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The Language of Memory and Forgetting

With what I believe is the excessive amount of media attention given to Alzheimer's and other dementias, elders can be forgiven for being overly concerned about where they misplaced the house keys.

We console ourselves with such slogans as, “If you can't remember where your glasses are, that's normal; if you don't remember what they're for, you're in trouble.” Or by invoking the well-used “senior moment,” a phrase that hasn't been funny since the first time you heard it 20 years ago.

We oldies work hard at whistling past the graveyard in our fear of Alzheimer's but none of it removes one of the stigmas attached by people of all ages, by the culture at large, to elders: that our memories are unreliable and continue to decay until we either die or succumb to one of the dementias.

But it is just not true or, rather, not very much more true than for younger adults (just for fun, let's call them pre-elders).

How do I know that? One of the advantages of creating more time for quiet and solitude (see last week's post on that topic), is that actual thinking can go on at leisure and sometimes that produces a wholly new idea or conclusion. Such as this:

Have you ever noticed how many ways we have in the English language to blow off our poor memories? Without any effort, I came up with this obviously incomplete list of common, everyday phrases we've been using since childhood to account for our forgetfulness:

It slipped my mind
I must have overlooked that
If I remember correctly
Who knows? Not me
My mind went blank
Oh, I completely forgot
It's on the tip of my tongue
I must have mis-remembered that
If I'm not mistaken
That doesn't ring a bell
As far as I can recall
Remind me again about that...

When I look through those phrases that I have both said and heard from others a zillion times throughout all my life, I wonder how often forgetfulness is tested among people of all ages.

I haven't looked into it, but I'd lay down a few dollars on a bet that it's only old folks researchers bother to examine for memory lapses and they have no idea how frequently pre-elders forget things.

Pretty much all old people I know and many TGB readers who have commented here on memory issues in the past believe they are more forgetful than when they were younger. Is it possible, do you think, that we believe so only because we have spent a lifetime "knowing" old people are forgetful?

It goes without saying that dementia is a terrible disease but not for the majority of us and maybe elders' forgetfulness is, like that of younger people, mostly due to absentmindedness and too much multi-tasking.

Why else would there be so many ways to talk about forgetting?


Absolutely Ronni - I am so glad you posted this - I constantly tell people I have always had a bad memory and in fact I think in some ways it is getting better - because in old age I realise I had better make an effor to remember some things! I'm probably rationalising like mad - but it sounds good - bad memory does not only happen in old age - remember that.

I think you're absolutely right, Ronni. I work with people half my age and they are no better than I am about remembering things, generally speaking. (Specifically, we have different things we're good and bad about remembering, usually related to our responsibilities.) Same thing for my nephews. One of them forgot that he left his car at my house and walked home! But he just blew it off and we all had a good laugh. Believe me, that's a story I remember often.

I believe we elders have a filtering system in place. Upon living all these years, we know to not clutter our minds too much with frivolous and unnecessary minutiae,

In addition, I'm much more forgiving and lighthearted about my memory mistakes these days - an "Ah, well" works fine for me and yes, the mistake is likely forgotten from that moment on. Good topic, Ronni!

I've come to realize that I've never had very good short term memory, and that it shaped who I became. I write because I can look things up and writing is solitary and I can go at my own speed. If I had had good short term memory I might have been a different person, like a mathematician or musician.

I think my poor short term memory was also why I was never good at languages or observing details in daily life. Now I'm very average to other people--it's not like I have an affliction. It's not like I can't function. But what I'm saying, we have a whole spectrum of different type memory abilities. Some people are better at some memory tasks and worse at others. It's very hard to say what normal as a baseline though because I think there are a whole array of memory abilities.

I suspect younger people forget things often, just don't mention or dwell on it.

I use "refresh my memory" all the time. I learned that phrase in one of my first "how to sell courses" or read it in a Dale Carnegie book 40 years ago. I also use "I forget, tell me again".

I use "senior moment" and "my mind went blank" too often. Actually, can be amusing when husband and I are talking to one another... Sometimes it seems we are having a "I am more forgetful than you contest."

My husband, the wonderful Mr. Bruce, turns 80 this Friday. For a few years now he seems to remember things from '50-'80s clearer than today's events. There is a plus side to it, he is writing articles for one of my blogs.

Last Saturday I attended a lecture on aging by an academic psychologist. He used the same tired example about forgetting where one put his keys being normal while forgetting what a key is for is cause for concern. So far the comments suggest that memory is much more complicated than that. Mary Jamieson's story is a terrific example. Simone's suggestion of a mental "filtering system" is also quite interesting.

My own theory which I described on my blog several years ago is The Rolodex Theory of Recall--which suggests that as we age we accumulate so many memories that it can take a long time to rifle through all of them to come up with the word or name we're trying to retrieve.

