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I Wish I Could Remember, When I Could Remember

I wish I could remember, when I could remember, may seem a funny heading, but for those of us who have problems with recall, it is for the most part “no laughing matter”. As people experience the upper side of the ageing process, for some, little things are suddenly harder to recall. “Did I put the cat out”? “Now what else did I need to buy at this supermarket”? “Where did I put the car keys”?

Now before you say that we all do that, yes we do. and as you get older it becomes more common, but what I am indicating here are examples of the simple process of being unsure of our actions, or memory. For some, and I include myself in this, it is worse. Memory loss can be a gradual thing that builds up as a person gets older. The confidence in yourself withers as you find that you are forgetting things at first on odd occasions, then weekly, and then daily.
For some Alzheimer’s Disease, is the cause, and that is a very big handicap, which can have a major effect on families where a member has this problem. However there are other causes of memory loss, and often they are wrongly assumed by people to be Alzheimer’s, so to quick-fit the particular persons problem into a little box.

To some, it is hard to recall things that have happened in the distant past. It can seem that the brain has got so full over the years that it has set itself a limit of for example 9 years ago, and everything outside that period has been put out of reach, to the mind. Whilst this is not wonderful, at least the record keeping society that we live in today, means that pictures, films, video, audio, music and books, including the Internet with information and social contact sites, enable much of the missing information to be re-obtainable to those who have lost it. The simple act of reading or looking at photographs, may trigger long forgotten memories, and thus bringing a little comfort to the person involved.
To others, it is what happened just two minutes age, that is the problem, and here, I have to include myself in this. I am incapacitated by this as are many. To describe it so that people can understand what it is like, is very difficult to do, in such a way that they can have some concept of what it is like to live with, but here goes.

Imagine you are racing in the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool, and are in the lead and are coming to the famous jump at Beechers Brook. You urge your horse to make the jump and it clears the large fence, and the horse lands safely. At that moment you look behind you, and there, some way back are the other horses and riders trying to get to the jump. You can see them clearly and everything else in the distance. What you cannot see, is that little piece of ground on the other side of the jump, where you have just jumped from. It is hidden from your eyesight by the fence itself. It cannot be seen. It is so close, but so far.

Now that is what it is like to have this short term memory problem. You have something firmly in your mind, but any distraction and that memory has gone into a black hole. It has disappeared. I will give you a few real examples of my own experience with this problem, but first you need to know what I was like before the problem began. I began my working career in a very active, noisy and fast moving industrial environment where you always had to be aware what was going on around you, otherwise accidents could and did happen. That was 8 years of my life, I then was involved in engineering design for over 15 years, where I also wrote safety manuals for the UK and European Nuclear Industry and UK Ministry of Defence and was a member of MENSA. I carried masses of information in my head and could carry on a conversation on the phone, whilst listening to other conversations and take part in them at the same time, whilst working on my design on the computer. I had design work for example that took over five-years to complete with others that I was doing from one-day to months at a time. I was always involved at any one time, on multiple projects , and I took pride in the fact that if anybody asked me about any one project, I could give an accurate description of where the work was up to, what was going on and what was happening next. I was alert. That carried through in my work for Christchurch Civil Defence, here in New Zealand.

Now, well that is a different story.

I try to carry on life as normal, but for example, I will ask a visitor in our lounge if they would like tea or coffee, and supposing that they say coffee. As I step into the kitchen I see that I have to top up the cat food bowl, when I turn back towards the kitchen, I have no idea whatsoever what my visitor has said. On some occasions I will have forgotten why I am in the kitchen.
I am going to take my wife to work which I do every day. We go right at the tee-junction by our house. Between our house and the tee junction, my wife mentions the church in city that we go to. As I get to the tee-junction I have gone left not right. Why? Because the mention of city completely blanked out the thought of my wife’s’ workplace. That had disappeared down a black hole.
And finally, I have played the electronic organ for many years. I play by memory. No music, just recall of what is in my head. How have things altered? Well I was sitting at the organ recently and I thought of the title of a song that I had heard. I ran through the melody by whistling it, I then went through its lyrics, by singing it, and then I played the melody slowly through. I then played it again with chords and bass pedals. I then did it with full rhythm and accompaniment. Wonderful.
I am happy with it and start to play it again, when the phone that is next to me rings. I answer it and am talking for about two minutes. I turn back to the organ put my hands on the keys and I have no idea what I was playing, no idea what rhythm I was using. No idea the lyrics, no idea of the key it was in, and no idea of the title. It has disappeared into that black hole.

Do I want sympathy?

What I would hope for, is that every person who encounters somebody with some sort of memory problem, either in their private lives, or in their workplace, be compassionate and either show understanding, help (or partially help) if possible without making the person feel like an idiot, or support the memory issues. That would be wonderful, rather than see as often happens, people, assuming that everyone with memory issues, are an extreme case.

Finally, to close on a happier note.
Many years ago whilst my family and I were in England, I used to play the organ at a local home for the elderly (similar to the rest homes in New Zealand). Whilst I was playing the organ, supported by my son who was playing the drums, an elderly gentleman, asked if he could have a go on the drum-kit, as he used to play professionally. My son let him sit at the drum-kit and adjusted the drum positions for him. I began to play the organ, and he accompanied me. He was brilliant. A very talented professional, and we ran through a few numbers, and it was lovely to play with him.
Suddenly he faltered, and his percussion work fell apart drastically, and try as he might, he could not recreate what he had been doing, in fact his playing was like an absolute beginner. I stopped playing the organ, and we went to try and help him. He was in tears because he had had, a wonderful moment when his brain allowed him to find in his memory, his natural ability to play. Unfortunately it had shut him out again after our wonderful partnership of about 15 minutes. The staff there were great and congratulated him, and helped him to his chair where he sat and watched us continue entertaining those around us. They knew how to be supportive without looking down on him for his faults.

So be aware that not everyone who suffers with memory loss, is at the very deep-end. There are a great many of us who would occasionally like a life-belt to be thrown by people like yourselves, to keep our heads above the water.

About Robin Melling

Robin has a mechanical engineering background and worked to rigorous quality assurance and total quality management critera as a computer aided design draftsman in the nuclear industry in England. In New Zealand he has worked as a trainer, area advisor, and produced NZQA course examinations for Civil Defence. He was also an NZQA assesor and moderator as well as a registered assessor with the Local Government Industry Traning Organisation (LGITO). He now suffers from health issues including memory and concentration. He has recently taught himself to paint landscapes in water colours ( a previously unsuspected talent) and plays a home theatre organ by memory. Music has always been important to him and he runs a facebook group for organists which has over 2000 International members.

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