Stalled Out on Memory Lane


Graphic by Olga Nikitina

We recently saw The Other Place, a provocative new play by Sharr White starring Laurie Metcalf (co-star of Roseanne) which deals with, among other things, memory loss and its impacts not only on the patient but on all those around her. Metcalf’s character, Juliana Smithton, is the victim of a sneak attack – she never saw it coming.

But having hit that big six-oh milestone birthday this year and officially crossing over into senior moment territory, sometimes I think there’s a very thin line separating “normal” memory loss from clinical dementia. Perhaps there is really no line at all, but rather a broad continuum of incrementally severe degradation in memory capacity that impacts everyone …and those who are still this side of “normal,” experience a lesser degree of memory loss or have merely found ways to successfully cope with the disability.

supermarket cartoon

Memory warehouse workers trying their best

It’s certainly frustrating to fail to produce a particular name or word that the brain once delivered without skipping a beat, but generally speaking, it’s not incapacitating. Unfortunately the white-collar workers in the cognitive sections of the brain often breeze along in real-time not realizing that many of their colleagues in the memory warehouse have been laid off so they are short-staffed and the poor schlubs who remain are not as spry as they once were.  So when called upon to quickly retrieve thoughts, occasionally they come up empty and wind up scrambling around frantically pulling stuff off the shelves to find the missing thought and get it to the check-out counter before the lips start to try to form the words.

1952 Ford pickup stalled on Memory Lane

1952 Ford pickup stalled on Memory Lane

If the reference is a real oldy they have to travel down Memory Lane to the archives warehouse hoping their 1952 Ford station wagon doesn’t stall out on the way.

Waiting for me to complete my thought transaction

Waiting for me to complete my thought transaction

The older I get the more often I find the need to pause in mid-sentence as the cashier is ringing up my thoughts hoping the word warehouse workers will produce the goods before the young whippersnapper behind the counter rolls his eyes and shouts out for the whole store to hear,

“Word check on Line 12!”

Frequently they make it just in time, resulting in only a momentary pause in delivery; other times they show up with a generic brand version of the word or thought of lesser quality and the cognition guys have to make a rapid decision on whether to accept it or not (usually a substitute thought is better than none at all); and sometimes they arrive out of breath and empty-handed leaving me on center stage with a broken down teleprompter.  The cashier, who has a great memory of course, keeps track of how often I’m holding up the line and usually doesn’t hesitate to remind me.

ParallelComputing_Shared_Memory_MultiprocessorWhen the word warehouse comes up empty I quickly try a lateral before getting sacked. This team approach is similar to the concept of parallel computing, i.e., pooling your memory bank with those around you, and between you coming up with “half a brain.”  It helps, of course, to have compatible operating systems and more than 40 years of shared data to work with, so my wife often saves my ass.

smart phoneAs a last resort, new technology often comes to my rescue. Electronic messages, calendars, address books, and note pads are all readily searchable and at our fingertips through our smart phones and portable computers. And increasingly, the internet is becoming a rapidly searchable storage device for almost all external data. So I find myself using these various electronic crutches to help my memory continue to walk, albeit a bit more slowly.

Of course, even as our electronic devices get ever faster it’s still science fiction to imagine them integrated into our brains to supplement our natural memory processes… or is it?


While this reflection is light-hearted, memory loss is no laughing matter.  To better understand where normal memory loss ends and clinically diagnosable dementia begins Opinion8ed2 spoke with the head of the Memory Care Clinic in Asheville, NC,  established to provide appropriate assessment, treatment, and support for memory-impaired individuals and their families.  See Understanding Dementia: Interview with Dr. Virginia Templeton


Published in: on February 15, 2013 at 7:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for inviting me to your blog.
    Chris and I saw The Other Place and thought that it was a powerful play in which Laurie Metcalf did an outstanding job of showing the disintegration of self as a result of the beginnings of early onset dementia (and her character was only in her early fifties!) Still, there is big dividing line between what she went through and the forgetfulness that comes from just getting old. I wonder what part, if any, being a heavy pot smoker from my 20’s to my 40’s has contributed to or exacerbated whatever word retrieval difficulties I now have? I think it’s mostly a product of growing older. One thing I would like to forget: that I am an ardent Mets fan and that the Wilpons still own the team!

    Editor’s response: Welcome aboard! And thanks for the comment. We also really enjoyed the play (your assessment was spot on) and my piece started out as a standard theater review but I got sidetracked and forgot where it was going…My sister-in-law, an expert in the field (See Understanding Dementia…) described the definition between normal aging and early onset dementia quite eloquently. She could address the potential impacts from smoking weed and I think the jury’s still out on that issue but my guess is just normal aging. As for the Mets, we suffer together, but I prefer to view it as a badge of integrity. Speaking of erasing bad memories,did you ever see that classic 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? BTW, I confess I had to Google, “Movie about erasing memories” to come up with the title!


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