Elder High Achievers: Inspiration or Reverse Ageism?

Old and Forgetful

Old people are widely accused of many things that aren't true, among them that we can't adapt to change, that we all suffer from depression, and we don't like sex anymore. All are wrong.

But the one almost universal true thing “outsiders” - those who are still young – don't malign us for is our forgetfulness, the everyday kind that is unrelated to dementia. Yet for me it is, so far, the most annoying manifestation of old age.

My short term memory started going to hell long before I began this blog ten years ago and I've been writing about it from the beginning. The subject came up again on Wednesday at lunch with a friend.

I told her that I went to the store the other day for one, just one item, apples, and came home with four others but no apples. In the past, I have failed with three or more items I didn't write down; now all it takes is one.

And those hoary old stories we all have about not recalling why we've walked into the bedroom or kitchen, I said to her? It is no longer two or three or four times a week; now it's that many times a day.

We rolled our eyes a bit to acknowledge our mutual irritation and moved on.

Whether it's old age forgetfulness or pretty much any affliction, it feels good to know we are not alone. In this case, we have an esteemed poet to speak eloquently and humorously for us.

Billy Collins is an American-born poet who has been honored as U.S. Poet Laureate, New York State Poet Laureate and in 2005, with the Mark Twain Award for Humor in Poetry.

In addition, many of you may know him from his frequent appearances over the years on Garrison Keillor's radio program, A Prairie Home Companion.

This is Collins's poetic take on Forgetfulness or you can skip to below the text to watch the video animation of his reading.

But wait: whichever you do (or don't), be sure to read the last two paragraphs of this post.

Foregetfulness by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

This is the poet himself reading the poem:

Good god, I can't escape it. After I had written most of this post, I strolled over to YouTube to see if there was a reading of it. Watching it is what reminded me that I had already posted this poem and video back in 2012.

Interesting that neither the idea to post this, nor reading the text reminded me that it is a repeat. It was the visual that triggered the memory. (And I thought I was irritated before discovering this lapse. Hmmph.)

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson Phillips: When the Price of Beauty is Too Steep to Pay


Ronni, don't worry about repeating posts, YouTube videos, etc. After all you have new followers everyday and/or some people don't read this blog everyday. And of course, there are some of us who have forgotten what we read.

Due to a sketchy childhood, I've always had (or felt I had) poor memory skills. Maybe that made it easier for me to glide into this period in my life. On the plus side, those three trips to the basement before I remember what I want are as good as a stint on a Stairmaster.
And just like your experience with today's post, every day everything is new again!

Billy Collins is always worth repeating.

I had something to write here, but I can't remember what it was.

Never leave home without a list.

Oh wait.

I really liked the poem. And I too suffer from forgetfulness and it is VERY annoying. I write everything down, but then sometimes I forget to look at my lists of what I need to buy, do, or remember. It is frustrating. Thanks for mentioning it again.

Oh, funny. Thank you! It's driving me nuts and scaring the pants off me. What I'm losing is the ability to remember details: proper names, dates and place when a friend is going on vacation, titles of books, names of actors. But I remember narratives and big-picture stuff. It's the discrete isolated facts that just disappear like ... like a really good metaphor that I had a minute ago...

I was going to leave a comment but once the text box opened up, I forgot what I wanted to say.

Of course, there is nothing short of writing down uniquely personal items like birthdays (and remembering to consult the list), but everyday I give thanks to the Internet for providing information like the capital of Paraguay. Even half-formulated queries more than often get an answer. I write with two windows open, one for whatever I am doing, one to consult Google, Yahoo or whatever works.

And I wondered why this was familiar in this setting..... we're in good company, at least <3

Yes, but remind yourself WHY you forgot the apples. Was it because you were wandering around in a stupor? No. It was because your mind was busy thinking a thousand other things. My theory is that our minds are like a closet stuffed so full it is hard to find the blouse you are looking for.

Start worrying when your mind is empty.

