Health and Wellness

Expert memory tips for seniors

Improve the way you think, feel and function with memory tips for seniors from a renowned expert in dementia and cognitive aging

Senior woman writing in her journal, seated at patio table.

You’re not alone if you find yourself forgetting things, such as why you went upstairs or opened the fridge. The good news is there’s a lot you can do to improve your memory and brain function as you age, explains Dr. Heather Palmer in her webinar for seniors on memory tips and well-being. When people ask Amica’s National Director of Cognitive Well-Being how to improve their memory, the renowned expert in dementia and senior brain health likes to share the story of a study to show how small changes can lead to better brain function. In the 1996 study, scientists asked three groups of university students to recall the same list of simple words.

Simple memory test

One group was asked to focus on the first letter of a list of words read by the examiner (so, b for the word ball and c for cat). The next group was asked to think about a rhyme: ball – hall, cat – mat. The final group was asked to think of the word in a sentence. Forty minutes later, the first group remembered less than 18% of the words while those who used a sentence remembered at least 80% of the words. “That’s a huge impact from a tiny change of instruction,” says Dr. Palmer, a former research director for the Alzheimer Society of Canada, who has spoken internationally on dementia and who developed Amica’s outstanding Memory Care program. “It’s about recognizing that we may be having trouble remembering something and knowing how to process it more deeply so the information is there when we need it.” Learn more about Amica’s specialized activities for people living with dementia.

Best memory tips for seniors

Dr. Palmer says we already have most of the tools we need to improve our cognitive capacity, including the memory. When we’re young, we use internal memory strategies such as categorization, story making, visual imagery, association and motor movement. As we get older, these internal memory tricks are not as helpful as external memory strategies.

External memory tools include making lists, leaving notes, using calendars, using alarms/phones/technology, routines and habits, planning and organization and talking aloud to ourselves. Although we might be capable of doing some things in our heads, Dr. Palmer prefers to rely on external tools. “Used correctly, they almost always make you remember correctly and make you feel better for not forgetting.”

Why lists, notes and external reminders help with memory

Contrary to what you might think, leaning on external strategies — like writing something on a sticky note — provides excellent exercise for the brain. Having the foresight to write something down is forcing you to use the frontal lobe; remembering to refer to the note calls on your temporal lobes; referring back to the content uses the whole brain. If the sticky notes you’ve always used are no longer helping, consider modifying the strategy slightly. A young person might need one or two words; older adults might benefit from a full sentence. “The activity of using an external reminder is a very sophisticated use of the brain because you’re nurturing pathways between multiple brain regions,” says Dr. Palmer. Visit the Caregiving section of Amica Conversations to see articles about helping seniors living better with memory issues such as dementia.

Remember to talk to yourself!

External self-talk — otherwise known as talking aloud to yourself — is a fantastic memory technique with a strong theoretical basis. Instead of thinking or whispering what you’re doing, clearly say your goal out loud: “I’m going down to get my glasses.” It’s an effective trick for remembering because our brain tends to work in a somewhat disorganized fashion where we might jump from thought to thought. When we talk out loud, we’re forced to bring our attention to what we’re talking about, which imposes an organizational process on you and your brain. Secondly, we can think much more rapidly than we can speak, confirms Dr. Palmer. “When you talk out loud, it forces you to slow down and helps you process at a speed you can think. As a result, there’s an increased likelihood that you remember by the simple act of saying it out loud and processing your task more slowly.”

How to reduce forgetfulness when multitasking

As we get older and may begin to notice cognitive changes, whether due to injury or a type of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, we have a greater tendency to be susceptible to distractions while multitasking. Using a four-step process for task management helps seniors manage both large and small daily tasks by preventing distraction, reducing feelings of overwhelm and promoting a “present-minded” state. It involves constantly bringing yourself back to the present so your mind is less likely to wander or forget, or to get back on task more quickly.

Step 1: Stop – Upon completion of any task and prior to starting a new one, pause, take a deep breath and bring your mind to the present. Take advantage of these transitions by clearing your mind and pulling it back to the present.

Step 2: Clarify – Regularly state and clarify what your goal is by asking short, key questions like, “What am I doing?” or “Where do I need to go?” or “What is my plan?”

Step 3: Simplify – Whenever possible, break tasks down into a series of simple, manageable steps. Bringing a big task down in scale will make it feel less overwhelming and give you a greater likelihood of completing it without procrastinating.

Step 4: Monitor – On a regular process, monitor your progress and make sure you’re still on task doing what you started out to accomplish.

“Many people say they don’t have time to stop and clarify but then they often forget what they need and spend twice as long retracing their steps.” says Dr. Palmer. “The split second it takes to stop and bring yourself into the present is a huge time-saver day after day.”

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