Updated: Nov 16, 2019
There have been many scientific studies on why the older we get, the more we forget. Apparently, we can decelerate the process, but there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. Contrary to popular research, it seems to me that the longer we live, the more crap there is to remember and more things we’re going to forget. It’s just simple math.
For example, I have trouble remembering anyone’s new phone number (including my own). I can still remember my childhood phone number, but a few years ago my head hit its maximum occupancy for that sort of information. Computer passwords have become the bane of my existence. Most of us have multiple online accounts now and each one needs its own password. (Remember when you only had to remember your mother’s maiden name?) Just thinking about every password, phone number, address, bank, alarm, and security code that I have to remember makes my brain want to throw up.
I take comfort in the fact that this is not strictly an older person’s problem. Plenty of younger people I know suffer from bad memories, too. At least we have decades of stored information (along with drug and alcohol abuse) to blame it on. What’s their excuse?
While we’re on the subject, what are the odds that Alzheimer’s disease (which usually effects people 65 and older) would sound so much like Old Timer’s disease? That would be like if chronic diarrhea was named Schittitis or erectile dysfuction was called Zoffdick disorder.
How often do you walk into a room to get something, but by the time you got there you forgot what it was? Did you ever mean to tell somebody something that you can’t remember if you actually told them? Worst of all, have you ever had someone tell you something you said that you have absolutely no recollection of saying? This seems to happen to me a lot. It frightens me when people tell me I told them something years ago that they never forgot because it was so profound and meaningful or because it was so upsetting and hurtful. No one should ever hold onto anything I say. I’m usually just talking shit. I don’t mean half of it and apparently I don’t remember most of it.
Sometimes I am reminded about someone I used to know years ago but have completely forgotten about, until I happen to run into them. This can create some very awkward situations. Especially when they remember me like it was yesterday. Sometimes these are people that I liked a lot and was friendly with for years. We might have worked together or had mutual friends or even had sex, but because it was so long ago I had completely forgotten they ever existed. How could I forget whole people like that? What else have I completely forgotten?
It’s one of the few things that I envy about people who have grown up in today’s smart phone driven culture. Young people (I hate calling them that because it clearly positions me as the opposite) always have a camera on them these days and can always take pictures of everyone they meet and every place they go. (Not to mention every meal they eat, every item they buy and every pose they make.) Granted, it is a double edged sword in that they often miss the moment they are living in while trying to capture the image that will remind them of it. I guess it’s like the old expression, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too”. Which, by the way, I never understood. What’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat it?
All I have are a few tattered old photo albums that sporadically chronicle my life through my forties (with virtually no pictures from my teenage years) and a bunch of photos on my computer that start in my fifties. There are absolutely no home movies or videos or even audio recordings of me, save for one reel to reel audio tape that my sister has. It’s a recording of us playing together as children when we get interrupted by my mother, who obviously had no idea the tape recorder was on. Here’s an actual transcript from that conversation.
My mother: Whadya want for dinner?
Me: Whadya have?
My mother: Nothin’!!!
Me: How about pizza?
My mother: We’d have to send out for it.
My sister: You’re not supposed to have that if you’re on a diet.
Me: But I’m not on a diet.
My sister: I don’t want pizza. What else can we send out for?
Me: Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!
My mother: We might have a TV Dinner left.
Me: Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!
My sister: What about Chinese food?
Me: Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!
My mother: Come on! Make up your minds!
Me: Let’s get a large pie!
My sister: No!!!...We can get a small pie.
Putting aside the disturbing glimpse into my childhood this gives you, my point is that this is the only memory from those days that I can be completely certain of because of that recording. I have learned that everything else I remember is questionable. Not because I have a terrible memory, but because I am human.
I kept a journal (some might call it a diary but I think that sounds girlie) from the time I was 19 until the time I was 49. I hadn’t looked at it since I was 50. So on my 60th birthday I decided to read it again. It was over 350 pages long and I was surprised by what I found in it. There were so many things I had completely forgotten and there were several things that I remembered completely differently from the way they apparently happened. This taught me a very valuable lesson. I can no longer be 100% certain of anything I think I remember. I don’t think anyone can. Now I find myself frequently using the expressions “Not that I can remember” and “To the best of my recollection”. As if I were under oath all the time.
Did you know that we all have false memories? (It’s an actual thing. I looked it up.) Especially as we get older. There’s even a famous quote from Stephen King that says, “Passing time adds false memories and modifies real ones.” I have had arguments with my sister where she claims that something I remember happening to me as a child, actually happened to her. At first, I thought it was really strange that she would hijack my memories like that. Until I heard of it happening to other people and realized it was fairly common. So now I’m not so sure. Maybe it did happen to my sister. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. Maybe the world in my dreams is real and the real world is only a dream. Or maybe I’ve been watching too many old Twilight Zone reruns.
Salvador Dali said, “The difference between false memories and true ones is the same for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.” So, if you think that your memories are always accurate then think again. I’m not saying that we all need to question everything in our pasts but, if someone challenges you, don’t be so sure about it. Admit, at least to yourself, that you could be wrong. Some people are very good at rewriting their history. Whether it’s inadvertently (as with false memories) or on purpose (to make themselves sound better or more interesting). Either way, the more you tell a story, the more you are going to believe it. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.
After enough time passes all memories, even our happiest ones, become bittersweet. I used to enjoy going through old photo albums with my mother. She would tell me stories of times before I was born and we would share fond memories together. But, when she got older, it started to get a little depressing. She would flip through the pages, pointing out various friends and family with her finger of death, “Dead. Dead. Dead. Dying. Dead.” Eventually, I asked her to stop doing that and suggested she only point out the ones who were still alive, since that would be a shorter list. The funny (and sad) thing is – I now find myself doing the same thing when I look at my old photo albums.
Dead, Dead, Dead, Dead & Me.
As we get older, we depend on our memories more than ever. They become more precious with time. When we can no longer relive the experiences or revisit the people and places we love, all we can do is remember them. So hang onto those memories in whatever way you can. I strongly urge you to write them down, take lots of pictures and tell your stories to anyone who would like to hear them. Because your memory can be like a bad employee who you think is doing a good job, while they’re really lying and stealing from you the whole time.
There was something else I wanted to say on this subject…but I can’t remember what it was.