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The Red Pin Of Memory, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:01am


You all have some strong and intelligent opinions about aging. So, I thought, as a newly minted 67-year old, I might talk about my experience of my changing memory.

This feels very intimate, to discuss the inner working of my mind, but also useful for me, so thank you in advance.

A few facts.

As a teenager, I could memorize like a queen. As an indicator, I was cast in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, as Antigone, and I memorized my entire part (so many lines) in one weekend, pretty much just by reading it. Twenty years later, with young kids, and a full time job, I had begun to call myself forgetter-head so as to soften the fact that several times I forgot school commitments. But I still remembered much.

My mother died at 86 of Alzheimer’s, having lost enough memory by 80 that she needed her extended family to wear name tags at her birthday party. My father died at 91, pretty much still sharper than I am now. With my mother’s diagnosis, I began to watch myself more carefully, because we can’t know which way we will go. Here’s what I saw, and see:

  • Cooking from recipes became harder, as I couldn’t just read something through and remember. I’d have to keep looking back and forth between saucepan and cookbook, which reduced the Zen-ness, a lot.
  • Stuff like dates, appointments, little letters and numbers signifying time, if I didn’t write them down I’d forget. Even if I do write them down, I might forget if I don’t set a reminder and I get going on some task or other.
  • Habits that are so ingrained they take no cognitive capacity at all are hardest to change. If I have always done something one way, and I decide to do it another, I may forget my new intent 2/5 of the time.
  • Back in my job as a salesperson (selling contracts for the delivery of liquid nitrogen to semiconductor manufacturers, what a life!) I discovered I could do sums in my head. After high school pre-calculus, as one of only two girls, both mocked, this was a secret gold medal. Now, as I age, it gets harder to hold the various decimal registers in my mind (thousands, hundreds, ones) without writing them down.

And here’s what I believe is happening:

  • Old habits stick because it’s very hard to overwrite what I learned young. Sometimes if I’m not paying attention I even put cooking spoons in the drawer where they went 20 years ago. The body remembers, as they say, and autopilot is hard to turn off.
  • The smaller the unit of memory, the harder it is to hold. Numbers, letters, very hard. Words, tricky. Phrases, easier. Images, and sounds, high resolution as they are, easiest.
  • It sometimes feel not as though I forget things, but as though they never entered my memory in the first place. I write that in bold because it’s such a strange and vivid perception. I have always been if anything too porous. To find now that information might pull up to my thinking machinery and find no purchase on its surface is astonishing.

So here’s what I’m doing:

  • Only thing of note, really. I work on adding weight to that which I must remember. I embellish my commitments; I envision them. When I want to remember numbers, I say them out loud and the sound makes them stickier. Finally, sometimes when I want to try remembering something without computer reminders, I imagine that I am sticking that thing–that fact, that idea, that commitment–into my actual brain with a imaginary red pushpin. Which sounds brutal but doesn’t feel so. It’s like puncturing the skin of stubborn time, if time were a bubble, refracting. (I didn’t say this would make sense).
  • Also I do the other stuff we already know of from a million internet articles: Beans and greens vs. steak and fries, less and less alcohol, more and more exercise, keep learning, stay connected, focus on the positive parts of getting older. That information is readily available. I have found far fewer accounts of aging from inside still capable minds.

So I am very curious to hear your experience of memory, if you are inclined to share. We inhabit our beings, but spend much of our youthful capacity coping, and caring for others, and getting by. Now we might have time to more deeply observe how we ourselves function. I am happy to do so in your company, to the extent which it might interest you.

Have an extraordinary weekend.


45 Responses

  1. More than a few times, even recently, I’ve tried to load dirty dishes into the oven because that’s where the dishwasher was 9 years ago before we remodeled the kitchen. Some memory slips are jarring, such as when I sat down at my sewing machine and it took me a moment to remember how to thread it.

    1. So interesting, how we seem to store some memories in our body which is quite a different experience than, say, remembering the names of things or not

  2. It is very reassuring to read your experiences, thank you! I am 61 and find my biggest problem is that “last in first out ” problem – If I think of something I need to say it immediately or I forget it when it is finally my turn to talk. My husband and I are starting to defer to each other in conversation based on who thinks they will remember the item longer! These are not deep memories, more thoughts that have just popped into my head; they have no traction and flee if I don’t do something with them asap (write them down, say them or do the action if that is the case).

