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If Memory Serves, Forgetting Isn't Unusual

Short-term memory can sometimes be in disarray (who is that actor?) causing worry to creep in

By Jill Smolowe

During a recent (and these days rare) domestic social gathering, a friend asked for a piece of information that required me to consult the computer in my home office. When I returned to the living room, I realized that I'd left my glasses in my office. I made a U-turn, got distracted by something on my desktop screen, then returned to the gathering — again sans glasses. Frustrated, I made a third trip. 

An older woman writing in her calendar so that she doesn't forget. Next Avenue, short term memory, forgetting, forgetfulness
Credit: Getty

"Cannot believe I just did that," I said.

"Why not?" one of my friends responded. "I do it all the time." That was greeted by a round of knowing laughter. Despite the range in our ages, from late 50s to early 70s, all four of us are suffering memory slippages.

"Do you have that thing where you can't remember if you already saw a movie on TV?" I asked, hoping my bid for validation didn't sound too pathetic.

"All the time," another friend said. "I call it up, then realize a few minutes in that I've already seen it."

"How about not realizing you've seen it until about ten minutes from the end?" I said. Mostly sympathetic murmurs. One appalled gasp.

"Do you have that thing where you can't remember if you already saw a movie on TV?" I asked, hoping my bid for validation didn't sound too pathetic.

Whatever the degree of dysfunction, there's no getting around that it's happening to us, that aging thing where your short-term memory is in disarray and you can't tell if it's a normal byproduct of aging or a precursor to something insidious.

My husband, who at 72 is six years older than I, thinks it's to be expected. My memory, he reassures, is just fine.

This, of course, is coming from a man who thinks it's normal for every TV viewing event to start with a sentence like, "Hey, isn't that the guy on, oh s***, what's the name of that show, you know, the one set in France, or wait, maybe it was Spain, anyway, you know the one where there's a burglary, or maybe it was a killing."

The miracle is that Bob and I almost always know which actor and which show the other is speaking of. More amazing, we share certainty of where we've seen an actor — even when we're completely wrong.

'What Have We Seen Him In?'

Recently we watched a film starring a guy who looked familiar. "We know that guy," I said, my usual bid to, please, fill in the blank.

"Yeah, we do," Bob responded, his usual way of signaling, I can't.

Me: "What have we seen him in?"

Bob: "Can't remember."

The next night, the same actor popped up in a comedy film. Halfway through, it came to me in a blinding flash.

Me: "That's the guy from 'Six Feet Under'!"

Bob (clearly impressed): "Sure. That's right."

We both smiled. A triumph over aging! That is, until I consulted Wikipedia and discovered that I'd mixed up my actors. Turns out the one I was looking for was the star of "Community." (Respectfully, I submit that Joel McHale looks a lot like Peter Krause.)

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Bob regards such memory blips as amusing and isn't the least bit concerned. Me, I worry that it might be evidence of early-stage Alzheimer's.

My daughter offers reassurance that isn't exactly reassuring. "Mom, your memory's always been bad."

I've Been Setting Reminders for Years

She's right. I've been compensating for years. It started in my 30s when I began keeping a list of friends' and relatives' birthdays so I'd remember to send a card. I refused to be deterred when one friend told me that my card "didn't count" because I didn't actually remember her birthday. (I stopped sending her cards after that. Oddly, her birthdate is now firmly lodged in my brain.)

In my 40s, I began leaving scribbled reminders around the house of things I needed to do. In my 50s, I kicked it up a notch, each night making a list of the next day's scheduled phone calls and appointments that I would keep on my desk all day to make sure I didn't forget anything.

Now in my 60s, I not only have a list, but I set the alarm on my phone app to beep ten minutes before a scheduled engagement. Never mind that sometimes I then have to look at my list to see what exactly I'm being reminded to do. Bottom line: I get it done!

For the longest time, I blamed these memory lapses on menopause. But with such considerations well in the rearview mirror, newer concerns hover. Is this normal? Should I get tested? Would I believe the results, either way?

There are still days when my short-term memory glows with the sharpness of its younger self.

For me, the slippage, while frustrating, has not yet escalated to full-blown worry. My online canvas of early warning signs offered by the medical community all come up negative. I don't forget appointments and events. (Then again, I do make a hell of a lot of lists.) I don't have trouble focusing, planning or making decisions. I suffer neither confusion nor unfamiliar moods.

Then, there are my own medically-unsanctioned benchmarks. There are still days when my short-term memory glows with the sharpness of its younger self. Two days after fumbling for an actor's name or a movie title, it will suddenly appear, unbidden. 

No less reassuring, there are my friends' battles with memory, friends whom I know to be mentally agile. One friend, for instance, recently missed a Zoom call that a group of us had rescheduled around his work demands. Come our 8:00 p.m. call time, he was AWOL.

"I am so sorry!" he emailed later. "[Work] tired me out so much that after eating an early dinner I fell asleep. I did not check my calendar."

Rather than stirring concern or aggravation, his words felt like a bountiful gift. Hey, he gets tired after a busy work day, too! And look, I'm not the only one who needs to consult written reminders!

As for his 8:00 p.m. bedtime, that left me feeling downright youthful. Me, I make it to 11:00. Well, most nights … if memory serves.  

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit jillsmolowe.com. Read More
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