Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?

I know we all forget things from time to time: names, words, poems we memorized in Grade 4… They disappear like vehicles on fog-laden roads, then suddenly reappear as if they’d never left. And that’s normal apparently, especially when we’re stressed, or can find some other excuse for it -alcohol springs to mind. Of course it’s annoying -embarrassing even- and yet because it’s only an occasional lapse, most of us forget it ever happened. I mean, what’s to remember?

But it takes on a different timbre with Age: it becomes a herald of things to come -or of things arrived. Of course maybe we just talk about it more when we’re old because we’re caught more often forgetting a word, or hesitating too long on a name. Maybe it’s also why elders become better listeners, and only speak in short, pithy sentences whose words can be substituted at a moment’s notice with clever neologisms that sound praeternaturally wise.

And yet, even if we’re not caught in flagrante delicto with a word, we worry it’s just a knock on the door away; I do, anyway.

Charlie is worse than me, though. True he’s younger than me chronologically, but physically he’s, well, large and withering. His hair, for example: he tries to over-comb what little remains on his head, but as with his words, and various buttons on the front of his shirt, there are noticeable gaps. Still, none of us who meet each Wednesday at the coffee shop, are anything like error-free.

Some days, however, are worse, and I can tell by the expression on Jon’s face from across the room. He has a full, albeit greying beard, so his lips hide in the undergrowth like tiny fawns and it’s the rolling of his eyes that usually alerts me. Jon is only in his sixties, the youngest of our little group, and I think he feels he is immune to the ravages that stalk Charlie and me.

Faro is different. He always arrives with a cane which he tries to hang on the table edge and then, his spine crackling like cellophane, he has to lean down to retrieve it every time it falls off. The rest of his visit he manages to scatter his attention like the doughnut crumbs he spreads over the table and his lap. Tidying up usually keeps him sufficiently occupied he forgets to speak. Faro is a grunter, anyway, so he manages his communication through a combination of head bobbing and a series of undecipherable hints.

I approached the table carrying my bagel and coffee, and prepared for a usual Wednesday.

Charlie noticed me and waved, as if I might miss them in the almost empty room. “You’re…” -I could hear it coming: the substitute- “… a bit tardy, today,” he said, clearly proud of the word.

Jon rubbed his beard to distract me from his eyes.

“I couldn’t find a place to… put my car,” I answered, with a little space between the ‘to’ and the ‘put’. Sometimes I think Charlie spreads his ‘on-the-tip-of-my-tongue’ disease like a sneeze spreads virus.

Parking, is sometimes hard on Wednesdays,” I added, to show Jon that I hadn’t really forgotten the word.

He stared at me for a moment with a puzzled expression on what I could see of his face, and then smiled when he suddenly understood what I had done.

Charlie’s eyes twinkled, too, but I think it was because he’d seen that Faro was still brushing crumbs off his lap and hadn’t noticed anything. “I was smart this morning,” he ventured, looking at his partially eaten doughnut. “My wife drove me,” he said, and glanced nervously at Jon. “Mary had to go shopping anyway…” he added, sitting back in his chair with his coffee, obviously pleased he’d finally remembered her name, and pretending he hadn’t initially forgotten it.

But Jon and I caught it immediately and traded smiles. “Just another Wednesday morning, eh G?” he said, sighing, and reaching for his coffee.

I blinked at him. “It’s two-thirty, Jon…” I said, and checked my watch to be sure. Then I rolled my eyes, but just a little. We’re all getting old…

You can understand that was with some relief that I happened upon an essay about forgetting words in a BBC Future article. I had hoped it would disavow any chance that it was an early sign of dementia. The introduction intrigued me: ‘Struggling to recall a word or name on the tip of your tongue might not be the sign of a bad memory.’ I gobbled it up.

The article was a reprint from The MIT Press Reader by Roger Kreuz, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis, and Richard Roberts, a foreign service officer currently serving at the US Consulate General in Okinawa, Japan.

As they note, ‘Word-finding problems are an almost stereotypical aspect of the cognitive issues that plague middle-aged and older adults. These failures occur without warning for even the most familiar words and names a person knows… It’s not that you can’t remember the concept but that you can’t find the language label for it… This retrieval inability can last anywhere from a split second to minutes or even hours.’ TOT states they’re called: Tip of the Tongue.

All people have them, apparently -even university students get them now and then- and fortunately most seem to resolve themselves spontaneously. I was reassured by that, of course, but still worried because lately they sometimes took a long and stressful time to resolve. I used to have a wonderful memory, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember ever having the TOT’s in university. ‘Psychologist Donna Dahlgren at Indiana University Southeast has argued that the key issue is not one of age but one of knowledge. If older adults typically have more information in long-term memory, then as a consequence they will experience more TOT states.’ Isn’t it amazing what hope and a confirmation bias can find?

And further, ‘It’s also possible that TOT states are useful – they can serve as a signal to the older adult that the sought-for word is known, even if not currently accessible. Such metacognitive information is beneficial because it signals that spending more time trying to resolve the word-finding failure may ultimately lead to success.’ Yess! And maybe it means I’ve got so much in there that the filing system can’t keep up with all the words I’ve managed to accumulate. I’m just too… Uhmm… smart, perhaps…

On the other hand, perhaps I should exercise more. ‘If you are an older adult and still worried about the number of TOT states that you experience, research suggests you might have fewer such episodes if you maintain your aerobic fitness.’ But how do you convince an enlarging friend he needs more exercise without hurting his feelings? And who will bell the… animal? I mean cat


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