MOMENTS of forgetfulness are among those small blows to self-esteem that can lead people to worry about declining intelligence or impending dementia. Those moments of dreadful realisation that you have forgotten an important appointment, the pungent smell of burning reminds you of the vegetables you put on to cook two hours ago? Or worrying in a meeting whether you turned off the heater or locked the door?
Forgetting like this is all to do with ‘prospective memory’ or accurately remembering something you want to do in the future. The difficulty with this kind of memory is recalling information without any clues at all – unless you create them for yourself.
Prospective memory is very important for continuing confidence and independence. Unfortunately, it is one of the memory abilities that is most affected by ageing. Isn’t that Murphy’s Law! The good news is that we can find plenty of ways to make sure we remember the important things.
When I was researching memory loss across adulthood I made hundreds of visits to younger and older people over a two-year period. Several times I arrived at a door, loaded down with computer and memory testing material, only to find the person had completely forgotten I was coming. So which age group do you think was most likely to have forgotten our appointment? The older people? Guess again! Every time an appointment was forgotten it was by one of the young adult participants in the research study. Why was this?
The younger people trusted their memories and were very likely to make comments such as “I won’t forget”, “I’ve got a great memory”, or “I’ve got an internal alarm that never lets me down”. The older adults, some of them in their late nineties, were invariably ready and waiting for me, having noted the appointment on a calendar, diary, post-it note, or having my letter in a prominent place.
Dr. John Harris, a psychologist at Cambridge University, found the very same thing when he studied prospective memory. He commented that organising one’s life so as to remember to do things seems to be one of the skills which improves with maturity; older people are much more adept at relying on memory aids.
If you have difficulty with this sort of memory, try some of these memory aids.
- Keep ONE diary or wall calendar to note every event you want to remember. Rid yourself of scrappy pieces of paper and the backs on envelopes.
- If you want to keep a visual reminder of events, try using Post-It notes in different colours. You might decide on blue for meetings, pink for appointments, yellow for birthdays and so on.
- Use a timer if you are cooking on the stove-top or the oven, especially if you are going to be in another room. Find one with a loud ‘ding’.
- Ask receptionists, hairdressers, or friends to give you a reminder telephone call if necessary.
- Before you go to sleep each night, mentally run through the next day reminding yourself of engagements or tasks you want to remember. Do the same when you wake in the morning.
- When you turn off the heater or lock the door, tell yourself, out loud if possible, “I am turning off the heater now”, or “I am locking the door and putting the key into the front zip on my bag”. This creates a clear memory trace in the brain, preventing the dreaded worrying about whether you did or didn’t.
Making sure you are well organised will soon pay dividends in brushing up on prospective memory.
Phd, MA, MNZAC, MNZPsS
Dr Lamonts's Free
2-Minute, step-by-step solutions.
They are easy-to-read and easy-to-do.
Yes, please send me my Free Memory Updates.
Yes, please send me more Memory Tips each month.
We won't share your address with anyone.