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Memory filing means more active brains


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 26, 2001

We get older, we forget stuff. Sometimes we worry that Alzheimer's is setting in, or maybe it's senile dementia. On the other hand, it could just be that there's too much stuff to remember.

I have been replacing the memories in my brain by abdicating that function to my computer, my files, and the collage of notes to myself on my bulletin board. My husband and I would be completely lost without the calendar upon which all our appointments are supposed to be noted. The trick is remembering to look at the calendar. Our refrigerator is covered with little magnets holding down dental appointment cards. Ditto doctors' appointments, travel itineraries, birthday deadlines for shipping, etc.

I like lists. When I've made a list I feel that I have the immediate future under control. Darling Husband, on the other hand, favors "staging," which involves pre-packing specific suitcases months in advance, each one designated for specified destination.

Since we go twice a year to Switzerland, his home, that suitcase starts loading up the minute we've unpacked it on either end of the journey. Then there's the domestic travel suitcase. It must contain extra supplies of medications, toiletries, appropriate photos and underwear. We go to Mexico from time to time, and that suitcase is always a big one, impossible to conceal in a closet. We need lots of stuff every time we go.

He is convinced that if he doesn't stage everything the very minute he thinks of it, something vital will be forgotten.

Last January, when we arrived at our condo in the Alps, he announced he had forgotten the keys. I thought he was joking: He has never failed in his staging strategy. I laughed. Then I noticed his pallor, the sweat breaking out on his furrowed brow.

Fortunately, a friend on the top floor had spares. After some hassle, we were able to get into our little studio condo. Darling Husband suffered for days about his lack of strategic staging in this instance. (Staging also involves setting the table for breakfast the minute dinner is cleared away.)

When we went on a road trip for a month a couple years ago, I remembered to take my wallet. I didn't remember to be sure the credit cards were in it. If you forget to put something vital on your list, it remains a forgotten vital item. This principle remains true with lists as mundane as the one for the grocery store. Whatever I forgot the last time will be off the list the next time, too, unless I start the list the very moment I notice the item I forgot. Then I have to remember where I put the list I started three days ago.

I refer continually to my files to bring me up to speed on things I used to be able to remember all on my own. For instance, I write to a friend, receive a reply a couple of weeks later, and can't remember what I wrote that provoked the response I've just received. So I go to the Personal Letters file in my trusty computer, where I can read exactly what I wrote last month. No need to clutter my steel-trap mind with all those silly details that I have entrusted to my auxiliary brain, the computer.

It is no longer necessary to remember how to do multiplication and division. That's what calculators are for. If I lose track of the little card that tells me about my next dental appointment, never fear: The jolly receptionist at my dentist's office will call me before 8 in the morning the day before the appointment to remind me.

How many of us call our grandchildren by another grandchild's name? Is this a sign of horrendous decline? Not at all! It's just that I don't have a Palm Pilot that could quickly supply the right name before I open my mouth.

Usually I'm pretty good at names. Darling Husband is a whiz with faces but hopeless with names. We've both had these traits since long before we were potential candidates for the Ultimate Decline.

I like to think I'm using those newly retired brain cells to soak up new stuff. For instance, I just remembered that I forgot to feed my potted plants today.

Gotta go.

- You can write to Sheila Stoll c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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