My wallet went missing recently, and it left me with a profound sense of loss and disorientation. I frantically tried to picture all of the settings in which my purse might have been exposed. The only possible explanation was that it had fallen out of my overstuffed satchel on the bus, but I made repeated calls to the dispatch office and nothing had been turned in. I was left to make the battery of calls to banks and lost credit card lines for damage control. However, most unsettling was my fear that it had ended up in a ridiculously inappropriate place-the refrigerator, a trash can-which would reinforce my fear that I am losing my grip. Like that time when I was pregnant and late for work, and realized, standing outside the locked front door of my house, that I had just thrown away my car keys instead of the peach pit that was still in my hand. That time I was able to blame it on pregnancy-induced loss of brain cells. I can’t use the same excuse these days.
As we reach our mid to late years, we drive ourselves crazy with the fear of losing our memories, and this often becomes a self-afflicted, self-fulfilling prophesy. I know from personal experience that this really can occur at any age. In a speech competition in high school, midway through my original oration I thought…”What if I can’t remember my next line?”…and then, poof, it was gone. Years ago when my daughter was in grade school, there were a few times when I waited for her to get off the bus only to recall, too late, that she would be waiting for me at school. Those were not proud “mommy moments” for me! So, when I boarded the commuter bus to go home on three occasions this year, only to recall that I had left my car in the parking garage, I chalked it up to my general forgetfulness.
However, I’d be in denial if I didn’t admit that this happens a little more frequently these days. I have lost track of how often I will be describing a film and say, “it starred, um, you know…the one who was in…um”. I spend the next several minutes resisting the urge to look it up on IMDB, and instead go through the alphabet to see if I can conjure up the name. I keep an ever-increasing list of those lost, then found names in my head, and run through them at odd times for reassurance.
By this stage of life, most of us have invented little games that we use to deceive ourselves into thinking that it’s business as usual. When asking someone’s name, often for the third time, I will make a point of repeating it several times fast in my head. Coming up with a mnemonic can be handy fallback; I might make a mental note that that Chloe smells like ‘clover’ or that Suzie is ‘shmoozie’. The trick is remembering the mnemonic. While I used to be the one who never forgot a name, my husband is now the one to recall it first. He humors me by taking a tag-team approach; he will come up with the first half, and he allows me to chime in with the rest. My wise Aunt Estelle invented her own clever memory game of preparing a shopping list, studying it, intentionally leaving it home, then comparing the items she came home with to the list. She was a marvel at this; me not so much.
Worse than personally facing a memory lapse is when our loved ones catch us in the act. I placed a bowl of potatoes in the microwave last week and literally, two minutes later, couldn’t recall what was in there when my daughter wanted to use the oven. I can’t be the only one who regularly burns bread that is warming in the oven. I try to cover it up with humor: “Look at that, Focaccia again!” But, there is truly nothing funny about it.
As unsettling as these incidents can be, there is some consolation in the fact that I am in good company. For every roomful of women of a certain age, there isn’t a one without her own memory-lapse vignettes. The reassuring examples range from putting something away in such a safe place that they can’t find it, arriving at a destination by car with no memory of the route they took to get there, using the land line to find their cell phone several times a day, re-washing a single load of laundry numerous times after forgetting it in the washer, arriving in a room and having to think long and hard about why they’re there, to learning to say, “I may have mentioned this already…” when beginning a story to avoid becoming a repeater. If one or all of these example sounds familiar, take heart. They all sound familiar to me!
Growing older can be filled with so many blessings, and it is important to bear those in mind to balance the scales. We may have reached a satisfying stage in our careers that only hard work and a seasoned perspective can afford. We may derive tremendous pride and fulfillment from our children’s significant milestones, be they graduations, marriage, jobs, or grandchildren. If we are fortunate to successfully launch our offspring, and can avoid having them boomerang back, we may appreciate the shift in priorities and responsibilities that comes from empty-nest hood. And hopefully, by this time we can enjoy a more lighthearted outlook and learn ‘not to sweat the small stuff.’
However, equally long, and more emotionally charged is the list of the insidious indignities of aging. Where is that lovely skin elasticity that I once took for granted? When did my metabolism decide to go on vacation? One chin is all I really need, thank you very much! Why must all of those conditions that I didn’t need to worry about until ‘that age’, leave their calling cards all at once! And worst of all, why can’t I remember what I was about to say?
It is impossible to avoid the daily media reports of the ever increasing rate of Alzheimer’s and dementia in the ever expanding older population. According to the Pew Research Center, the oldest baby boomers reached age 65 in 2011. Every day for the next 20 years, 10,000 more boomers across the US would be joining this club. Membership is initially free, but the cost increases over time. At age 65 only 10% of the population is estimated to have some form of dementia; by age 85 the rate may be as high as 50%. However, we should bear in mind (and I can’t emphasize this enough!) that there is a difference between the memory lapses that are attributable to ‘normal aging’, and the ominous signs of something worse. In fact, my dear Aunt Estelle was just reassured by her doctor that there was nothing wrong with her memory that her age, 95, would not explain!
The key is to understand what we have the ability to control, and what we don’t. What I have observed through my personal connections and my work is that there is a tremendous variance under the bell curve of successful aging. I have known, and loved, older adults who became isolated and vulnerable at 70, resulting in a life that was diminished in scale and quality. I have also kept the company of, and traveled alongside, nonagenarians with whom I had trouble keeping up, both physically and intellectually. My take-away is that, within the constraints of our own unique circumstances, it is possible to age well. As long as I can achieve it in good health and with dignity. I plan to fight tooth and nail get there.
The journey of aging is not for the faint of heart, but I plan to march intrepidly ahead, adding new words to my vocabulary to make up for the ones that I might lose along the way. This is my vow to myself, and to those who love me: I will keep reading, doing crosswords and engaging in intellectual discourse to keep my mind sharp. When all else fails, there are Apps for that. I will ramp up my yoga practice, biking and hiking, for my emotional well-being, flexibility and bone health, and because the people with whom I do these things nurture my soul. I will never say ‘no’ to skiing, snowmobiling and jet skiing because I discovered, much to my delight, that I have a need for speed. I will continue adding new challenges to my bucket list…and checking them off… because you only live once! (did I mention that I jumped out of a plane this year from 10,000 feet up?) And most importantly, I will continue to surround myself with the family, friends…and dogs who love me (and I will do my best to keep their names straight), because they are the ones who make my journey worth traveling.
As a happy postscript, my wallet came back to me a few days after it disappeared. Much to my relief, it was found completely intact, and on the bus where I was sure I’d lost it. At least I can chalk this last episode up to clumsiness and not forgetfulness, and continue to plod optimistically ahead.
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