Gloria Steinem said not long ago, "At my age, remembering something is as good as 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 comes. 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 e-mail 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 if she could 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 e-mail. "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 e-mail. 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 e-mails afterward. And that was only three months ago!
I rushed to the computer and sent an e-mail 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 that I did remember; it just took time. The bad news was that 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 40s, 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. 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 if it was snatched into a fourth dimension.
Cathryn thought I should get tested for adult A.D.D. 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 A.D.D.? And even if I do, I don't want to take Ritalin or any drug. I'm hyper sensitive to medicines, and they all have side effects.
"OK, 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 e-mail from the woman I couldn't place, I could have searched my e-mail and calendar and her past e-mails 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 percent of the time. Focus on what you're doing while you're doing it. Don't multitask, 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. It's not easy, and 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 60s 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 any experience with this, or other suggestions?
Please leave a comment!
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