I do this with poems I send out. I find out later I sent them once before 😒

There are two things that happen when you get old. The first is that you start to forget things. The second is......

That's funny. Thanks for sharing this again. I heard Billy Collins read this at a dinner where he was the guest of honor a few years back. I had heard him before and reminded him of the occasion. He had no recall of the former occasion. He said, "They all run together." I think that is ok. I'd rather he remember to keep on writing.

I had to laugh; it's all so familiar this making lists, forgetting them, names, capitals, getting up in the night to Google. Only this week I took a book off the shelf and had no recollection of reading it before. The memory was completely wiped so I had the pleasure of reading it again as if new.

I dutifully make lists and then forget to look at them or rake them with me.

I have forgotten what I forgot. Sigh!

I also forget to edit before posting. That is, of course, Take and not Rake. Even spell check can't compensate for a lost memory.

So very right on and timely too. I have discovered that after a lifetime as a good speller, that when my spell check catches a misspelling I often have to turn to my dictionary to come close to simple words I have used all my life. Even then it take s awhile to guess at how they are spelled. Annoying to say the least.

Oh well, it also means there are many books I will be able to enjoy over and over again just like new.

I'm reading your post as I sit here trying to remember the name of a fruit that a former student wanted to know. Asking me did her no good as I cannot for the life of me remember what the little orange fruit is called.

We believe in you, and we know all will be well as long as you post here. We don't care that you forget things or repeat things as long as you are here.

One of the things I lost with my stroke was my hand eye coordination. Last week, one of my old employers asked me to make a little sign with a drawing. I could do this I said. I honestly must tell you that the drawing is just fine. Amusing even. The printing is truly awful.

I was frightened for a day. I knew I could no longer do cursive nor print, but, I who remember doing calligraphy, can no longer print words on a sign. This morning, I will stop by Kinkos and see if they can help. Life is not boring.

Maybe we "forget" because our minds are clearing space so we can be more in the present moment...

That's what I tell myself so I don't dwell on how frustrating it is :-)

One of my mother's favorite admonishments to me when I was a little kid: "Patty, you'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on!" I'm just saying, sometimes it's hard wired and there's no remedy.

I'm also of the school that believes that the elder brain cleans house of unimportant minutae to make room for new unimportant minutae.

Biggest frustration: Names. I have been and will continue to be in an environment where I'll meet a lot of new people. God I wish I could associate all those new faces with the new names with instant recall.

Fortunately, we are not alone and most people are OK with repeating a name. But how many times can one ask before it's too many times?

Today's blog is perfect.

Losing your memory does have its' rewards.

Every day I make new friends.

As my daughter succinctly put it: "You've got too much flotsam and jetsam up there."

I liken our brains to a sponge- so when it gets supersaturated stuff starts to fall out when it can hold no more.

Anyway, that's my theory and I'm sticking with it!

Between your story and Dani's, my day is off to a delighful start..many thanks!

It is most annoying and sometimes pretty expensive. Hubby has misplaced the car key, which will cost $500 to replace if we give in.

Memory training can help. My memory has never been good.. learning French, organic chemistry and piano pieces was very difficult.

About ten years ago, I joined a performance dance group for senior (elder?) women. Dancers can't carry lists to remind them of steps or formations... they must remember them. Woe to the dancer who kicks left when it should be right! Even a short dance will have dozens of steps to remember. I learned. It was not easy... but as time went on, it got easier. Then I noticed that the memory stretching extended to remembering other things... like shopping lists and errands... and even (my worst) people's names.

The dance group folded... and I quickly slipped back to my former level. Sigh.

I have never been able to remember things like names of authors, actors or even a friend's name. Not even titles of books or songs or movies are stored and are never ready for access no matter how hard I try. It has always been frustrating.

It is interesting though--- I was a very successful student and could recall things I read and memorized for tests.

Must use different parts of your brain for this type of memory.

It is so comforting to be reminded that we are not alone in this memory problem. I try to use mnemonics. What is really weird is that I have never had trouble thinking of that odd word -- mnemonic!!

