Everywhere I look, people are pushing Baby Boomers like me to challenge ourselves to stay sharp. Work crossword puzzles! Do math! Exercise! Blah, blah, blah.
Normally, I blow off most advice and pushy advisors because they irritate me. But, when it comes to preserving my memory, it’s different. I’ve got a father in the final stages of Alzheimer’s who was predeceased by an older brother who also had the same disease. I take it seriously to the point of intermittent panic.
Everybody I know who’s roughly my age is forgetting something … a word, a conversational topic, a name, the car keys, where the car’s parked. We all laugh nervously when this happens, guardedly watching one another to see if our failures are normal signs of aging — or something more ominous. But those of us with a family history of dementia watch with particular care. Could this latest lapse be a sign of something more?
It’s particularly odd to me that we get all this advice to exercise our minds at a time when technology is taking more and more of the onus of memory away from us. I hardly know anyone else’s phone number any longer — even the numbers of those I’m closest to. I search for their names on my phone and hit a button. I know the area code of my daughter’s number is from Chicago, where she used to live — but I have no idea what the entire number is. Why should I when it’s so accessible?
I used to be fast and accurate at math. But I can’t think of the last time I put myself through those mental gymnastics — although I do recall noticing how much slower I was than I used to be. Lack of practice and living in a world where calculators are everywhere — on your phone, on your computer, on their own — will do that to you. Should you care?
Two nights ago, my husband changed my computer browser. I didn’t think it was a big deal until I noticed some of my automatic settings — for our bank account and other websites — had gotten blotted out. What was my i.d., my password here, here and here?
My “identity,” my passwords were lost. Who am I? That’s the question you ask when you’re young, trying to define yourself and who you are and who you aren’t. In an automated world that often seems intent on making you more stupid, at an age where mental lapses can be terrifying, it’s no longer an amusing philosophical question.
“Who are you?” they ask my father at the facility where he’s being cared for. Sometimes, he knows. Sometimes, he doesn’t. His memory comes and goes, but the amusement died out a long time ago.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)