Jane* was terrified when she came to see me. Not of me personally you understand, but of what she was convinced was wrong with her.
“My short term memory is absolutely shocking”, she told me. “I find that I’ve forgotten things all the time, and I’m just getting flakier and more unreliable. The other day I found my car keys on the shelf in the fridge.”
“And the worst thing” Jane continued, “is that no-one believes me. My husband dismisses it, and my doctor keeps saying there’s nothing wrong. I was coming to see you about improving my memory, if that’s possible. I think instead I might just need help to come to terms with it, if that’s possible.”
Why, I asked her, did her doctor say there was nothing wrong? Because of the results of the tests she’d had done. Why did her husband think there was nothing wrong? Because he thought she was no different to how she’d always been. Why did she think there was something wrong? Because she felt so much more flustered lately.
What then had changed lately? Jane had been retired for some time, but was now fitting ad-hoc childcare for her grand-daughter Harper* into her social life. “Because of what my daughter does she doesn’t need me the same days every week” she told me “and that’s been difficult to adjust to with my normal routine.”
That, and the next few things she told me, were the root of Jane’s short term memory problem. She had a short-term memory that wasn’t getting the exercise it needed. When that collided with her starting caring for her grand-daughter at non-routine times it amplified the issue.
What Jane needed to do was to start getting her short term memory back into shape, and there were a couple of ways that she could do this and just incorporate them into her day. The easiest way to help her short term memory was to do the crossword.
“I hope it’s not the cryptic one – I just don’t get them, and it’s too late to start now”. No, all you need was the straightforward crossword – the quick coffee break one is fine. To turn it into a short-term memory gym, when you answer a clue simply don’t write the letters in any squares that are shared with other answers. Instead of “HYPNOSIS” for instance you wpould write in “_Y_N_S_S” if the H, P, O, and I were shared with other answers
Not being able to see letters to help with the other answers will mean you have to remind yourself of them, and so stretch your short-term memory. When that gets too easy start either filling the rest of all the answers in later in the day, without looking at the clues again.
“That sounds really difficult”, Jane told me, “but then the yoga I can do now looked impossible when I started last year. What else can I do?”
Some of the other things were practical – for instance saying “I have locked the door” out loud when she locked the door, making it much easier to remember. Some were more wide ranging – learning or going back to a foreign language, to start making her memory plastic again.
Others were about lifestyle – making sure she got enough sleep, as even missing an hour a night can start to affect our short term memory and recall. Finally, Jane needed to stop focussing on the odd times she forgot things. The anxiety about that wasn’t helping her short-term memory either.
Two months later I caught up with Jane. “I’m so much more relaxed”, she told me “and I’m forgetting things so much less. I might never be on Mastermind, but I’ve not found my keys next to the cheese again.”
*Jane is happy to share her story, and her identity has been protected
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