A forgetful person with their hand on their head trying to remember something. They are wearing a shirt with a big "x" through a person walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Memory Loss is Funny, Heartbreaking and Manageable

Memory is something I fret over and fear losing. I call on it frequently, and if memory serves, it is the reason why I accurately fill my pill organizer each week, press the correct buttons that turn on the television and computer every day, and grab the shampoo bottle instead of the body wash to suds up my hair when I shower.

Grateful for my memory

Remembering that stuff lays the groundwork for establishing routines and forming habits so that all the little things I do become automatic, sparing me the effort of having to learn it all over again. I have never been more aware of and more grateful for the quality of my memory than during these most recent years I’ve lived with multiple sclerosis, years that have carried me from middle-age into the autumn of my life. My gratitude grows exponentially with the gradual slippage of memory.

Why gratitude? I celebrate what is left of it, and there’s plenty, thank goodness. I regularly honor those functions that keep me independent and thriving. I also 21-gun salute those spent brain cells that had once synced up with the nuclei of its fellow brain cells to keep me alert, functional, and able to play out my role on this earth. Cell decay is inevitable, dimming the memory over a long period. All the more reason to cherish each lucid moment. Equally important—to me, anyway— is to lighten up about it.

Lightening up with a joke

Jokes give an amusing tip of the hat to mental fragility. Here’s one that perfectly describes what will become of me and my two sisters 30 years from now:

Once upon a time, there were three sisters ages 92, 94 and 96, and they all lived together. One night the 96-year-old ran a bath. She put one foot in and paused. "Was I getting in the tub or out?" she yelled. The 94-year-old hollered back, "I don't know. I'll come and see." She started up the stairs and stopped. She shouted, "Was I going up or coming down?" The 92-year-old sitting at the kitchen table having tea, listening to her sisters, she shook her head and said, "I sure hope I never get that forgetful," and knocked on wood for good measure. Then she yelled, "I'll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who's at the door."1

What else can mess with our memory?

Of course, people with MS don’t have to be ninety-something to relate to this joke. If MS lesions disrupt the many complex avenues of recall, memory will be affected. Things secondary to MS can mess with our memory, too, such as:2

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor concentration/lack of interest
  • Medications
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety/Depression
  • Relapse
  • Infection (bladder, etc.)

Tips and tricks to cope with memory loss

What can we do when memory becomes unreliable? Here are some widely shared tricks and tips:

  • Write stuff down—or key it in—before you forget it.
  •  Set an alarm to remind you to do something.
  • Keep everyday things such as keys, watch, wallet, purse, etc., in the same place so you don’t have to hunt for them.
  • Repeat information back to the person who gave it to you. [This can help recall it later.]
  • Perform one task at a time. [Trying to multi-task will only make you cry.]

What I do to help with my memory

In addition to the above very effective tips, here are some more things I do that help me:

  • Use word associations that are meaningful. For example, I love gardening, so if I’m trying to remember the name Josephine, I think of my favorite variety of clematis.
  • Use visual association to remember directions, lists, etc. For example, when I want to memorize three things on a list, I visualize the words as well as hearing them. To reach a destination, I picture familiar landmarks. I also use word association when looking for street names.
  • Use acronyms and phrases to remember multiples. For example, I can rattle off the names of all five Great Lakes by thinking of the acronym HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. It's similar to recalling the names of the lines and spaces of the musical staff: FACE for the spaces, and the phrase: Every Good Boy Does Fine for the lines (EGBDF).
  • Avoid walking and talking simultaneously. Speaking uses your motor cortex, walking uses the cerebellum, and memory retrieval taxes various other lobes, setting the scene for a mobile mishap. Remember that old joke about somebody who’s so uncoordinated that they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time? That’s me now. Owned it, bought the tee-shirt, regularly attend Stumblers Anonymous meetings. It keeps me from falling into ditches.

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