Breathe, go slow, re-focus

It was last Friday, or maybe Thursday. Anyway, I'm driving across town with a friend and she's telling me a story. I don't recall the actual story. I need to share that with you "¦ not proud of it "¦ but it has relevance to what I'm about to say next.

Where was I — oh yes, my friend — let's call her "Judi," stops in the middle of her story, sighs and says, "What was my point here, my mind is like a sieve lately."

Anyone over age 60 can relate. The sieve analogy says it all. Good point, Judi.

The real story is that memory difficulties go with aging. Some people say, "It's my single greatest dread."

But University of Washington social gerontologists Wendy Lustbader and Nancy Hooyman suggest, "It's rare to lose the kind of memory that matters most."

I find that somehow comforting.

There are two kinds of memory. There's "short-term memory," such as the location of your car in a large parking lot or whether you took your morning medications, and "long-term memory," which includes things like where you were born, the names of your siblings and your first kiss.

It's entirely possible to have manageable problems with short-term memory without ever experiencing long-term memory difficulties.

"Manageable" is the operative word.

For example, say you forget what you were about to do. Use this simple approach. For a few seconds, re-focus, breathe deeply and slow down, physically and mentally. Recollection and new awareness will often come swiftly. The reflective breathing is very comforting — remember that.

There's one form of short-term memory difficulty that's not at all comforting. It's terrifically frustrating — for the forgetter and for the surrounding family. It's called "confabulation."

Let's say someone in your immediate acquaintance has a well-hidden, but significant, short-term memory loss and they're frightened. In fact, so frightened their fear turns into paranoiac self-preservation.

It looks like this. The memory-impaired person starts to invent false information to fill in their memory gaps, sometimes quite creatively. For example, to avoid dealing with a missing piece of jewelry, statements can range from "You took my pearl necklace!" to "Little men came in through the window and stole my necklace."

It can get fairly elaborate. An older person may tell his family the neighborhood grocery store has closed, rather than admit he can no longer find his way there. And if his family tells him, "But dad, it's still open, I just drove by it last week," that doesn't help much. Attempts to dissuade are typically met with adamant protests, defensiveness and anger.

The best way to handle confabulation is to understand it. It's a protective shield. It means the person doesn't have to become engaged in the reality of specific memory challenges — and it insulates them from the sorrow that accompanies memory loss. Experts encourage family members in this kind of situation to breathe deeply, too. Working with confabulation, or around it, usually leads to a better outcome than trying to disassemble it.

It requires practice, of course, and a certain emotional agility. Maybe you should consider one more deep relaxing breath.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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