Tisbury Senior Center speaker offers tips to improve memory

Joan Houlihan, senior community sales director at Atria Woodbriar Place, a senior living community in Falmouth, described small exercises to help keep the brain sharp. — Photo by Janet Heffler

“Okay, folks, here I am; I remembered to get here.” With those opening words, Joan Houlihan elicited a sympathetic laugh from many in the audience who probably thought the same thing when they arrived for her presentation on October 15, “How to Remember Not to Forget,” at the Tisbury Senior Center.

Ms. Houlihan is the senior community sales director at Atria Woodbriar Place, a senior living community in Falmouth. She said she became interested in the topic of memory and began teaching classes about it as part of a “mini-university” program Atria offers to residents in assisted living.

In describing the brain’s anatomy, Ms. Houlihan explained that everything that happens in a person’s life makes it mark on the complex organ. As a result, perceptions of the same experience differ among people, depending on their age and their own interpretation of what happens.

“I’ve learned to believe almost all people are telling the truth as they see it,” Ms. Houlihan noted.

She said a major breakthrough in research was when scientists discovered brain cells are all connected, and that connections can rebuild. Instead of brain cells dying, it is possible for them to be replenished and for new brain cells to be built.

The brain is dependent on the senses for retaining memory, she said, which unfortunately are affected by age. In addition to age-related losses in hearing and eyesight, the sense of taste diminishes, as does touch, as fingertips become smoother and pads on the feet wear thin. “And without sensory memory, your brain isn’t going to tune in,” Ms. Houlihan said

Although there are a lot of theories and studies about memory, nobody really knows yet exactly what works best to improve it for everyone, she added. Despite that, Ms. Houlihan said there are a lot of tips and methods for people to try that they may find help them.

“When it comes to short-term memory, experts say you have seven to ten seconds for your brain to decide if something’s important and you’re going to use it,” she said. “If so, you capture it for long-term memory.”

Tragic events, for example, become part of long-term memory. “The more emotion attached to a memory, the more precious it becomes to you,” Ms. Houlihan said.

As an example of one of the more tried and true long-term memory tricks, she asked the audience to sing the Alphabet Song.

“We all remember sentences and songs from childhood; you learned a jingle to hook it onto,” Ms. Houlihan said. “Part of what you learned in school, you have to apply to everyday life. Every kid today learns the alphabet the very same way. Part of what you learned in school, you have to apply to everyday life.”

Another way to improve memory is to do something different every day, she added. When a person routinely does the same activity, it no longer requires a thought process. So instead of reciting the alphabet the usual way, she suggested the audience should learn to say it backwards, which she did, to their applause. She said it took her three years to master that.

Ms. Houlihan said it is fine to do crossword puzzles and word games, which are often recommended to help keep the mind active, but it is more important to mix activities up and keep trying new things.

“We’re in dramatically changing times; we have to get with the program,” she said. “Learn to speak a foreign language, how to play a musical instrument, anything you’ve never done before. Constantly challenge yourself.”

To work on improving the senses, Ms. Houlihan suggested the audience perform tasks with their non-dominant hands, switch furniture around periodically in their homes, pay attention to sights and sounds when outdoors, and try new foods.

“Vary your route in the supermarket; read shelves from the bottom up, and take a look at the new products,” she said.

Ms. Houlihan also encouraged everyone to use and test their own memory as much as possible.

“I think we’ve got to get into the practice of not depending on technology,” she said. “Try to remember as many things as you can — passwords, phone numbers, directions — do it out of your head.”

Ms. Houlihan also encouraged everyone to keep up with the younger generation, as a way to stretch their horizons.

“If you listen to classical music all the time, try to figure out why kids like rock,” she said. “Go into stores and look at what younger people are wearing, and try and keep up with the fashions.”

“And don’t shun kids’ games,” she added. “You should try video games, because they’re all about hand-eye coordination and require quick responses.”

Despite the fact that memory loss can be a depressing topic, Ms. Houlihan kept the discussion upbeat and left the audience on a positive note. “You are all smarter than most of the people on the face of the earth,” she reminded them.