I’m sitting on the couch in the corner of the living room, the lamp beside me illuminating a jumble of flotsam on the end table below it: my wallet, scratch pad and pen, small spray bottle of eyeglass cleaner and cloth, a bag of almonds, assorted business cards, 3 tv/vcr remotes. As I compose an email, it occurs to me that I’ve been putting off the trip to the grocery store. I click ‘send,’ set the computer aside, and get up to check the refrigerator to see what we need.
I pause in front of Sally’s recliner to ask if she wants anything from the kitchen. She pauses a guided tour from the Barnes Museum, removes one earbud, asks me to repeat the question, and then tells me, ‘Thank you, but no.’
As I pass through the dining room, I notice she’s printed something that is still lying in the tray. I make a note to myself to bring it to her when I return.
I flick on the kitchen light and stop. The question forms itself quickly: Why did I come in here?
Memory. The Big Kahuna. Everyone’s worst nightmare because memory failure is an essential feature of all forms of dementia. It’s the group of errors to which we all pay exquisite attention. Not a day passes on social media when there isn’t a meme referencing the experience of going into a room and forgetting why you went there.
Sound familiar? It’s probably been happening since we were 40, but the increase in frequency draws our attention to it as we get older. You don’t need fancy neuropsychological tests to identify it. It’s just there…and becoming more commonplace…and so we worry…and the memes help us laugh about it and not feel so alone…and then we learn it’s part of normal aging and might not mean anything more…but we still worry.
At least I do…or did.
A little over a year ago, I noticed that when I had these episodes, what I had forgotten would come back to me a few minutes later when I was thinking about something else. It was a comforting to know that the thought wasn’t completely gone…I just hadn’t been able to hold it online in current, short-term memory. It was still there in intermediate memory and I was still able to access it and, more importantly, go do what I had originally set out to do.
(Before going any further, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am not a neuropsychologist, but I did take 2 graduate courses and 3 practicums in neuropsychology en route to my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Which means I have a sense of what dementia looks like and have some understanding of the basic principles of brain function. Please take what I say with a grain of salt because although I haven’t kept up with the literature, I’m not one to shy away from offering theories, observations and conjectures for discussion!)
It occurred to me that perhaps a circuit here and there had shorted out and that was what was causing periodic breakdowns in my ability to hold something in mind for 30 seconds if I wasn’t actively trying to remember it (e.g., by repeating ‘Check to see if we’re out of milk…Check to see if we’re out of milk’ over and over again as I walked to the refrigerator). If so, then maybe I could grow new connections (brain cells are very good at that!) to provide an alternate pathway around the short circuited area.
The next time it happened, then, instead of giving up and walking away, I stayed right where I was and consciously tried to recall my purpose.
It was work. It was effortful. It was successful!
Over the next few weeks, I discovered that I could reclaim the memory in 15-20 seconds. And it seemed that the more I did this, the more easily I could expose the lost trace the next time it happened.
I don’t worry too much about that kind of error anymore. It still happens, of course, but I don’t worry about it or get frustrated when it does. I know it will pass momentarily.
Now I have a new worry. It’s the same kind of thing, but it happens more quickly, within just a couple of seconds.
I can’t keep an entire 10-digit phone number in my head while dialing.
While surfing the net, I get the idea to open a new tab and check out another website, but by the time I open the tab, I’ve forgotten where it was I wanted to go. I end up staring at an empty address bar until I can reclaim my intention from its hiding place just outside of awareness.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that I’ve come up with accommodations. I copy and paste the email address instead of trying to remember it; I’ll focus on the last 7 numbers because I can quickly press the area code numbers without having to memorize them; I force myself to open the new tab and go to the target site as soon as the idea appears instead of waiting until I’ve finished reading the article that triggered the idea in the first place.
The really good news here is not that I can complete my phone call, etcetera, but that (1) I am aware that I am having the problem, (2) I can problem-solve to find an accommodation, and (3) I use the accommodation going forward. Those are all examples of what’s known as ‘executive function’ and as long as you have that working for you, you’re in relatively good shape. With a modicum of thought and effort, you’ll find your own accommodations, too, and that’s one of the keys to aging successfully.
So that’s where I find myself today: In relatively good shape and playing peek-a-boo with my thoughts.