    1. That is a lovely way to jointly handle conversation, as short term memory becomes a little less agile.

  3. At 64 my memory and mind are holding up very well. My dad died at 97, still fluent in 4 foreign languages and able to do calculus problems in his head. My mother is almost 95 and has had a little cognitive decline and slight memory loss; her doctor says she does not have dementia. Relatives on both sides of the family have held up very well in their final years, so I am hopeful I will too. I still ski every winter weekend and ride horses 4 days a week. I walk 4 miles up and down steep hills with my dog at 5:30 every morning. Most of the other early walkers I see daily are in their 80s; I want to be out there when I’m their age.

    1. Well it sure sounds like you have a good chance at it! Four miles a day is a lot, and good for you.

      My goal is to get back to the fitness level I had before COVID, and then celebrate like heck if I can arrive at 70 at that same level. It’ll take work, but I don’t mind.

  4. What a great description of the feel of this! I’m 72 and I too had a great memory when young. (Not perhaps for great gobs of Sophocles!) I could recall and repeat long conversations verbatim, could read a recipe once and make it, and I could read texts once and get As. It was handy.

    That capacity has eroded over the years. It dimmed especially when I was juggling children, work, side interests, volunteering etc. Though I could usually conjure my complex calendar quite accurately in those days.

    I think it’s not accidental that was a period of multi-tasking. A split attention certainly diminishes my memory-making. Another factor seem to me the move to screens rather than concrete items like books and wall calendars. I can spell accurately or think of a passage because I can see it in my mind’s eye (mental screen) but it gets there best via physical and visual experience. Somehow the screen, tho visual, is evanescent and less particular. Finally the less structured life of retirement is disorienting to me. (Wait! It’s Tuesday?!)

    Age is clearly a factor (The factor) in losing that sharp memory. And determining if my current condition is okay or early pathology concerns me. I head a board in a small nonprofit and I am vexed that I can’t clearly recall what was said at prior board meetings. But my friends there reassure me that I’m doing fine. We are all fuzzy together about those details, and most are younger than I. Ha!

    Thanks for this. I’m going to attend more closely to the granular feel of memory, whether working or elusive. May try your red pin imagery.

    1. Helpful insights, thank you. Yes to the multitasking impact, and I hadn’t thought of it, but I would bet that yes to moving away from the differentiated sensory inputs of paper and housed paper to a more universal “a is the little finger, t is the pointer” typed interface. I mean, I have no scientific background, and my hypothesis could be false pattern recognition, but we have to have a lot of failed hypotheses before we prove the correct one, right?

      And I can’t agree more on the less structure in retirement. Also, I repeat my actions more frequently, without the demands of a job, and who can remember if this is today’s cup of tea or yesterday’s? P.S. Not wanting to claim more capacity than ever I had, it was Anouilh’s Antigone, in translation, so at 14 I could absorb it;).

  5. Happy birthday, Lisa! Your memory is better than mine — COVID took a lot from me. I hope it will eventually return. Focus on joys both grand and quiet (so many joys can even be both at once), and have a wonderful birthday weekend. <3

    1. I hope it returns all the way too! For me it’s lung capacity and heart rate that remain affected. I want to add, for me, focusing on the changes of age does not diminish my joy. If anything, looking at my mind clearly makes me happier than focusing on other stuff. I like to know as much as I can, see as clearly as I can, just what’s going on. If that makes sense.

  6. Happy birthday! I’ve also been thinking about memory this past year or more (for an arts project) and reading about it. I found this book to be quite interesting: Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting by Lisa Genova. She addresses what you mention about actually not even storing some things to memory (because of lack of attention given to the thing). Quite an interesting book. I’ve also been reading about sleep because that’s also come up in the books on memory and burnout, etc. And sleep is essential for health and storing memories. I’m currently working my way through this one: Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker PhD. It’s convinced me how essential sleep is, and I’ve changed my habits to prioritize sleep because of this book. It’s the only preface I’ve seen where the author literally says he’d be please if you feel asleep reading his book. :)

    1. Thank you for the resources. I am clearly going to need to ground my thinking/observations in some expert information;). As for sleep, I certainly feel that since I stopped drinking so often, I started sleeping much better, and since I started sleeping much better, my memory does seem to have healed a bit.

  7. My mother died of Alzheimer’s at 92 in 2019 and I have probably been worrying too much about my mental health but how can I not after watching this intelligent, talented, loving woman slowly slip away for eight years? I do find at age 71 I have to check my calendar every day, where I used to keep track of it in my head. I feel such a relief when I remember the name of a high school friend or words that had suddenly elude me pop into my head. I don’t know what is “normal” and what is a sign I am losing my memory. But I have decided I cannot diminish my joy in life by worrying about Alzheimer’s. I am doing everything I can, (exercise, healthy diet, NY Times puzzles, creative activities) and hoping for the best.

