On Memory


My mother has had increasing problems with her short term memory for a while now. It’s the classic thing: she can remember stories and songs from her childhood that have etched themselves on her brain as on a vinyl record, but she can’t remember that the last time she related any particular story was 2 minutes ago and 2 minutes before that, and before that. She is a scratched vinyl EP, a tourist in her own life.

It is impossible to rely on her to remember anything at all without writing it down in duplicate and even then she forgets that she has written something down and fails to look for her aide memoire. There is no point phoning to tell her something because she forgets it as soon as she has finally heard and understood it. The only relatively reliable way of getting her to remember anything important is to send her a simple note in the post. My mother denies completely that there is anything wrong with her. “This sort of thing happens with age,” she says. And yes, I do go into a room on occasion having forgotten why. And I do forget things, but that’s usually because I have so much to remember. This is really not the case with my mum, and I know many people in their 70s who have no symptoms whatsoever of this cruel life-sapping condition.

Mum has recently received the dementia diagnosis. I am not sure whether this is the same as Alzheimer’s disease, although the diagnosing doctor at the memory clinic the other day did give me a leaflet about Alzheimer’s. It’s all unclear, partly because I think it’s difficult to give a clear diagnosis when a patient is obviously trying as hard as possible to hold it all together for the sake of looking normal in front of the professionals; partly because any clinical appointment with my mother entails more than her fair share of shouted confusion whilst still trying to be respectful and dignified. And Alzheimer’s disease is very frightening for all concerned. It’s all very frustrating: my mum needs help but we are frightened of the consequences of asking for it.

The doctor has prescribed a drug called Memantine for my mum. She had no time to explain how exactly this was supposed to help my mother’s memory but, because there can be side-effects, and because it has a sedative effect, I have to monitor my mother daily as she takes a half dose for the first two weeks and then a full dose. Having initially resented this added imposition on my day, I am now becoming used to it. It’s a good way to check that my mum is OK and perhaps gives her some focus to her day. I hope that does not sound patronising. It wasn’t meant like that. My mother has never been happy in her own company, and she is on her own much of the time, further isolated by her severe deafness and gradually-eroding social skills. She never really listened much to anyone anyway, and had little empathy or emotional intelligence. It’s got worse of late, and her “disinhibtion,’ means that she can be difficult, whilst still maintaining a superficial facade of a sweet little harmless old lady.

I normally dislike Internet diagnoses intensely because anyone can put anything on the Internet and it’s easy to glean the wrong sort of information, but I did look up Memantine, which is supposed to be moderately helpful in cases of moderate to severe dementia, and hardly effective at all in mild dementia. So I can only assume that the doctor thinks my mother’s condition is moderate to severe. Who knows? We shall see whether this new medication makes any difference to my mother’s memory.

But, you know, my mum is not the only one with a bad memory in our family. Teenagers are generally not very good at processing important things that they have to remember unless they have a very strong motivation to do so. Often they don’t. Mine have to be reminded of things again and again. One of them simply forgets about the embarrassment and distress caused the last time they embarked upon a particular course of action and does it again. And again. The other chooses to reject and forget things with which they take issue. Or perhaps that’s just MY teenagers, because they know that Mum is around to pick up the pieces. I am sure there are parents out there with perfect children, just itching to tell me the extent of their offspring’s perfection.

And my husband seems totally unable to remember little things that he thinks are inconsequential that are important to me. He repeatedly forgets to flip the top of the Nespresso machine when he’s finished with his coffee capsule, ensuring that I get a cup of second-hand coffee when running the hot water to warm up my breakfast cup. It’s a rude awakening and utterly drives me mad. He knows this and laughs at it. Because it’s not important to him and therefore it’s globally unimportant. And in the scheme of things, he’s right. It really ISN’T important. But it’s important to me, because respect and courtesy for others are important to me. He might not think it’s important, but I do and I think that should matter to him.

So bad short term memory is not just about dementia or being an as-yet-uncooked teenager: it’s about motivation. If you’re motivated by respect and consideration for others, you’ll remember the things that are important to them as well as the things that are unimportant to you. Here endeth this lesson.


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