When I was asked to speak today, I readily agreed, but I was afraid that I might forget about it. So, when my wife came along, I asked her to help me remember the details—that I was supposed to speak to the seniors this Saturday at 11:30 AM for twenty minutes. Later, I thought to myself, "Imagine forgetting that I was supposed to talk to the seniors. How appropriate! I guess it would show that I was uniquely qualified. Who better to address the seniors than someone who is prone to senior moments?"
Do you ever have a conversation in your house that goes like this?
"Honey, you remember that couple who was in our church in Bay City? They had children in the school. He was rather tall, and they had a strange name."
"I know who you are talking about. They were the whatchamacallits."
"Yeah, their name escapes me too. But I remember they lived out by the Four Seasons Mall."
"No, that was the mall in Greenville."
"Really? Was it the Cordova Mall?"
"Guess again. That was in Pensacola."
"Well, I don't remember, but they lived just off the road that went through the center of town. Now what was that called? I think it had a long name."
"Are you talking about the road we took every day to the church?'
"Yeah, that's the one."
"It was called Main Street."
"Oh, but anyway we know who we're talking about."
"But I can't say that I would recognize them if I saw them. It's been a long time."
"True, I can't remember what they looked like."
"I say, Dear, are we sure that these people even existed?"
Memory is a funny thing. Not very dependable, is it? For us seniors, memory lapses can have a greatly adverse effect on our quality of life. It is therefore important that we understand memory and take whatever measures possible to keep our memories sharp.
Memory has long been a special interest of psychologists. When I was going through graduate training in psychology, I took several courses on learning and memory. And I myself did an experiment on memory that was later published, way back in 1965. It was called, "Proactive Inhibition Involving Maze Habits." I can't say that I discovered anything earth-shaking. The study was flawed in its basic assumption that a human brain is not fundamentally different from the brain of a rat.
In those days, psychologists were just beginning to understand some of the basic workings of memory—for example, that memory is of three kinds: sensory store, short-term, and long-term. Everything that comes in through the senses is kept briefly in the sensory store. Everything we actually notice in our perceptions and thoughts goes into short-term memory. There it remains for a matter of seconds before being transferred to long-term memory. Only a small portion of the data in short-term memory is retained, however. The brain sorts through the contents and keeps only what it deems important. The rest is thrown away. We do not really know how the brain decides what to keep and what to discard. As its name suggests, long-term memory is very durable. Some people think that the data stored in it is gradually lost over time. Others think that this data is kept permanently, even though it becomes harder to recover as time passes. Under the right stimulation, however, you can remember just about anything important in your past. It is amazing what people can recall under the influence of hypnosis or certain drugs, or as a result of brain cell excitation by implanted electrodes.
The most intriguing latest research on memory loss with age suggests that a major culprit is blood sugar. Excessive blood sugar damages the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in memory storage. The research backing this conclusion is pretty solid. Therefore, one of the best things you can do to keep your memory sharp is to take all those measures that are known to be helpful in preventing diabetes. In other words, avoid eating too much sugar. As I look around at you after you have just finished eating a wonderful meal, do I see some guilty faces? Another piece of good advice is to keep your weight down. Also, get exercise. The health benefits of these measures are far-reaching. They will keep not only your brain healthy, but also your heart and circulatory system. They will be useful in preventing not only diabetes, but also heart disease, stroke, certain kinds of cancer, and a variety of other life-threatening conditions. How you eat plays a role in determining how long you live, as well as your quality of life.
From the earliest days of research on memory, one fact has always been clear. You can remember only what you have learned. Suppose I give a test in science and one student gets a 95, another gets a 75. Do the results indicate that the first student remembered more of the material? Certainly not. It is likely the two students were equal in their ability to remember. Rather, the results indicate that first student learned more. More of the material actually entered his brain and was deposited in his memory banks. Why was the first student a more successful learner? A number of factors figure in the explanation.
- One is comprehension. It is much harder to learn something that makes no sense. The better student doubtless had better comprehension of what he read in the textbook and heard in class.
- Another important factor is time spent in learning. A student who studies for a test will do better than a student who watches television instead.
- Another important factor is attention. You cannot easily learn something unless you focus your mind upon it. The better student was doubtless more interested in the material and therefore he listened more attentively when it was presented to him.
Now we come to an important application for us seniors. One reason we seem to be losing our memories is that we are becoming more detached from life. It's not that we are forgetting things. We're not noticing them in the first place. In other words, we're paying less attention to what is going on around us. When we were young, life was full of magic. We brought to all our little experiences a sense of wonder. Wherever we looked, we found things to enchant us and hold our attention. I remember gazing at common objects so intently that I could see faces in them. Seldom were we bored, and seldom were we preoccupied with thoughts about the past. Rather, we were deeply involved in living, and our minds were riveted upon the present moment, with all of its possibilities.
But in our advanced years, our view of life becomes much different. We have seen it all before. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, who was an older man, we understand that there is nothing new under the sun. The events of a given day are so routine that we barely notice them. They pass by in a blur that we can hardly recall the next day. Much of what we see or hear we simply forget. But really we do not forget it; we have never learned it. And we have never learned it because we were not paying attention.
Let me give an example. My wife may say to me, "Honey, next Tuesday night I am going to a ladies' meeting." When Tuesday night comes, chances are I will not have the least clue as to her plans. When she announces her departure, I will be totally surprised. Why? Am I suffering from memory loss? No, I simply wasn't listening. I answered with a mechanical "Yes, dear." But I would have said the same if she had told me that on Tuesday she was planning to start a trip around the world. I would be ashamed to tell you how often I am guilty of tuning out what my wife says. This would be more exasperating to her, except that she is capable of being inattentive herself.
My excuse, of course, is that my mind is often concentrating on what I am currently writing. When my family assembles, they love to tell stories about my absentmindedness, which was especially acute when I was writing a physics text for A Beka Book. Once back then, after a church service, I went up to my son in the foyer, who was standing with a group of friends, and I put my arm around him and said confidentially, "Have you seen your father?"
I was a member of the Campus Choir, which rehearsed on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building. After rehearsal we always went downstairs to the room with our robes. From the upstairs hallway we passed into a stairwell, with steps leading down to the first floor and more steps leading up to the roof. I was one of the last in line, and for some reason, in my preoccupied state of mind, I went up instead of down and did not realize my mistake until I had opened the door to the roof. Coming down the steps again was rather difficult, because some members of the choir had noticed my curious choice of direction and were waiting for me with embarrassing questions. Why did this happen? Was I suffering from dementia or memory loss? No, I wasn't paying attention.
Likewise, as seniors, we do not pay enough attention to life now, as it happens. One critical result is that we have poor memories. But there are others as well. 1) We suffer from boredom. 2) We think too much about the past. 3) When we meet people, we do not take enough interest in them, and instead we afflict them with endless talk about our experiences, our opinions, and (need I say it) our ailments. In short, we become too self-centered.
What is the remedy? Get out of yourself. When younger people talk to you, don't make yourself the subject of conversation. If you do, you will drive them away. Instead, draw them out, get them talking about themselves, be concerned about what is happening in their lives. Then they will seek you out to talk to you again. We think that we have words of wisdom that the young need to hear. And indeed we do. But they will not listen unless we first build rapport and establish a relationship. We do this by showing an interest in them.
Another way to get our of yourself is to become involved in a ministry. Instead of letting your thoughts rummage through the past, get busy and do something—something helpful to others. Tutor a child in the Christian school. Keep tabs on another senior who is less independent than you are. Start a Bible study with a neighbor. If you must stay at home most of the time, become a disciplined prayer warrior.
The problem of self-centeredness has a spiritual dimension. When we seniors retreat into ourselves, we lose sight of God. The Bible warns us again and again to pay attention. Before giving the first and greatest commandment to love God with our whole being, Moses said, "Hear, therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it" (Deut. 6:3), and again, a few words later, "Hear, O Israel" (Deut. 6:4). Before presenting the Parable of the Sower, Jesus said, "Behold" (Matt. 13:3), and afterward He cautioned us, "Who hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Matt. 13:9). God wants us to hear, look at, and pay attention to what He says. Are you paying attention to God's Word? If you are paying attention to it, you will know it and not forget it.
There are two ways to assure that God's Word will lodge permanently in your mind and always be available to give you guidance and comfort. The first way is by memorizing it. Until the last year of her life, my mother spent some time every day in reviewing the passages of Scripture that she had learned in years past. She knew many whole chapters by heart, as well many shorter texts. The exercise helped her to stay close to God and kept her mind active. I have no doubt that her memory for all things was much fresher in her last years just because she constantly used that part of her memory which she had reserved for the Bible.
The other way to keep your focus on God's Word is to meditate on it. As God promised, "But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper" (Psa. 1:2-3). To meditate upon it is simply to take time and think about it. During the course of your day, you should keep your mind busy with thoughts about the acts and promises of God, as found in His Word. To get your mind into gear for meditating, start off by reading a passage of Scripture, or go over the words of a godly hymn. That will give you something to think about, to meditate upon, and the result will be not only an abiding knowledge of God's Word, but also an uplifting of your spirits and a renewal of your interest in life.
To be bored and self-centered is not possible if you are filled with the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and peace. We must therefore start every day with personal devotions, and during them we must ask the Holy Spirit to fill us and make us fruitful in good attitudes. Then, whether we have exciting things to do or not, whether we are alone or with people, we can still be happy—we can still have a zest for life that will keep us from becoming detached, preoccupied with self, and forgetful.
For the sake of balance, we must acknowledge that none of us can prevent those disease processes that rob us of good memory. But that does not excuse us from taking whatever measures we can to prevent memory loss. In closing, let us review those measures. We can watch what we eat, limiting the amount of sweets and junk food. We can get exercise. We can take more interest in life and in other people. And above all we can continually cultivate a better knowledge of God's Word.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.