Sometimes though I can come up with something obscure from decades ago. Recently, when my husband and I were driving to a restaurant, he suddenly asked, "Do you remember the Our Miss Brooks show?" I said that I did. He then asked, "What was the name of the principal of the school?"
Without pausing, I said "Mr. Conklin" which amazed both of us since I had listened to that show on the radio many, many years ago.

I think there are two things going on here, being mixed.

If you use a simple storage tank or memory bank model for human memory, and If we indeed have a constant memory capacity (something roughly like fraction of memories lost per year) throughout our lives, elders will still be observed forgetting more often, because they have a much greater store of memories to have difficulty accessing.

But if you use a more correct model of what actually happens with recall -- the brain combining some salient elements of a past event into an entirely new thought that seems familiar, because it is a new story based on those salient elements, which is what we call a memory, then even slight overall cognitive decline will be most often observed as loss of memory.

If anything, the routine forgettings of daily life make more sense when you know that we don't actually replay the past when we recall, we re-create it, because there's nothing salient about most daily minutiae of life (where you put your keys, etc.) to create a good base for recall to operate with.

My bride sometimes gets frustrated with me because I'm particular about my routines; but I am so because I prefer not to waste time and effort trying to remember minutiae or get frustrated because I can't. So I let my "automated" routines do the work -- I know where the keys are because I am habituated to always put them there. I know the door is locked because I habitually lock it. I know the iron is off because I habitually pull the cord from the plug after use. By creating habits, I avoid the problem, and free up cognitive space for more important things.

That and avoid TV. It's amazing how much more you can remember if you avoid TV.

You're right, Ronni. We've been carefully trained all our lives to think of old people as increasingly forgetful, so of course now that we're old, we tend to attribute any forgetfulness to that. At least, that's often my first thought -- "Did I forget that because I'm starting to lose my memory?" Of course if it involves having misplaced something, I usually blame the dog or cat.

What immediately came to mind - again - is that we all get lumped into 65+. Science has proven it takes us longer to recall some things as we age (beginning at around 40) but clearly it's not across the board. There are an ever increasing number of 75+ people still on TV, mostly on public television, and to speak extemporaneously takes substantial memory retention .

Changing that one classification might go a long way toward changing societal attitudes. If 15-24 matters actuarily, then the other end needs to be changed to 65-74, 75-84, 85-94, and 95-104. Now THAT would tell us something.

So I'm off to start another petitition.....

Saw a sign in NY City that said "Don't even think of parking here."

How would the cops know what anyone was thinking.

You could just say you were thinking about something else, like that time I was eating a slice of pizza while ironing work blouses. (What a mindless chore that was.)

Hold on.

This happened sometime in my thirties.

Done ironing, I unplugged the iron, wrapped the cord around it, opened the fridge and placed the steaming iron beside the blue cheese.

Then I picked up my slice of pizza, walked over to the cupboard and "what the heck just happened?"

Rushed back to the fridge, saw cheese soldered to iron.

Oh oh.

Felt like an idiot.

I told my mom, who made me act the scene out over and over, while she rocked in her reading chair, emitting explosive, gut-busting screams of laughter.

This one of many similar events is reason number two million why I never say a word about forgetfulness around my ninety-something year old mom.

There is nothing wrong with her memory.

My memory has been legendary throughout my life -- if anyone wanted to quickly know who was in what movie or television show or what politician said what, all they did was turn to me. I am losing that ability, but, then, who cares who was in that movie or television show today? I can still amaze myself when such trivialities pop into my mind. There was a time when I could have won the grand prize on "Jeopardy," but I couldn't qualify as a contestant today and don't really care anymore. I was on "Jokers Wild" as a contestant many, many years ago, but I didn't win, but it was an honor just to be a contestant and I did it as a lark anyway...

I grew up with great respect for my elders. All of them were strong-minded, strong-willed people, men and women, who were successful in their endeavors and who tolerated no nonsense from anyone. That didn't mean that there were no comments behind their backs from a few relatives who may have resented their elders' power, but it meant that children and grandchildren generally treated their elders with respect and that respect grew as the years passed; it did not diminish because the elders became more elderly. When my grandfather fell and broke his hip and began to lose his memory, it was seen as a severe tragedy, not something comical.

I'm not sure how or when it became a joke that older people's faculties fade away as they age. It does happen to some of us, but others don't seem to be affected at all. It is not universal, although younger people seem to think that it will happen to us all. I think it is disrespectful, but I don't make a big deal of it... Look at the ages of the Senators, Congressmen and state Governors -- if we all lose our memories as we age, we'd better start replacing ALL of them pretty soon!

Pre-elder, love that terminology. My short term memory has never been good so a place for everything and everything in its place is my first line of defense.

Some memory (not dementia obviously) can improve with practice. Ten years ago, I was in a senior ladies dance troupe (my 60's). Dancers must remember the steps and formations... since they cannot carry notes. This was difficult for all of us at first but it became easier with time and practice. Yes, the younger ladies had a somewhat easier time than the older ones but there was not a huge difference.

