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Oops, Where Did I Leave It? Seven Memory Tips For Seniors

Sunie Levin

Resident Blogger

I lost my car keys. I have searched everywhere. You know what? It doesn't matter. I won’t need them unless I find my car! 

My husband laughed until he choked when I told him I was writing this article. I manage to lose something every day, some days several things. The daily list includes glasses, purse, keys and cell phone. I panic when they're gone. Did I leave them in a restaurant? At the beauty shop? At the doctor's office? He patiently assures me they're right here, at home, and he's always right.

So why am I writing this type of article? I'm 84 years old. My senior moments come too frequently. Some days my 87 year old husband has to supply the tip of my tongue with my missing words. "Where did I put the purple stuff?" He patiently replies, "You mean the grape juice, and it's on the counter, right there." Once, not all that long ago, I went to a lecture and put my purse and umbrella under the seat. When the lecture was over I went to my car but couldn't get in. The keys, of course, were in the purse. Panicking, I ran back and luckily they were still there, right where I left them.

Memory. It bothers all of us 'of a certain age' – when we remember to think about it. When I saw my internist recently for a checkup, I shared my concern about my daily "oops" and said fearfully, "Do you think it's Alzheimers?" He said, not the least bit worried. "You managed to get here the date and time of your appointment, didn't you? You didn't get lost on the way, did you? And you're still writing articles and books. Why don't you write how you compensated for the natural memory loss you're experiencing? It's an everyday problem."

Good idea! So here's the article. I'm going to share some of the tricks I now use to try to jog my memory. They're easy, and I'm not going to harass you with mnemonic devices. Forgetting is normal. Losing your keys doesn't mean you're losing your mind. Much forgetfulness is just a symptom of being distracted. 

So here are seven tricks I've found extremely useful. When I remember to use them, that is.

1. Pick Your Spot

Find a basket for everything you routinely use. Keep it in the exact same place, and use it to put down your house and car keys, cell phone, pill box, etc. Once you're firmly in the habit of going to that exact spot, you'll always find what you are looking for. Hey, I trained my schnauzer. I can certainly train myself.

2. Develop a System

Pick a landmark. Losing your car in the parking lot is never fun, especially if it rains. "Oh my gosh, somebody must have stolen it." Nobody did. It's there. The simplest way is to look back twice, picking up a landmark so you'll remember the row it's in. Another way is to carry a small tape recorder and leave a message where to find it. Or text a message to yourself. In fact, use your tape recorder to remind yourself about anything you're afraid you might forget.

3. Embrace the Alphabet

Find the first letter.There's something on the tip of my tongue I just can't recall. Like the purple stuff. Try reciting the alphabet and when you get to the right letter of the alphabet the word starts with, the answer usually pops to mind.

4. Focus!

Put something down and can't find it five minutes later? Focus! Pay attention. Say it aloud when you put it down. "I put my file with paid medical bills on the bedroom dresser." Then take a second to visualize the file. Just what could I have done with the file? Thrown it in the trash? Okay, maybe. Retrace everywhere you've been and visualize that file. You'll find it. It will be there.

5. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Here's a toughie. Remembering names. Hopeless? Probably. The real problem isn't memory, it's indifference. My husband has never been able to remember names. Never. But even at his age, if a good-looking woman is introduced to him, somehow he remembers her name. When you meet someone new, try saying the name in your mind several times. Strike up a brief conversation, "Nice to meet you Alice." "Where are you from, Alice? "How long have you been in town, Alice?" Try to make a snapshot of the person in your mind, emphasizing some feature that stands out. The system works. Sometimes. As a fallback, exchange calling cards, or write down the name as quickly as you can.

6. Make a Checklist

Did I do it? Did I turn off the oven? Did I close the garage door? Did I lock the house? Did I take my pills? Make a checklist of daily important routines. Then say each one out loud two times as you do it." I shut the garage door." Check. “I locked the house door." Check. "I took my pills." Check. 

7. Find Your Own Personal Reminder

What am I supposed to do today? Every day there are things I need to do, people I need to call, chores I need to do, bills I need to pay, thank-you notes I need to write. Lots of things. Remembering is easy. Make a list! Simple. But do it. The old remedy was to tie a string around your finger to remember. That's a little awkward. My husband leaves his billfold upright on the nightstand to remind himself of something that needs doing the next day. Just about anything that focuses your attention will do. I like turning a shoe upside down, so that it reminds me of why I left it like that.

It was a relief the other day when my 60 year old daughter told me told me she forgot what she had in mind when she walked into the laundry room carrying a bottle of ketchup in her hand. She's a law school professor, lectures in countries around the world, writes learned law review articles, and even she forgets from time to time. Somehow, I find that comforting.

All of us seniors joke about our loss of short term memory, but it's very real and very troubling to us. The real solution for most things is to write everything down, or dictate it to a tape recorder. Let's say you meet someone new. Write down their name, telephone number, number of children, where they are from, birthdate, anniversary date—everything you can pick up about them. Write it down before you forget, which, if you don't, means the info vanishes in the nanosecond after you stop visiting with them. Look at the notebook before meeting with them again. What a way to make good friends. They'll be astonished you remember, particularly when they've already forgotten everything about you.

So there you have it. It's not rocket science. It's mostly common sense, really. The trick is just to try it.

Sunie Levin is a Village Shalom resident and author of "Make New Friends Live Longer" and "Ready or Not Here I Come! How to Choose Your Best Retirement Community." She a graduate of the University of Missouri and holds degrees in Psychology and Education. She founded the Midwest Reading and Dyslexia Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri for children and adults. She has lectured around the country and has appeared on national television and radio.