1:00 from a new blogging friend. When the call didn't come I decided to check emails to see if I'd missed something. Oh, yes, there was my answer. Our cancelled call LAST week was to have been on Monday at 1:00. I was supposed to email her last weekend to arrange the time for a call this week. I sent an email titled "I screwed up" and she has kindly replied with Wednesday now being the targeted day for a chat.
I feel like I've joined a "special" club....... :)

Y'know that paragraph you wrote that starts "While I was off on that page," ? Well, if you could remember THAT many steps back, your memory is just fine! :)

There is one factor that definitely affects me - fear of boredom. Those 10 steps to a storage cabinet are a no-man's-land that have to be filled mentally with something interesting and unrelated to the task. When I get to the cabinet of course I have no clue what I'm looking for. Back to the original starting place and hope I pick up where I left off. This could lead to an infinite loop.

Ronni - welcome to the club -
I have to account for everything because I am that way - so there are shopping lists and a notebook I always keep in my pocketbook to write down what I spent when out to transfer to my money ledger. (it is crazy - but since I taught myself excel - I like to see what money comes in and where it goes on a monthly basis. I think that action, alone, keeps the brain's nuerotransmitters hopping.

Water - always keep one bottle out on the counter in kitchen - or carry it around the house.

For laundry - take the kitchen timer to your office and then when it beeps your good to fold.

Remember don't sweat the small stuff...I guess?????

You crack me up! I've been doing that for years, not only since 50 has come and gone.....Isn't it called 'multi-tasking'?!

Oh, I forgot. When you're in your twenty-going on-40, it's called multi-tasking. When you're 50 going on living, it's called old age.

Keep on keeping on Ronni! You're doing just fine.

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