Wonderful post. 88th birthday in a few days and just beginning to notice a lot of books in the book case that I seem to have not read.

Ah, yes. Great poem. And nice to once again hear that others share this dilemma with me. It's quite comforting at age 78 to know this.

My favorite mental gymnastics nowadays is piecing together the lyrics to all the old songs I used to love from the 1940, 50s and 60s.

I used to pride myself on knowing all the lyrics to darn near every song I had ever heard. Now, I'm delighted when I'm able to resurrect all the lyrics on any of them as a pass-time. But it is sweet to hear them again in my head as I dwell on them. It brings back many sweet old memories to cheer my day.

I like to explain to younger people that my hard drive is full and my search engine has slowed down. LOLOLOL

Forgetfulness can be both a blessing and a curse. In my case though it's been more of a curse than whatever that other option was.

Those colorful sticky small pads of paper sure do help me when I want to remember something..

It's a big relief to read your post today, Ronni-I've been having longer periods of forgetfulness more and more frequently lately.

My worst problem is LISTS!. I make so many lists of things I need from the store, things I need to do, meals for the family for the week, when I have to take grand daughter to gymnastics classes etc. Then I forget where I put the list. Or go to the store without the damn list.

My lovely daughter, who I live with, downloaded a very helpful application for our smart phones (which I frequently can't remember how it works) that has lists for shopping, meals, things to do and so on...but I frequently don't carry my cell phone out with me.

I lived without a cell phone for 60 years and just don't feel so attached to it. And I forget it-leave it plugged in to the charger for days on end..or forget to charge it so if I do take it with me, the battery is dead.

Oh Well..thats life and since I have no other signs of dementia I don't worry about it too much.

Very frustrating and embarrassing.

Always comforting to know I'm not alone.

I do love when I go into a store, and some perky person I really don't feel like talking to, says "Can I help you find something?" My reply is " I can't remember what I'm here for."

They move away. Quickly.

Now I just have to remember to do this everytime I walk into a store with perky people that ambush the list right out of my head.

I've been playing a lot of Trivial Pursuit lately, and can't remember many names, but know exactly what the faces of the nameless people look like. Very frustrating.

Oh, that's so funny. I was all fired up to do a post about something (I can't remember what) and I did a search in my dashboard and found out I already had. But hopefully my readers are as forgetful as I am.

What a comforting post.

Thank you for your wonderful blog Ronni.

I do that with movies. Get halfway thru and realize I've seen it before. Sometimes twice.

Sometimes, tho, I think forgetting is a blessing.

When I was working (even as recently as last year when I was "involuntarily retired"), I had a pretty good memory and mind for detail. I was known for being on track with multiple projects and people. However, without the demands of a job, I think I've slipped a bit. As many other TGB participants have noted, it's SO frustrating.

I hope most who share this condition have more patience with themselves than I do with ME. I sometimes get totally furious at myself when I forget my grocery list or something that needed to be done, at which point my husband may helpfully(!) remind me that "getting mad won't help". He's right, of course. I'm taking on some volunteer projects that use the skills I had at work.

In undergraduate school, my biggest challenge was to remember formulae needed to solve problems on tests. About the only ones I could reliably remember were: F=ma, E=IR, and E=mc2.

Books? I keep track of the books I check out of the library - and note whether the author passes my "good to read" test. Going down my list you would find many entries showing that I had, inadvertently, read the same book at least twice. Sometimes, I would actually figure it out before the end of the book on the second or third read. *sighing*

Oh my, thanks for this post and all of the comments. At 75 I am experiencing more of this than before...like oh you know that thing in the dining room where you keep stuff...meaning the buffet...and the looks the kids give that they think I don't see...and the embarrassment of time and again being caught in the middle of a conversation and needing to end it because the next thought just got stuck in the pipe...thing don't follow directions anymore...not just the words...arms, knees and feet seem to have their own forgetfulness...

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)