If you have always prided yourself on having an excellent memory, chances are you don’t make a shopping list or put that weekend dinner with a friend on a calendar. You simply point to your forehead and say, “It’s all in here.”
Even though this might feel like a good way to continually test your memory, you’re likely missing out on more than just an occasional forgotten quart of milk.
People who don’t use simple memory aids—everything from handwritten lists to new-fangled phone apps—forgo a key strategy that’s embraced by most highly accomplished people. You also are “cluttering” that wonderful brain of yours with a lot of stuff that could be kept elsewhere.
Some people are reluctant to use lists, schedules, alarms and other aids because they think it will make their brains lazy. But that’s not true! Using memory aids can, in fact, help reduce the stress and annoyance that inevitably come from age-related memory errors.
Memory aids also can help you establish lifelong habits that will make a big difference when you experience those normal age-related memory lapses, such as losing things from time to time or sometimes forgetting which word to use.
These changes happen to everyone—including people who never develop Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory disorders. What’s interesting, though, is that people who use memory aids handle those little memory glitches more easily.
6 Top Memory Aids
Memory aids to choose from…
• Keep a notebook. Get a small notebook that you can slip into a pocket or carry in a handbag to jot down grocery lists…questions for your doctor or accountant…and information you get at an appointment or meeting.
Smart strategy: Use a note-taking app on your smartphone.
• Rely on technology. In addition to apps, smartphones have built-in features that are easy to use and do wonders to support your memory.
Smart strategy: If you’re out running errands and remember something you need to do the minute you get home, call your landline from your cell phone and leave yourself a message. If you use the calendar on your smartphone, ask for alerts a day, an hour or a few minutes before an appointment or phone call.
You can use your phone’s alarm feature or timer to remind you to check the cookies in the oven or the wet laundry in the washer. You can even label the alarms you set as “meeting” or customize them for specific tasks (such as “take out neighbor’s garbage can”).
Also helpful: Your phone’s camera is a memory aid, too—use it to take a picture of the street sign near your parking space before walking away from your car.
• Create a memory table (or bowl or basket). This is where you toss your keys when you walk in the door—and find them when you go out again. It’s also a good spot for the bills you want to mail in the morning and the book you want to return to your neighbor.
Smart strategy: Put a memory table, bowl or basket near the door you use to leave and enter the house. Some people like to pair it with a hook for their keys and a wastebasket for incoming promotional mail. Important: It will defeat the purpose if you allow this area to become cluttered—it should be a temporary landing spot for a few small essential items.
Also helpful: If you have room, the space above your memory table or basket is ideal for a whiteboard or chalkboard, where you can leave messages for other household members—or for yourself. (“Take out the trash today!”)
• Use a “workhorse calendar.” Some people love an old-fashioned wall calendar with big squares for writing details. Others never use anything but the calendar on their phones. Still others like to blend paper and portability with a planner they tote everywhere. Any of these choices is fine, though a digital calendar has some advantages, including the ability to share your schedule with others and get pop-up reminders before events.
Smart strategy: Use a calendar of your choice—but make sure it’s kept in a place you can easily access every day. Wherever your calendar is, make it a workhorse. When you add an appointment, be sure to include When, Who and Where (including, if needed, an address), along with What—what is the appointment for and what do you need to bring? And add a phone number—you will thank yourself if you end up running late or have to cancel at the last minute. Check your calendar every morning and evening.
• Get a pillbox. People have all sorts of systems for keeping track of medications, but nothing beats a pillbox. The basic version has a compartment for each day’s medications (and/or supplements) and holds enough for one to four weeks. You also can get compartments for morning and evening meds or meds taken three times a day. These are all available online or at your local drugstore, often for less than $10.
Fancier versions have built-in alarms to remind you that it’s time to take pills and sensors that link to apps you can set to communicate with others—if, for instance, you want a family member to know you are on track with your pills. You can even get boxes with vibrating alarms or braille lettering for people with hearing problems or vision challenges.
Smart strategy: Once you have a pillbox, pick a regular refilling day and time (add it to your calendar!)…and put your box where you will see it at medication time.
• Use sticky notes. The beauty of these little slips of paper is that you can put them anywhere and move them as needed.
Smart strategy: Whenever you have an errand to run or a task that needs to be done on a certain day, place a sticky note in a visible spot as a reminder. If the sticky note doesn’t attach to the surface you’re using, tape it to the door (or the handle of your bag) so that you’ll see it when you’re leaving your house.
The Golden Rules
To get the greatest benefit from memory aids, follow these rules…
Rule #1: Don’t delay. When you make an appointment, write or type it into your calendar immediately. When the alarm goes off, go get the laundry, take your pill or make your call.
Rule #2: Keep it simple. Have one calendar, not four.
Rule #3: Make it routine. When you use your memory aids all the time, they become automatic and easier to use—even when you get tired, distracted or rushed.