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Menopause Ate My Short-Term Memory

A listmaker finds she is even more dependent on the lifetime habit

By Jill Smolowe

My mother used to be a demon list maker. Seated by her bedroom phone table, cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, she’d dash off a long (and altogether illegible) list of action items. Often as not, she’d forget about the list. Days later when she’d happen upon it, she wouldn’t simply wad the list and toss it into the wastebasket. No. First, she had to check off each and every item with a dramatic wave of her pen. The list thing, I got. The flamboyant checking-off stuff? Not so much.

Today, flourishes apart, I follow in my mother’s footsteps as a second-generation demon list maker. But where my mother needed lists to keep track of the schedules and needs of four kids, a husband and herself, I have to keep tabs on only one: me.

My sole child is off at college. And unlike my late first husband, my second husband has no need of my administrative talents. (He’s an engineer. Enough said.) Given that I am a highly organized (OK, some might say anal) Type A person, you’d think keeping track of just me would be a snap.

But there’s the hitch: Menopause ate my short-term memory.

I don’t mean it took a dainty nibble. I mean it scarfed it down and digested it — forever — with a satisfied belch.

It's Only Temporary, Right?

Back at the dawn of my 40s, when I was in peak hot-flashing, night-sweating mode, I didn’t know what to make of the growing holes in my recall. Because I’d hit menopause at a precociously early age, I had no friends with whom to compare notes. In search of assurance that my memory outages were normal, I turned to books about menopause, wherein expert after expert reassured that such memory lapses were temporary. My marbles and I would be reunited.

In anticipation of that day, I began keeping lists as a stopgap measure. Nothing fancy. A pad on the corkboard by the fridge to jot down grocery items as they needed replacing. A pad by the kitchen phone to jot down errands in need of running. A pad in my purse to note things that required attention on the go (like on which level and in which row of the public garage I’d parked my car; no way I’d remember that an hour from now).

I didn’t notice how prolific a listmaker I’d become until the morning I went into the master bathroom and discovered a sticky affixed to the mirror with a loving list penned by my first husband: “Brush teeth. Get dressed. Go to work.”

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Not Worried, Until...

By my late 40s, the flashes and sweats were well behind me, yet my short-term memory was still AWOL. Clinging to the experts’ assurances, I remained optimistic and blithely tended to my lists. Just little prompts. Nothing to freak out about …

… until the day I picked up the phone to call my editor of several years and blanked on her name. Completely. I had to run my eyes down the magazine staff list tacked to my office bulletin board to retrieve it. I found that moment so horrifying and embarrassing that I made it a point to tell colleagues and friends about it — just to make sure I could still laugh.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Now, having turned the corner on 60, I’ve given up hope that my short-term memory will find me. Whatever remnants remain after the ravages of menopause are now under siege by a host of new predators: a deteriorating hippocampus; protein declines; decreased blood flow to the brain. The list goes on. (Want to freak yourself out? Google “aging memory loss.”)

I’ve come to accept that listmaking is no longer a casual one-off from my routine. It is the very heart of my routine.

Every night before heading to bed, I sit at the counter by my kitchen phone and pull out my day calendar. (Yes, I still use one. It beats wrestling with the teeny letters on my iPhone keypad.) After deciphering my scratchings, every bit as illegible as my mother’s, I construct a list of the next day’s activities, which I then leave on the kitchen table for consultation throughout the following day. First comes a chronology of appointments, then items I can shoehorn in whenever.

More Scribbling

Over time, my prompts have grown more detailed. Where “Call Dad” would once have sufficed, now it’s “Call Dad, ask about eye doctor visit.”

You may wonder how, if I have no short-term memory, I know to ask my father how his eye appointment went. So glad you asked! When, say, a week earlier, he tells me he’s made an Oct. 28 appointment with Dr. So-and-So to get his eyes checked, I write “Call Dad (eyes)” on the Oct. 28 space of my day calendar. A week later, when I ask the appropriate question on the right day, Dad thinks I’m a concerned, loving daughter who remembers every detail of his life — which, of course, I don’t since I can’t remember the details of even my own life.

But people don’t quite believe that. So, I arm myself with such memory prompts for all the important people in my life. Well, with one exception: My husband. No way I can keep track of all his daily comings and goings. It makes for a lot of awkward moments that sound like this:


Him: “I’m heading out.”

Me: “Where you going?”

Him: “To lunch with So-and-So.”

Five hours later:

Me: “So, what did you do today?”

Him: “I had that lunch I told you about.”

Me: “What lunch?”

I can only hope he knows I care.

Lately, I’ve had to kick my memory prompts up a notch. Where I used to get away with the list I made each night, now I require addendum jottings throughout the day. If, say, I put a load of laundry in the washing machine, I then need to put a note on the kitchen table that reads, “Laundry” to remind me to transfer the clothes to the dryer. After I complete that transfer, I jot another note, “Dryer,” to remind that there are clothes in need folding. If I don’t do this, the load may sit in the washing machine for days.

At this point, my jottings take up so much time it’s amazing I have time left over to execute the things on my lists.

But here’s the thing: While my friends are only now beginning to freak out about short-term memory loss (I was watching…you know, the show set in Moscow? No, wait, Egypt?...anyway, the one with…Damn! What’s his name? He used to play a doctor on…), I’m at peace with my lapses. After two decades of living with memory outages, I know that my brain can still attach itself to problems of enormous complexity and emerge with satisfying conclusions.

I can still cogitate. Concentrate. Contemplate. Deliberate. Evaluate. Meditate. Ruminate. Whatever-else-ate. I just can’t remember. And for that? I have lists.


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 Read More
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