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Senior Health

Remembering - A Skill Worth Learning

How many times in your life have you wished you had a better memory? How much time have you wasted looking for your keys, wallet or eyeglasses? Have you ever left your house, gotten down the street and begun to question whether you turned off the coffeepot or locked the door? Do you avoid saying hello to someone you have met before because you don't remember his or her name? Do you tell yourself that you forget because you are getting older? You may even tell yourself that you are becoming senile. Don't give up, there is hope!

In the absence of disease, there is no reason why you cannot remember whatever you want to remember. A good memory takes concentration and practice. Remembering is a skill—just as it takes skill to play tennis, cook, sing, dance, or look your best.

You may lose self-confidence, as you grow older. Your self-assurance may be affected as you notice changes in your appearance like gray hair and wrinkles. The fear of aging may be playing tricks on you. Perhaps you are anxious or even frightened about minor forgetfulness. Ask yourself if you are distorting the importance of misplacing your car keys, forgetting someone's name or where the car is parked. At 20, you didn't give it a second thought. At 40, you decided you had too much to think about. Or you may be saying, "I must be getting senile." Your memory follows the curve of your anxiety. The more concerned you feel, the more you may forget. You may have been forgetful all your life. Or, you may have relied on someone else to remind you of appointments or of things to do.

Try to pinpoint your frustrations and the precise episodes when memory fails you. Ask yourself if you were ever good at remembering names of people, places, words of a song, books, directions, instructions, appointments, messages, errands, etc. If you were never good at remembering certain things, then why do you think you should now? If you always had a good memory, what has changed?

Answers to these questions should reveal the simple truth. Either you are in control of your memory or you are not. No matter whether you are in control or not, try the following exercises. I use them to safeguard my memory—besides the usual lists and calendar that are also helpful.

Pay attention and be alert. Stop, look and listen. Become involved in the situation you are in as it happens. Example: When you are introduced to someone new, pay attention and be alert. Look at the person (eye to eye), listen to the name, say the name out loud and think about the name. And, if you do forget a name, relax. Just say, "I am sorry, I am having trouble remembering your name." Chances are the person whose name you can't remember is having trouble with your name.

Give yourself instruction. Tell yourself what you are doing at the time you are doing it. Example: When you put your car keys down, say out loud to yourself, "I am putting my car keys on top of the cabinet." "I am turning off the iron." "I am closing the garage door."

Develop a pattern. Go through the same steps when you engage in routine activities. Example: When you come home, open the door, turn on the lights, put the keys on top of the cabinet. Always park on the same floor of the parking garage on the same side. Don't take the first place you see.

Chunk numbers. Organize and remember numbers by splitting them into chunks. Example: Break telephone numbers into three sets instead of trying to remember seven single numbers - 684-3267 - (1) 684 [six-eighty-four], (2) 32 [thirty-two], (3) 67 [sixty-seven].

Most of all it is important to develop a positive attitude. Reversal of a negative attitude about your ability to remember can in itself improve your memory.

Age well . . . Don't forget . . . Relax, Concentrate, Practice . . . Remember.

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Last Reviewed: Mar 29, 2006

Elizabeth Joyner Gothelf, BSN, MAG Elizabeth Joyner Gothelf, BSN, MAG
Assistant Director
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati