Gloria Steinem said not long ago, “At this age, remembering something is better than having an orgasm.” I get it. You try and try, then you stop trying, you think about the weather, you forget the whole thing and then, out of nowhere, bam! Here it somes. The name or word you couldn’t remember.
But how do you know if you’ve just had an age-related memory slip or if Alzheimer’s is knocking at your door?
For me, the alarm went off when I received an email from a woman whose name I did not recognize. “Hey,” she wrote, “I’m coming to Denver Friday for the state Democratic convention.” She asked if we could have dinner and could she possibly stay at my house?
Her name was vaguely familiar but I couldn’t pull up any associations. I went through the people I know who’re active in politics — nothing. I googled the woman, even saw a picture of her and still couldn’t place her. Either she knew me well enough to invite herself to stay at my home or she had outrageous chutzpah.
I sent her a cautious email. “Hi, I’m in California now so I’ll miss your visit to Denver. Really sorry. I must tell you I’ve been having memory problems lately. I have the sense that we’ve seen each other recently, but can’t bring up details. Could you remind me?”
I didn’t hear back, so I dismissed it as a crank email. The next day, while having lunch, it suddenly came to me. Oh my God! She’s the woman I stayed with for a week in Aspen while I was taking a course, “The Magic of Skiing.” She’s a friend of a friend and had generously offered to put us both up. We ate meals together, I met her family and we exchanged emails afterward. And that was only three months ago!
I rushed to the computer and sent an email telling her what had happened and that of course I remember her and she’s welcome in my house any time. She responded, “You had me worried there.”
The good news was: I did remember, it just took time. The bad news was: this was the most egregious of an accelerating string of memory lapses.
I called a friend, Cathryn Ramin, who wrote the ur-text on memory loss, “Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife.” In her 40’s, Cathryn started forgetting names of friends and common objects and had trouble focusing on her work. She made herself a guinea pig, taking batteries of tests and trying many interventions suggested by doctors and researchers who work on the cutting edge of memory and brain studies.
After speaking with her, I realized my issue is not just memory but distractibility. Here’s an example: I’ll walk to my office with a check I just received in the mail and on the way, I see a book I need to look at and laundry that needs to be moved from the washer to the dryer and when I arrive at my desk, the check is not in my hands. I retrace my steps and don’t see it anywhere. Sometimes I never find the damn thing again and wonder, was it snatched into a fourth dimension?
Cathryn thought I should get tested for adult ADD. I protested: That can’t be me. I sit at my desk all day and write with total concentration. I’m learning piano and can focus on that for hours. How could I have ADD?And even if I do, I don’t want to take Ritalin or any drug. I’m hyper sensitive to meds and they all have side effects.
“Okay then,” Cathryn said. “There’s a happier solution: You can create scaffolds for yourself that will help you focus and remember.”
The first step, she said, is to create electronic records of everything. “Become a compulsive calendar person. Stop writing your appointments in a paper diary (which I was still doing) and put everything in iCal or some other computer program. Write down every place you go, whom you see, the address and phone. It creates a record, and you can set an alarm to remind you of each appointment. Then you sync the computer calendar with the one on your phone.”
Next, she said, I shouldn’t make lists on scraps of paper in my bedroom, the kitchen and the notebook I always carry in my purse. She told me to keep lists on the computer and sync them with my phone. I had no idea how to do that, but I learned and it did bring relief. Wherever I am, I can add to or check the list on my phone or computer. No more hunting desperately for that scrap of paper that seems to have combusted in thin air. And of course I can’t remember what was on it.
When I received that email from the woman I couldn’t place, I could have searched my email and calendar and her past emails would have popped right up. But I didn’t think to do that.
The second intervention, Cathryn said, was to stop things disappearing from my hands. She told me to put a plastic bin or other special container in each room. “Put everything important – papers, glasses, mail, keys, the earrings you just took off – into the nearest bin until you’re ready to take it to its final destination.
“Every object in your life should have a permanent home, where you always put it,” she said. “If you’re holding something in your hand, put it in the nearest airstrip for departure to its home. Leave it there until you’re ready to take it to its home and when you do, hold it up and watch at it as you walk. Don’t put it down. That’s your mantra: DO NOT PUT IT DOWN!”
This sounds absurd but I was willing to try anything. I put special bowls in my bedroom, bathroom, even my clothes closet and, to my surprise, it worked! I haven’t lost anything from my hands in quite a while.
It’s really about being mindful, 100% of the time. Focus on what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Don’t multi task, don’t even think about other things you need to do and if you catch yourself, bring your attention back to the task at hand.
I’ve found that these days, I cannot talk about complex matters while I’m driving or I’ll end up at the wrong place. I can’t think about a different project while I’m cooking or the food burns.
It’s about bringing mindfulness to all parts of life, which is a good thing to practice. Not easy, no one can do it all the time, but it’s a goal to aim for. And I’m seeing results: fewer memory lapses and less stress and worry about the whole issue.
While I was putting the “scaffolds” in place, though, I remembered visiting a friend in her late 60’s who had put post-its on her TV, DVD player and other devices to remind her how to use them. Is that what’s ahead?
Do you have experience with this or any other suggestions?
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT.
A BOOK TO REMEMBER
Sally Kempton has just published “Meditation for the Love of It,” with a heartfelt introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love.” I’ve known Sally since the ‘60s, when we were starting out as journalists in New York. She was the smartest, wittiest woman I knew, an early feminist who surprised many when she became a disciple of Swami Muktananada. She’s been meditating daily and teaching for 40 years, and she brings her full arsenal of talents to this book — a practical guide on how and why to meditate, for beginners as well as long practitioners. While many start meditating to feel better, Sally says the real goal is to connect with our hearts — it’s “like a love affair with your innermost self.” To read more, click here.
WHAT BOOKS HAVE YOU LOVED?
My life feels richer when I’m engrossed in a novel, and I’m always looking for terrific ones to read. I like novels and nonfiction that are beautifully written and have wonderfully realized characters that pull you into their world and make it hard to tear yourself away. Examples are “The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer and “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. Please let me know if you have any to suggest. Thanks!