What do you get when two clinical social workers who work in a geriatric centre write a handbook on how to improve your memory skills? A fine little guide for helping older people who are concerned about the changes in their memory!
Janet Fogler and Lynn Stern team up in “Improving Your Memory: How to Remember What You’re Starting to Forget” (2014) in this fourth edition. Originally published in 1988, these social workers have created the book that I have been looking for. In this fourth edition, they have included the smartphone and other technologies that are helpful to us as we manage our daily tasks and are challenged by our aging minds and bodies.
The paperback (168 pages) is medium-sized and is packed with real-life stories and examples to help the reader understand the concepts. There are also quizzes throughout to help the reader apply the knowledge learned (to help one remember!). It is divided into four parts:
- How memory works
- How memory changes as we age
- Factors that affect memory
- Techniques for improving your memory
I cracked open the book and dived into section four, as I was eager to see what techniques the authors were recommending. They offered some great ideas, and even ones I had not heard of before. One of them had to do with switching your ring or watch to your other hand or wrist, as an indicator that you had something to remember. It is much like the classic “tying a string around your finger” trick. I found some of the mental exercises fun and a little tricky, and I enjoyed trying out some new skills to help me remember things. The one example for myself that comes to mind is when I am attending an appointment and I have to park in a large parkade. I will use an “active observation” technique so I won’t forget where I left the car!
The first three parts of the book are very easy to understand and come with an illustration of “A Model For How Memory Works.” For us visual learners, these kinds of diagrams are helpful. Encoding (getting something to stick) and retrieval (being able to recall something) can become a little more difficult as we get older, for a variety of reasons. The authors explain, in simple language, why these things happen and how we can try to combat them. Whether our forgetfulness is due to stress, grief, depression, poor concentration, medications, or illness, memory problems can cause added stressors. The authors give some good advice in the appendix on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias; “What is good for your heart is also good for your brain, so monitoring heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol is important” (page 142).
I was surprised to learn the book doesn’t talk about “mild cognitive impairment” and the prevalence rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias. Knowing that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age is important to know, but not knowing the level of risk does not allay any fears or concerns one may have. (The World Health Organization estimates, of those 60 and over, 5 to 8 people per 100 will develop dementia.)
I also noticed the absence of the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation,” as those two terms are used quite often in most of the current brain health literature I have been reading. Fogler and Stern mention how alcohol can negatively affect your memory, but they omitted any mention of drugs. Interestingly the nutrition section has no reference to supplements. I also observed God, higher power, and spirituality are not discussed.
Overall, a highly recommended guide and workbook for those who want to learn about: how the brain stores and retrieves information (in our “working” and “long-term” memory); what happens to the aging brain; what may cause memory problems; and tips and techniques on how to maximize your chances of remembering things. I’ll leave you with these two tips: “Much of what is called ‘forgetting’ is a lack of paying attention” (p. 137); and “Study after study shows that increased fitness levels result in improvement on cognitive tests” (p. 64).
Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW
Author/Specialist in Aging