Sunscreen on armpits?

Yesterday I put roll-on sunscreen on my armpits – somewhere that rarely sees the light — forgot the day of the week when looking up the tide times and couldn’t find my phone. I couldn’t call it since I had left the sound turned off after that disturbing movie about billboards.

Today I found the door left open all night (wide open, not just unlocked) and while cleaning out the cupboard discovered a couple of securely packed boxes labelled “jug” and “milk jug”.  I assume I got them for my sister who likes jugs, but, worryingly, have absolutely no recollection of buying them.

Google tells me they are from a pottery in the Bay of Plenty. When was I last there? I posted her the mystery jugs and hope that when I spy them in her kitchen, the memory of their acquisition will rush back in full technicolour.

Since I am writing this article, I am acutely aware of my cognitive failings. I couldn’t work out how to open my daughter’s front-loading washing machine, I struggled to learn how to play “Hare and Tortoise” with my granddaughter and I am not getting the difficult Sudokus out.

No, I didn’t lose my keys because I always put them back in one of three places. And I took careful note of where I left the car at the mall, as I routinely do, since the embarrassing incident of losing it in the airport carpark when I went to collect the gerontology professor.

Just a couple of days in the life of a baby-boomer: some days wondering if we are “losing it” and other days just getting on with our business. The fear of dementia can make us focus too much on our own perceived forgetfulness when, the fact is, all of us forget things all the time. The stigma of forgetfulness in older people is not new. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wrote,

“If a young or middle-aged man, when leaving a company, does not remember where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug …”

Memory is a complex process involving laying down information, storing and later retrieving it.

Laying down memories is called “encoding” in psychological terms. We encode things in three different ways: visual – remembering a picture; acoustic, by sound (often by repeating something to ourselves); or semantic, according to the meaning we give an event.

We can store information for the short or long term. Short Term Memory (STM) deals with information quickly forgotten when it is no longer relevant. Telephone numbers are the classic example. They are held in the mind while dialling – often encoded by saying the numbers i.e. acoustically – and then forgotten. We have to find the number again next time. Rarely-used passwords or pin numbers are like this too. STM lasts a few seconds to minutes and not many ST memories can be stored at once.

Long Term Memory (LTM) lasts a lifetime and appears to have unlimited capacity. The main method of encoding LTM is semantic, but verbal and acoustic encoding play a part too. Because they are meaningful (semantic) emotionally-charged events are often remembered more sharply than others. This might account for interpersonal differences in memory of past, shared events; we don’t recall something unimportant to us but very significant to someone else who was there.

Finally, we have to retrieve the memory from storage. STM is retrieved in the order it was given (think of the phone number or password – hard to consider recalling it backwards or piecemeal). LTM is retrieved by association – where was I, who was I with when I bought those jugs?

However, no memories ever get laid down if we are not paying attention. If we don’t notice something that is going on around us, then we will not encode or store this information.

We need to be able to focus our attention on relevant things (both externally and internally) meaning there will be some things that we don’t perceive and thus fail to retain.

I remember the story of the movie, forgot its title and never paid any attention to the actors’ names.  My interest was in what happened in the movie – the narrative. If you are on holiday the day of the week does not really matter. Once I looked at my two roll-on bottles – sunscreen and deodorant – I was able to recognise what each was for. (Failure to identify things and their function is apraxia, sometimes a symptom of dementia.)

Am I worried about my slowness at learning new skills i.e. games and new techniques (like opening the front-loader)? Well, not really. Although it is annoying to take longer to learn, that is just something we have to accept as we age. I have routines for not losing the car or the keys and should develop some for shutting all the doors. The jugs are a bother, but I am hoping I can retrieve that missing memory when I see them (association).

Knowing the ways we encode information and retrieve it gives us some clues about how we might work to improve our memories. Paying attention and developing routines is a good start. There is no point in being over-concerned about our memories. They are not as good as they once were, and we have to compensate for this.

The more we worry about our cognitive function, the worse it is likely to seem.   We will keep noticing our failures and forget that we are coping pretty well with life.

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Specialist Psychiatrist and Clinical Advisor to Dementia Auckland. Old Age Psychiatrist and Dementia. Auckland Clinical Services Advisor.