Having a Senior Moment? That’s Good News

Having a Senior Moment? That’s Good News

Posted on March 19, 2014 by ElderCare Resources in Adult Day Care, Alzheimers Care, Blog, Caregiver Education, Dementia Care, Education, Independent Living, Memory Loss, Senior Center

By: Sarah H. Kagan PhD, RN – Calkins Media Contributor

A colleague was about 20 minutes late for a team meeting. “Oh my gosh!” she said with a smile, “So sorry. It must be a senior moment – I knew we were having this meeting but…”. She trailed off. I think she expected that this frequently offered excuse would wipe out her gaffe and make our frustration in waiting for her vanish. Who could argue with her, with an explanation we are all supposed to understand and accept?

My frustration did not vanish. I almost groaned out loud at every middle aged person’s favorite excuse for being overly busy. “Senior moment” is turning out to be my pet peeve.

I most certainly argued with my colleague’s excuse. I disputed – nicely, I hope – that chalking up her late arrival to a bad joke about aging and memory isn’t OK. Being late is inconsiderate and using the excuse of “senior moment” is not remotely acceptable in our aging society.

Professing belief in the stereotype that being older is equal to a faulty or diminished memory is wrong. And it is wrong for two reasons. It’s wrong because it’s factually incorrect: Normal aging does not erode your memory. And the second is perceptual:- “Senior moment” pokes fun by twisting the truth of what it is to be older.

Myth: Memory loss will occur as you get older.

Saying “senior moment” to explain an error in memory is incorrect. Neither memory loss nor other decline in mental function is a normal part of aging. Anyone who says something else is misinformed.

The phrase “memory problems” typically describes conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease and other diagnoses of dementia. It is true these diseases are more common the older you get BUT they are not normal. Anyone who notices memory loss or similar problems needs medical help _ and the earlier the better.

Early diagnosis of conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease – the most common type of dementia – makes a difference because it offers more treatment options – be that drugs and/or behavioral treatment. Want to know more about treatment options for dementia? Check out the Alzheimer’s Association website: www.alz.org .

Myth: A faulty memory is common among older people.

Most folks understand that dementias – Alzheimer’s and other diagnoses – are diseases. Many maintain getting older means memory changes are guaranteed. Some recent research changed the notion that that idea is true.

Here’s what experts told us was normal in aging. As you get older, cognitive processing time – the time needed to think – increases and ability to retrieve information from memory like people’s names declines. So older people were understood to need more time to think and remember. That decline was viewed as a loss of function.

This issue of needing more time to think and not remembering names is probably familiar to most of us. My mom – who is 81 – said it just today.

Mom: “I just find I need to concentrate to think more than I used to. And I can’t remember people’s names at all.”

Me: “You never remembered peoples’ names well.”

Mom: “Well, that’s true enough. But I am not about to start.”

Me: “I’m not surprised! And it turns out that you likely need to concentrate more because you know too much.”

Mom: “What do you mean?”

Listen up Mom and everyone else over about age 60. You’ve got the science of information processing on your side now. New 2014 research targets your everyday problem of needing more time and focus. A group in Germany completed a very complex study – all in English – reported in a paper entitled “The Myth of Cognitive: Non-Linear Dynamics of Life Long Learning”. Here’s the link to the original paper http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tops.12078/abstract.

The research results strongly suggest the basic reason healthy older people take more time to think is because they have more accumulated knowledge. They need more time to go through it all and retrieve what they need.

There you are: A reason to celebrate – good news in aging and memory. My long-time hunch that seemingly slower mental processes in older people might be because they know so much more is probably TRUE. In a way, the research points up that we make assumptions about how long it should take people to think. When we see older, we think slower. We don’t usually think smarter or more knowledgeable. The myth of cognitive decline, of memory problems being part of normal aging is really sort of a subtle discrimination.

Myth: Saying “senior moment” is a funny way of excusing an error in memory.

We’ve come to value speed and youth a great deal in this day and age. Quick answers, rapid recognition are all the rage; whether in people or computers, young and fast are good. Ironically, much of this research I am talking about was done using information processing theory and methods. They basically took the tools of the digital age – the ones that get us those rapid answers we love so much – to refute a myth about aging people being slow and error prone.

In a way, the research that takes apart of the myth of cognitive decline does us a second favor. It shows us that laughing off a “senior moment” is pretty ageist. Somehow, we feel a need to find an excuse for lapses in memory. So we lampoon being old with a stereotype rather than owning up to our own forgetfulness.

Here’s the funny thing about forgetting something. When you are young and busy, no one questions whether you have a problem. Being over-scheduled and so distracted you can’t remember where you put your keys gets sympathy and concern for all you are doing.

As you reach middle age – I’d say between 45 and 55 – you get some of the same sympathy and a smile when you pass off your gaff as a “senior moment”. Midlife seems to be a place of paradox where understanding the busyness of our over-scheduled lives collides with worrying that the decline of old age is right around the corner. So we laugh it off at the expense of people who do have real memory problems.

Myth: Diseases that result in memory loss and other changes are part of normal aging.

Let’s stop mixing up normal aging and diseases and conditions like Alzheimer’s that are more common as we get older. Confusing the aging process with identifiable and treatable problems makes aging misunderstood and prevents the people with the problems from getting the help they need.

Believing myths about memory in late life – which is what we do when we say “senior moment” –makes us easily confused what normal aging really does to mental functions like memory and other aspects of cognition. What worries me even more is that excusing minor forgetfulness as an aging stereotype means actual memory problems are accepted as expected or even normal.

Seeing real problems as expected or normal means many people come to view them as unchangeable. If we believe memory problems are to be expected and cannot be changed, then we are likely to try to ignore real memory problems when they happen. As a result, people who might have early signs of dementia or other disorders may find it harder or have to wait longer to get the help they need.

So, now you know that lost or faulty memory is not a normal part of getting older. Nonetheless, you can expect to need more time to remember things and think through problems as you get on in years. That slower processing time is because you accumulate more knowledge as you age and it takes more time to go through it all. That’s the good news about “senior moments”.

But, if you or someone you care about is having problems with memory – not just the slow processing and difficulty remember names I’ve been talking about here – then you should know that there is help available.

A good place to start is the Alzheimer’s Association, where they can refer you to resources in your community: www.alz.org. Another resource for learning about memory is the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/memory.html. While seeking help for memory problems can be difficult for many of us, early treatment is beneficial for almost all who are affected – older folks and those caring for them too. Don’t delay in seeking help if you need it.

What are your thoughts on memory and aging? I’d loved to hear about your experiences and ideas. Email me at mythsofaging@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @SarahHKagan. Until next time, be well and stay active!

Sarah Kagan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing where she specializes in geriatric issues and the care of older people. She is a visiting scholar at universities around the world and was awarded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Kagan lives in Philadelphia. Her column on aging myths appears in newspapers and on digital sites throughout Calkins Media Incorporated.

 Published:  TimesONLINE