    1. It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? How not to let the possibilities suck the joy out, but still pay some attention to how we’re doing! I too feel that relief, a thrill almost, when I remember something I worry for a moment I may have forgotten. For me, if I can stay somewhere reasonable in terms of actual life troubles, the sheer joy of being alive will be available to me, and that allows me to balance the worry.

  8. Somehow the topic of “that English actor we love” came up in my book club – six women in their late 60s or early 70s. We could collectively remember he played Cromwell in Wolf Hall, the ship captain in Dunkirk, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies but not one of us could remember his name. We had to Google Bridge of Spies on a phone to remember.

    1. I love this. And I also feel like forgetting actors’ names in our 6th or 7th decades is wholly understandable, memory loss or no, simply because the candidate list will have expanded over time! Handsome short guy with brown hair and a hooked nose could be any one of 8 men!

  9. Are you serious? I’m 82 and can’t remember the word for fence!!!! I never was a genius anyway. But I find searching for words very frustrating. On the other hand when I’m recording a YouTube video I don’t seem to be at a loss for words. As long as I don’t have to say fence or …. What is the word for ??????

  10. I just hit 76 and have had experiences similar to most of those reported by others. Within the past year (very late!) I’ve been diagnosed as ADHD, which was kind of a relief. My basic cognitive level is deemed normal. The worst thing I’ve done recently was to convince myself that a doctor’s appointment was at 1:00 PM, even though I had written it down correctly as 10:00 AM in the notebook that goes everywhere with me. I work several word puzzles every day and I’m going to resume my Morning Pages, a la Julia Cameron, October 01. My parents were both sharp too the end. My maternal grandmother both developed Parkinson’s in their early 70’s and some dementia during their final years about ten years later. Both cases of dementia were suspected of being given a push by a bad fall.

    I live alone but even during the early covid years there were friends wh made sure to check on each other regularly, and only somewhat less often now that the isolation has also lessened.

  11. Any typos above are due to my balky “o” key. I still know the difference between to and too, and how to spell who, so there! lol

    1. Ha! I feel like a balky “o” key is a deep metaphor for something, I just don’t know what;). I too have convinced myself of incorrect appointment times. That seems, fingers crossed, to have gotten little better, as I’ve gotten more deeply involved in activities with actual schedules.

  12. Lisa, Thanks for your blog. I enjoy your writing . The informations and insights have always been interesting and helpful. Thanks, Peggy

    1. Thank you very much. I never know in advance if anything I write will be useful or entertaining, per se, so I really appreciate the occasional, “Well yes it was!”

  13. My dad died at the very young age of 77, my mom recently at 91 – both were sharp as ever until the day they died. I retired from my career in government at the earliest possible moment at 55, I’m now 68. After I “retired” I took a year off then went back to work full time, then part time, currently I work 15-20 hours a week from home, doing similar work (civil engineer) as a consultant. My job requires me to remember a lot. What I noticed right away at 55 was I immediately stopped remembering any new persons name and at first it scared me then I realized I just didn’t care as much as I once did. I still have trouble remembering peoples names. My biggest issue is I forget things if I’m doing too many things at once and so I write things down. I’m planning on stopping work for good after the first of the year and wonder if freeing up that brain space will make a difference.

    1. I have such great respect for you having become a civil engineer in the first place! And the retirement question is a big one. Again, a balance, yes to less stress and more open brain space, but also how to replace the cognitive exercise the work provides? It’s a big question, but a fun one, I’ve found.

  14. I’m familiar with the ‘never entered my memory in the first place’ situation.
    I’ve never had a flash type memory. I’m a terrible speller and memorizing things takes a lot of effort on my part, although if I do something over and over I eventually do remember it. I’m much better at remembering narratives. The story of how the soup goes together gets me through cooking.

    The ability to focus is my flashpoint. If I’m upset, distracted, uninterested, too busy, particularly angry — my ability to remember new things is bad.

    I avoid things about ‘do you have signs of dementia’. If I do then I do — no need to let something I can’t do much about steal the joy from my life today.

    Have a joyful Birthday, and a good year!

