“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” - William James
It’s difficult to talk about aging and memory without the specter of Alzheimer’s and other dementias looming in the background. The people whose lives are touched by these heartbreaking illnesses deserve nothing less than our compassion and respect.
The memory issues that I have in mind can be best explained by the following vignette that I find myself involved in with alarming regularity:
Husband: What are you looking for?
Wife: My phone.
Husband: Again? (Immediately regretting both the tone and inflection of this response.)
Wife: Yes, and maybe you can try to help me find it. (In no way regretting the tone, inflection and body posturing.)
Husband: Well, let me get mine and I’ll call yours. (Awkward pause and frantic realization that whereabouts of said phone is currently unknown.)
Wife: Please don’t tell me you forgot my number.
Husband: (False tone of incredulity) No . . . (Sheepishly) I’m not sure where I left my phone.
Wife: Well, you have the find my phone app on your iPad, use that.
Husband: Already on it.
Wife: And . . .
Husband: Umm . . . yeah . . .it’s password protected.
Wife: Ok, and?
Husband: I don’t remember the password.
That’s the memory I’m talking about – slips of the brain gears that are, at best, frustrating and, at worse, panic inducing. On the bright side, these times are not so much problems with memory as they are perfecting the art of forgetting. (In the psychotherapy field we call this a “reframe,” and it’s a tried-and- true method of staving off the heebie-jeebies by turning a negative into a positive.)
This brings up an interesting dilemma. Neuroscientists gave us Grayers the ultimate pick-me-up recently when they pronounced that the aging brain can still grow and make changes. Neuroplasticity, as it’s known, is the brain’s ability to remain malleable throughout the life cycle. This means that the loss of cognitive functioning is not as inevitable as once thought. However, despite the best news in aging since the invention of the Clapper, many of us still feel that, rather than neuroplastic, we’re dealing with Silly Putty up there. So which is it? Is memory purely a function of our brain cells which we need to “use or lose?” Or, is there an even more complex relationship going on that results in memory being as much an art form as a science?
As evidence of the latter, I offer another quick story that came about while I was working in a senior behavioral health program and administering free cognitive tests that were meant to catch early signs of dementia. As a quick aside, I have also taken these assessments, and there are few things in life more anxiety producing than trying to remember what the date is, and who is currently the president, while someone is calculating the decline of your brain cells. It’s enough to make your mind go blank.
One day, a gentleman in his mid-fifties came to my office to take one of these assessments. During the gathering of standard background information he informed me that his wife had suggested that he come because, “She says that whenever she sends me to the store with a list of things to buy, I invariably forget at least half of the list.” He seemed genuinely concerned about this, despite reporting that as far as he could remember (pun intended) he was not having any other problems with his mind.
He subsequently completed the assessment in record time, and I humbly shared that he did far better on it than I would have. I added that, not only were there no indications that he had dementia, he could very well be the new poster child for Neuroplasticity. (I believe he was somewhat disappointed when I told him there was no such thing as a poster child for this brain function.)
While his relief was evident, so was his bewilderment. He asked, “Then what is it?” With as much decorum as I could muster, I responded, “What you do have is a raging case of hubandringitis.” He looked stunned, so I explained. “You see, it’s an inflammation that arises in your ears at the sound of your wife’s voice.” The perplexed look still on his face, I cut to the chase. (Sometimes, we professionals bear the burden of delivering bad news.) “Start listening to you wife; you can’t remember what you never heard.”
To be continued…