By the Rev. Connie Seifert
I have served seven congregations in the last 24 years. I have met hundreds and hundreds of people in these settings. I’ve recently contacted many of my high school pals following our 40th reunion. Occasionally I run into a friend from college days. If I meet someone from Edwards at the Wal-Mart in Clay, my brain has to work overtime trying to remember who this person is and where I have met them before..
In my first seven years as a pastor, I had most people’s names and phone numbers memorized. It was easier than keeping track of a church directory. I’ve always been a clutterbug. Nowadays I am lucky if I remember names. My memory for phone numbers is unreliable. It is best to look them up. I can draw a blank on names, even with parishioners I see every Sunday. It is embarrassing and frustrating.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, we begin losing brain cells in our 20’s. I accelerated this process by smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day for more than twenty years. There is also a natural decrease in the production of chemicals needed by our brains to function at peak effectiveness. I guess I should be grateful I can remember my own name. “Thanks for the memories” is a great sentiment and a wonderful song, but as we age our memories fade. Sometimes we forget all together.
Yesterday I was at a benefit in Oswego, NY. I saw someone who looked familiar. I couldn’t remember her name. I had no idea where or when we had met before. She recognized me too. We chatted. Both of us tried to figure out how we knew each other. No, it wasn’t church. It wasn’t where she worked. Neither one of us succeeded in remembering. She had to leave with her two greyhounds. It was a Craft Show to benefit animal shelters. I kept shopping.
I heard someone call out my name. I turned around and this time I did remember both the person’s name and where we had met. We had been in a water aerobics class together at the Y in Fulton. While we chatted, she asked if I had seen another person from our class who was there with her greyhounds. Bingo! The light dawned. The other woman who had looked familiar? She had been in that class too. I laughed out loud. Neither one of us had recognized the other because we were in civilian clothes instead of bathing suits. At least we both had trouble remembering. It wasn’t just me. It was amusing – not embarrassing like forgetting a parishioner’s name – or suddenly drawing a blank in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer while leading worship on Sunday morning.
Most of us have also had the experience of going out to the kitchen – or any other room in the house – but upon arriving being completely clueless about why we made the trip.
Sometimes I blame fatigue for my forgetfulness. Last Saturday night I pulled into the garage around 8 p.m. I did not have a sermon written yet. I was tired. Usually, I turn the knob for the headlights all the way towards the door so that the dome light does not get left on accidentally. I swear I followed that routine but as you will see, I did not. When I extracted the keys from the ignition, there was an urgent, “ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!” I checked everything and could not see that anything was amiss.
“Why are you doing this?” I screamed at the car. The car did not answer.
I got out and closed the door. The dinging stopped. I went in the house, wrote my sermon and went to bed. Now everyone to whom I have told this tale of woe has immediately commented, “You left your headlights on!” Where were all of you wise, unforgetful people on Saturday night when I was too tired to remember?
Naturally, the battery was dead Sunday morning. Thank goodness for AAA. I was only five minutes late for service and the Liturgist had ably filled in until I got there. I felt foolish and frustrated on this forgetful occasion. How could I not have realized that I had pulled the headlight knob all the way out instead of turning it all the way toward the door? I’ll never know. I blame it on fatigue. Others label the whole incident as silly or foolish. Whatever!
When I was a child, I could memorize things in a heartbeat. I was one of the best spellers. I learned all my basic math facts by heart without blinking an eye. I could remember names, addresses and details of events with great speed and accuracy. Alas, as I approach the big 6-0 birthday, I see all of this memory prowess fading away. Doctors tell me it is natural, an inevitable part of aging. People older than I am tell me it only gets worse. Those who are younger are amused, certain that it will never happen to them.
I want to hold onto as many ‘smarts’ as I can for as long as I can. Here are some tips from the internet to help in this mission. I do still remember how to turn on the computer, surf the net, read and write.
1. Keep lists. I do this. I lose the lists. Or I forget them and leave them home. But this tip simply says to keep lists. I’ve got lots of them so I ought to be in good shape.
2. Follow a routine. Sounds like a good suggestion but I haven’t been able to establish a routine yet. Unless I can count never having a routine as a routine.
3. Make mental associations with things you want to remember Connect things in your mind such as landmarks to help you find places. This sounds good on paper. In real life, I have not had much success. I cannot always remember what landmark goes with what location. Anyone remember where that giant roll of LifeSavers is? I’m kidding. I still know my way to Gouverneur. Yet I can get lost going from St. Joseph’s Hospital to Crouse or Upstate two blocks away. That’s why I got a GPS.
4. Put important items, such as your keys, in the same place every time. Another one that is good advice. I try. I swear there are leprachauns lurking about my home who move my keys on a regular basis. I know I put them where they belong. When the leprachauns hide them on me, I pray to St. Anthony to help find them.
5. Repeat names when you meet new people. Of course, this may make you sound a bit off – but if it helps us remember to whom we are speaking, so be it.
6. Do things that keep your mind and body busy. Seriously, physical exercise is key to keeping those brain cells in peak performance mode. I’m finally back to working out regularly. I hate rolling out of bed at the crack of dawn to exercise but I don’t want those brain cells to fail me any faster than they have to. I also do the NY Times crossword puzzle each week. I don’t always find all the answers but it certainly keeps my mind busy and challenged.
7. Eat a healthy diet. This is easier said than done. Drive thru fast foods may be easy and convenient but more often than not, they are not part of a healthy diet. There is no subsitute for fresh fruits and vegetables.
8. Maintain healthy relationships. We all need friends and/or family with whom we can let our hair down and just be ourselves. We need time to express our honest emotions – to laugh, to cry, to vent. Relationships with people are important, and spiritual connections (to God, to a community of faith) are equally essential.
9. Learn to manage stress. DUH! Well, this is another one that is easier said than done. Prayer and meditation are helpful when one’s life is stressful.
10. Develop a positive attitude. I wasted a lot of years being negative, expecting the worst and being unable to see myself as a worthwhile human being. We are created in God’s image. This is good to remember when working on developing and/or maintaining that positiveattitude.
These are some additional and helpful facts offered to us by the AARP.
1. Our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences. It retains this “plasticity” well into old age.
2. Losing brain cells isn’t all bad. It means we are reshaping our brain and creating new connections. This contributes to that memory loss phenomena. It is like our brains build new cupboards in which to store certain facts and memories. Our conscious mind doesn’t always keep up with all the new construction.
3. According to the AARP, memory decline is NOT an inevitable part of aging. We will not be as spry and spontaneous as we were in childhood, but if we keep our brains busy and challenged we can maximize our memory potential for as long as we live.
I hope the AARP is right and my doctor is wrong about memory decline. I will take all of the above info in stride, strengthening my mind daily so that I can sing “thanks for the memories” while actually remembering the past I am singing about.