    1. I find those “signs of dementia” articles to be almost 100% useless. It all depends a bit on where you start, what anything might mean. It sounds as though you’ve developed a real understanding of how you think and process, requiring focus, which to me is something good no matter which direction this all goes.

  15. Happy Birthday, Lisa.

    My dad had dementia so I share your interest in keeping tabs on memory and mental capacity especially now that I am 77.

    I can remember lying in bed one night trying to remember the word for skirting -board (what comes between the wall and the floor?) . Quite often if I just relax, words or names of people will come to me and the relief is wonderful. I do keep a diary/journal and find it helpful in recording everyday life which may seem dull at the time but is interesting to re read years later.

    Lists are my friend and I rely on them for shopping, bill paying, book suggestions and so on; calendars are great for appointments but I need back up via mobile phone alarms.

    I am not as good at cryptic crosswords as I used to be and quite often cannot understand some of the answers. Reading is still a pleasure and lately listening to books is an even greater pleasure. Gardening is my major exercise but it’s becoming a bit of a struggle. Ho hum.

    On a lighter note, I’m taking a friend to see a production of Oklahoma! for her 80 birthday and I was amazed to find myself singing in the kitchen this morning and remembering most of the lyrics to a couple of show tunes (I am notorious for forgetting or mixing up lyrics).

    1. Oh, terms like “skirting board,” for which you probably had a real need at some point, and therefore knew, but did not get exercised enough sufficiently to stick around, can be infuriating! Because we know we used to know them, and can sometimes almost feel the husk in our minds of where that knowledge used to live.

      I love that you remembered the lyrics, without effort. Those moments are such gifts.

  16. I definitely say things out loud to myself if I want to remember them—especially numbers. I have found that I can pull up the memory of the sound of the words quite easily. But, I have always learned this way. When I was in college, I would read my class notes out loud to myself. It was much more effective than just reading them.

  17. Since there has been no evidence of dementia or related issues in my family, I don’t feel the level of concern re memory the way my friends who’vewatched family members slip away into Alzheimer’s do. That said, I observed a marked memory shift around menopause. I was frustrated by not being able to remember what I went upstairs to get when I could remember grade school classmates’ phone numbers and birthdays. As a college teacher, I had prided myself on memorizing student names within the first few days of class. My ability to call up specific comments from committee meetings and conversations reached its zenith ironically at the height of my multi-tasking years: when I worked full-time and was raising my family with all the attendant activities and events and roles involved in those endeavors. When I first noticed the memory slowdown, I felt betrayed by my body and even a little terrified—a what is happening to me moment, for sure. Now a decade out, I have come to terms with my aging brain and have come to understand it as the great letting go phase of my life: the earlier part of my existence was acquisitive and thus rife with the myriad negotiations that required; I am in a part of life now that is distributive. I don’t need to remember every single thing that happens or ever happened. I just need to keep showing up fully for the moments I am in.

    1. I can’t tell you how much I love this thought, these words:

      “I have come to terms with my aging brain and have come to understand it as the great letting go phase of my life: the earlier part of my existence was acquisitive and thus rife with the myriad negotiations that required; I am in a part of life now that is distributive.”

  18. It is said and very true, “Aging is not for sissies.” It is a bumpy road even in the best of times. With all the Covid around and various illnesses that come with normal ageing, we are bound to feel some temporary decline. I find, I hit a bump and then recover. That said, comparing mind/body from youth to senior there are differences. That said, with help from modern medicine and a healthy lifestyle, many can be resolved.
    For better or worse, I’ve chosen to take things in stride and live my life as I choose. I think we each come to our own approach regarding ageing and maintaining health. What works for me might not work for others.

    1. I was thinking, just like when we’re babies and our developmental milestones diverge a lot, so maybe it is as we age. The middle of age is more about choices and community and work, less about the necessities of our bodies.

  19. Interesting post and well written. Like others, I have a mother with dementia at age 92. She is following in the footsteps of her mother in terms of memory. And of course, I worry that in 20 years I will be there too.
    Dr Restak, neurologist, has written a number of books about current science: Well worth reading. Also Matthew Walker PhD
    referenced in one of the other responses–also well worth reading (he has YouTube videos as well). Thought provoking post! The fascinating thing about our minds: Why does the name of a person or thing pop up a day later?

    1. When that happens, the later popping up of the nugget you were hunting, I always imagine I can actually feel my neurons finding their old paths and shouting, “Hooray! I’m here!” Thank for the resources. I should definitely try to learn about this, rather than just thinking that what looks true is.

