The Trouble with Old People: Now, Where Was I?

by Steve Van Auken

You may have noticed that the older person in your life has become a bit forgetful. I have noticed this in some of my friends, which aroused some concern about my own mental processes. I knew my son-in-law to be an observant person so I approached him about it.

“Bob,” I said, “I want you to be brutally honest. Have I lost a step in my memory?”

“Dad,” he said, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re still sharp as a tack. Everybody says so. And my name is Curtis but I guess I can answer to Bob, too.”

Some of my peers have not been as lucky as I have. One friend of mine didn’t drive for three months. It started when he looked in the drawer where he keeps his car keys. They weren’t there. The next day they weren’t there again. Time passed. Then one day, he heard a jingling sort of sound when he opened his sock drawer.

My friend is a quick study, so after he discovered his keys, it was the work of a moment to go and check his glove compartment. Not only were his socks there, but also a cell phone that had been missing since the second Bush administration.

If you have noticed any such problems on the part of an aging relative, it is important not to panic. Some memory loss, particularly of newly formed memories as opposed to ones formed years ago, is a normal part of the aging process. I saw a study about it recently, and I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. But as I remember, it said that as we baby-boomers age, it’s very important that we exercise the part of the brain that manages new memories. So when we start getting lost on the way home from the grocery store, we should take up playing the clavichord or learn to write in Sanskrit.

This kind of study forces the aging brain to create new neural pathways. But this doesn’t happen overnight. It requires consistent practice. In the meantime, there are strategies that can help. These strategies have been extensively field tested by older people and found to be useful. We pass them along to each other at secret gatherings in the coffee shop at Barnes and Noble, and in the waiting rooms of joint replacement clinics.

One of the most useful is Strategic Hiding. To be old is to constantly meet people you sense you ought to know, but don’t. This is why you so often see us seniors moving slowly, slowly through the grocery store, parking our cart in the middle of the aisle while we carefully study the label of a can of soup. In fact, this is a ruse. We have no more interest in monosodium glutamate than you do. We could move more briskly if we wanted to. But that senior citizen blocking your path has just glanced around the corner and spotted someone she should know. She is hiding, playing for time while she tries to summon up the person’s name from deep memory.

Is it a former friend? A co-worker? Her cousin, with a new hairdo? Someone from church? If so, was this woman present when she made a fool of herself over the cute widower who sings the baritone solo in the choir? No, now she has it. This is Susan, her former neighbor. Time to move out from her sheltered position. “Oh, hello! Susan! So good to see you.” And try not to look smug, when it is clear that Susan has no more recollection of her name than she does the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.

I can tell you from personal experience that this technique works. I once hid behind a display of Seasonal Beers of the World for 10 minutes until I could remember the name of my high school guidance counselor, who was browsing the liquor shelves. He once told me that I wasn’t working up to my potential. I guess I showed him.

Another useful strategy is Denial. There are times when it seems prudent to evade the consequences of a lapse in memory. For example, if you have been married for twenty-seven years, and at midnight of the day before your anniversary you suddenly become aware of the looming catastrophe, you may feel that some denial is in order. You may report to your wife a deep need to rush to the drugstore to buy something for the rasping cough that started five minutes ago. You shouldn’t let yourself feel too guilty over this dissembling. Remember, it is only because of aging men with unreliable memories that drug stores sell candy and flowers, and why they stay open 24 hours in the first place. Our bad memories help to create jobs. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.

The technique of Strategic Substitution is taken directly from political discourse, where it has been a reliable way to obscure reality for generations. The point is to substitute something you do want to talk about for something you don’t. For example, a political candidate may find himself confronted by a reporter who tells him, “Sir, we have come into possession of a video that shows you escorting two goats into your private chambers. What do you have to say to that?” The experienced candidate will respond, “My opponent’s so called jobs plan clearly violates the third clause of the Taft-Hartley Act. What does he have to say about that?”

We seniors also use strategic substitution when we are trapped and at a loss. Recently, a friend of mine attended her high school reunion. A woman approached her, took both her hands, and said with great feeling, “I have always tried to follow the life lessons that our English teacher, Mrs. Hargrove, taught us. I treasure the memory of the discussions that you and I had afterward in the cafeteria. Wasn’t that just the best?”

My friend found herself at a bit of a disadvantage. She had no recollection at all of this woman. She remembered nothing about any English class, except the one taught by that guy with the little moustache who looked at her in a creepy sort of way. But none of that really mattered. She had Strategic Substitution to fall back on. “Oh yes,” my friend enthused. “And I remember how you loved those pretzels they had in the snack machine. Any time today I eat a pretzel I think of our Mrs. Hargrove.”

There are many ways to cope with the day to day pressures of fading memory. We are all in this together. It is important that we use our fading memories to maximum advantage. As the philosopher George Santayana wisely said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to reheat it. . . or refinance it . . . or something.”

It will come to me.