Remember this: We all forget things

Baby boomers obsessing about memory loss

May 26, 2011|Susan Reimer

I constantly forget where I put my keys and my glasses. And I bet you do, too.

I can't remember what groceries I need unless I write them down, and I tend to forget by the time I find a pen and a piece of paper. I can't remember where I was going when I decided to get up out of my chair.

I can't remember whether I sent that email or only thought about sending that email. I can't remember my passwords, so I write them down. Thank heaven for speed-dial because I can't remember telephone numbers anymore.

I can't remember book titles or the names of plants. I can't remember whether I told that story before, although I am pretty sure I did.

I can't remember how to do something on my computer, my Blackberry or my iPod unless I just did it 10 times in a row 10 minutes ago.

I can't remember your first name or where I met you.

All of this forgetting would just be annoying if it weren't terrifying.

As we baby boomers enter our 60s and 70s, we are hearing — though we can't remember where we heard it — that an awful lot of us — we can't remember what percentage exactly, but a lot of us — are going to get Alzheimer's and we are pretty sure we have all the symptoms.

Those of us who have Alzheimer's or some other kind of dementia in our families are more terrified than the rest because we have heard — on the news or somewhere, we can't remember — that it can be hereditary.

And — most alarming — some of us have an early exit strategy should our minds begin to slip. We are stockpiling pills or making pacts with friends or doctors, says Margaret Morganroth Gullette, who studies the social ramifications of aging at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

"This epidemic of anxiety around memory loss is so strong that many older adults seek help for the kind of day-to-day forgetfulness that once was considered normal," Gullette wrote in The New York Times this week. Her essay, "Our Irrational Fear of Forgetting," immediately shot into the Top 10 most-emailed stories, as if to prove her point.

"Thirty years ago and more, I believe, there was less fear of cognitive loss," said Gullette, speaking via email while traveling abroad.

"My father-in-law, a college professor, used to say to us youngsters, 'I've forgotten more than you'll ever know.' It was a boast, not an admission of memory loss."

The market has all sorts of products to rejuvenate the brain and forestall dementia, from herbal medicines to puzzle books. But then someone important — I forget who — said all that does is make you good at doing puzzles. It won't prevent Alzheimer's.

Gullette, the author of the book "Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America," believes that the companion fear for those of us of a certain age is that our memory missteps will be used to drive us out of the workforce.

"Employers are looking so hard for reasons to let workers go at midlife," she said. "Middle-ageism includes a huge component of disrespect for the mental ability of workers in the information age."

Our children — let alone our bosses — have no patience with our lapses or our repetitive story-telling, and they aren't shy about expressing their exasperation. But their attitude only serves to makes it more likely that we, tense and embarrassed, will become more confused.

And if we women are not worrying about our own memory loss, we are worrying about our husbands and their soft-headedness. The only thing more frightening than losing your own memory would be to watch someone you love lose his.

"If women worry more than men about memory loss and Alzheimer's — and I have no data about this — it would be because we live longer and are poorer than men in later life, and we would have no one to take care of us. These would be reasonable fears, and my women friends and I mention them," said Gullette, who cared for her own mother as her memory failed.

My friend Nan used to say that our memory lapses were the result of the multitasking chaos of raising children, that there was room for only so many oranges in the bag and at some point an orange or two falls out.

When the children grow up and leave us, she promised, there would be room in the bag for all those oranges again.

It hasn't happened exactly that way, of course. But I do remember her explanation — as clearly as if she had said it just yesterday.

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