  20. I have a slightly different situation with a chronic illness that comes with a few different flavors of brain fog. (… but I’ve never been good at remembering names, and I’ve always been good at remembering text I’ve seen/read)

    But fundamentally, yes, it’s weird living inside a brain that’s malfunctioning, and I’d also be interested in many more first-person accounts! (and yes, the feeling of information simply slipping off the brain is a weird one)

    A friend who is a researcher in psycholinguistics is fascinated by what happens surrounding word loss (what words the brain offers instead, etc.), because the field has has various theories, but as long as everything is working correctly, it’s hard to test the theories since everything is just… working… and there aren’t any gaps in the curtain to see how it’s working, whereas when things malfunction, the type of glitches gives clues to how things are ticking. So! I’ve found that self-observation can also help turn an exercise in frustration into an interesting experiment… and that reduction in frustration helps also knock down the word loss to some degree, sometimes, which is potentially-revelatory in itself.

    May you regain your pre-COVID physical and mental levels! (and, in addition to today’s comments gold mine, I’d love to hear more about others’ internal experience of cognitive difficulties, if you ever want to lead/organize a conversation on this topic…)

    1. This! If I am my own experiment, I have quite a different perspective on any changes in memory capacity.

      “I’ve found that self-observation can also help turn an exercise in frustration into an interesting experiment… and that reduction in frustration helps also knock down the word loss to some degree, sometimes, which is potentially-revelatory in itself.”

      Sorry about your chronic illness and the brain fogs. I will do more of these kinds of posts, both looking at aging, but also exploring the inside of our minds. Don’t plan to give up shoes, or great neck creams, or spectacular earring posts, but I do want to keep this thread in our discussions here.

  21. Recipes can be so frustrating: visually jerking back and forth between instructions and ingredients list, which are not always in the order in which they are used. All in tiny type I must wear reading glasses to peer into. Using a tables feature in Word, I devised a different method of typing recipes which makes infinite sense to me but no one else, I fear. I print them out in large font so I can hang them on the wall to refer to while using. Lists of things are impossible to retain: too many characters too soon in a novel, a friend’s narration of DNA family history, those instructions in recipes, the classes my grandsons are taking in college.

    I think it is important to record my meditations, but must do so immediately or they are lost, much as dreams are lost.

    I find I have access to more memories when in the company of close, comfortable friends or family.

    When personal computers first came on the scene, I was excited, eager to learn and even introduced them into my banking workplace. Now I am annoyed at new electronic things to learn all the time. Increasingly, companies assume one has a smart phone in order to make use of their sites. I don’t even have a smart phone; why should I spend $700 on something I would use only for emergencies? When I have to pull out reading glasses to comprehend what is on screens others try to show me?

  22. The old canard about dementia is that it’s not that you forget where you put your keys, but that you forget what keys are for. Apparently all of us lose some of our quick recall ability as we age. I’d like to think that we have gained some wisdom, so maybe it’s not so bad. I suspect a lot of the issue is that we aren’t focusing as hard as we did when we worked and so of course remember less, although that’s not a complete explanation. I see no shame in writing a note on my phone of whatever I want to remember, or setting an alarm 10 minutes before I need to get on a Zoom call or leave for an appointment — far better than forgetting.

  23. I think the years of being expected to multi-task as a good thing (really? who came up with that piece of nonsense?) take their toll, especially when it came neatly packaged as something women were really good at. As if. I find the following: some things do not register as having been slotted into the memory and that is because they are not that important. Other things are very clear indeed, presumably because they are. Mostly my memory is good and flexible, sometimes to the point of being very irritating (to other people), but I genuinely believe that my brain is not prepared to store stuff it no longer thinks is of any use. The reminders app on my phone is useful but I do have a fine visual memory, so I like to use a hard-copy calendar as well. Overall I think that we are so flooded with data these days that our brains cannot/will not process it all and that makes us panic. I like to see this as constant de-cluttering. Brains stutter when they have nothing to process – it’s a fine line. I am still walking it.

  24. May I add one element (from my promontory of 81 years) to this fascinating and very thoughtful discussion: keep tabs on your hearing! Get it checked, and wear hearing aids if necessary. I know what happened to my mother (who lived to just past age 100) when she gave up her own hearing aids in her late 90s because they were “too much trouble” – she just lost track of things, and was easily lost in her own world. She still watched UT Longhorn football games and read her daily newspaper, and certainly did not have dementia – but she just stopped engaging with the outside world. And when you lose the habit of thinking, you stop thinking.

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