The surprise to me was that my memory for other things improved during that time of daily dance memorization. I could memorize piano pieces and French verbs, remember the grocery list and my calendar more easily than before. Location of keys and reading glasses was still a problem.

When the troupe dissolved, I returned to my previous state of forgetfulness...

I don't want to rain on anybody's parade , but I am going to throw something into the mix.

I have always had trouble remembering names and some of my most embarrassing situations were the result of introducing people and having their names completely vanish as I said. "May I introduce --??"

However, I have noticed a difference in my short term memory issues now. Names still go missing, but now adjectives and adverbs have been added to the list. These are words that I have used all my life and words that I would never have forgotten a few years ago. My vocabulary is riddled with missing words. Time was when the missing word would come to me in the middle of the night (if not before), but now it's just gone and without a thesaurus or a dictionary I would not be able to retrieve it. And I must say, it frustrates me no end.

I read something recently suggesting that older people are more efficient in what we 'bother' to remember. I can relate to that!

I just wanted to add, that as a daughter of someone with increasingly severe dementia, the press is helpful.

I always was absent-minded, have been since childhood. My mother used to say in exasperation, "Sylvia, you'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on!"

I've always mislaid gloves, keys, and glasses. It doesn't worry me that I still do. If it's happening a bit more often, and that may be so, it's not enough to get in my way. I am used to coping with mislaying things.

But I never used to mislay words. When writing, the turns of phrase that come to my mind now are often not the ones that best express my meaning, but rather, words that are lazily hanging about in my mind still, because I just used them! I find myself having to go back and edit out these jangly echoes. More and more I must resort to an online thesaurus to jog my memory. This never used to happen. It is a change.

I also used to be a computer programmer. I can't be one any more. I can't remember code details correctly from two pages back to use them in the current page. I know a lot of tricks to get around this, but they're time-consuming. They make me too inefficient to justify anyone paying me a salary. Moreover, as the layers of tricks started nesting more and more deeply, they required too much memory agility in remembering what the heck I meant to do next! Ultimately, it was a losing game. I'm no longer able to do it.... and that's all right.

My mother lost her mind to Alzheimer's. In her last years, she got to the point where she couldn't recognize me. Yet... there was still a sweet, loving person in there. At her core, there was continuity with the woman who had been a quiet little girl, and a schoolteacher, and a young wife, and a homemaker, and an artist, and a grandmother. She wasn't sure who I was, but she could tell from my manner that I was someone who cared about her, and it made her happy.

It distressed me a lot at the time, seeing her like that. And yet, as I think about the possibility that I might go the same way.... maybe it's all right. Maybe it won't be so dreadful after all. We don't fret about the fact that a newborn doesn't understand anything about the world. It's no tragedy, we know, it's only a stage. The baby is already a real person. Maybe it's time to make room for the idea that at the other end of life, for those who are fading gradually away... they are also going through a stage. They are still real.

Wish I could agree, but I used to have really great memory and I began to notice its demise years ago in my early 60's. I do not have dementia, but I no longer have a great memory. It is a natural part of aging.

It's not so much that I have trouble remembering things as much as it is remembering lots of things at the same time. I can remember that I have a doctors appointment, but forget that I have a lunch date the same day. I believe that the brain is like the hard drive on my laptop. There is just so much info you can store there. Every once and a while you have to delete some stuff, like everything before 1960. And don't forget to defragment too.

When I was about thirty I went to a large shopping center. When it was time to leave---- I had no idea where I parked my car---I had to have security drive me around until I found it.

At that time I just felt embarrassed --- imagine today at my age how I, not to mention the security guard or anyone I would relate the incident to, would feel about my mental health.

As you have heard, there are "lumpers" and "splitters", we can say there are people who always paid attention to little details and people who never paid much attention. Suddenly we are all lumped together as being "old people". I say, No, some of us have always noticed and mostly remembered the details and others didn't. I don't think that changes as we get older. I resent that I am being lumped by the younger writers (and medical people) with everyone over 65. I have the kind of memory for visual detail I've had all my life, other have other kinds of memory. They may remember all the names of their grade school teachers. I don't. I remember exactly what the classrooms looked like. Maybe we all misplace a keys a little more frequently but that is a very minor part of how our mind works - it is not indicative of much at all.

The disturbing thing for me when I misplace something is that I am alone. It's up to me to find whatever or replace it. Sometimes I just want to have someone look after me for a while.

I forgot to post this the other day. My aunt, who is 98 in December, told all of her nieces "the nouns go first." Because I have some background in linguistics, I started to watch. I was about 60 then. Over the years, I have seen that she is exactly correct. No one forgets verbs! We just forget nouns. We moved to a new town recently, and I have suddenly begun writing the town in which I grew up, where I have not lived for 50 years, as part of our address. The brain is so, so interesting. And all of this is so, so natural. I'm grateful to have known so many, many of my "foremothers," and to be able to learn from them about the complexities of aging.

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