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In the old Sesame Street cast of characters there was a cowboyish guy called Forgetful Jones, who was, you guessed it, forgetful. These days I feel like I’m living with two Forgetful Jones – me and my husband.

When one gets older, it seems one forgets things a lot more. Especially things that one thinks one put somewhere, only to find they aren’t there after all. Nowadays both of us tend to walk around with head bent, murmuring “Where did I put it?”, sometimes for hours. For him, it means increasing irritation. For me, it gives me an opportunity to relate more closely to my environment by “listening” for the lost object’s “call”. Not always but sometimes.

In youth, there was a very reliable part of my brain which I called the Automatic Pilot. It would take care of routine, everyday things like putting my keys or my glasses in a certain place for next time, and I didn’t think about it much. I would just put my hand in my purse or on the shelf above the sink, and the item would be there, thanks to my Automatic Pilot which had taken care of that while I was thinking about something else. But these days, either the Automatic Pilot isn’t on the job as much or my relationship with him has gotten flawed, because items that previously “lived” in just one or two places so that I could always find them, are now unaccountably to be found in completely different, sometimes hilarious, places. (I once lost my good watch for two months, only to find it had spent that time in the refrigerator…)

That’s why I changed to a bright yellow glasses case: it’s easier to find than other colors. I have two pairs of glasses, my “ordinary” ones for reading, close work, and doing things around the house, and my “special” progressive ones for watching TV, driving, bike riding, etc. The ones I’m not using are in the case, which I generally keep in my purse, but these days that case could be anywhere, depending on where I changed them the last time. What is even more unsettling is that sometimes I open the case to find it empty! I didn’t replace the other ones in the case last time. Oops! Thank goodness they turn out to be near the case – so far.

I also have hearing aids. They live in a charger by my bed, since I charge them up at night. But quite often I find myself going somewhere, actually driving away from my house, and realize that I’ve left my hearing aids behind. I have to turn around, go back in the house (sometimes without removing my shoes – ssh!) and get the hearing aids. You’d think that it would be obvious to me that I wasn’t wearing them, as it would be if I was wearing the wrong glasses, but my hearing mostly isn’t so bad that I notice it, and the feeling of the little earplug things inside my ears is quite pervasive; sometimes it feels as if I still have my hearing aids on when I don’t, which has caused me some scary moments when I dunk my head in water to wash my hair, or go swimming in the nearby lake.

(My ears are very busy these past several years! They have to support my glasses and hearing aids, and also be anchors for my masks, and be home for my pierced earrings, which I got 3 years ago thinking it would be something new and different to do with my body.)

I once read an article about going into another room and then forgetting why one had gone in there. This is a ubiquitous human experience, but more frequent as one gets older. The article said that one’s attention is hijacked along the way by another thought, usually prompted by something one sees, which causes the memory lapse. One can recall the original mission by going back to the first place and starting over again. (This works.)

I imagine it is much harder for women, whose brains are built for multitasking. Going from one room to another, for us, means that many, many things on the way are calling out to be done. If we start to look around, it’s fatal. Fold that pile of clean clothes! Put away those books! Don’t forget about those postcards you put out to write two weeks ago! Yaaaaaaaaa! No wonder we forget one little job that involved going into another room. For us, a house is essentially a huge pile of jobs, big and little, some of which may get done today, but probably will be postponed to another day, because we were distracted by something else. (For example, my husband refers to my ironing basket as “the graveyard” because whatever goes in there, it never comes out again. Ha ha.) I wonder if other women are like me – half a dozen projects going at once during the day, such as hanging up clothes, sorting a box or drawer, washing dishes, etc. – and come back to them hours later because I was hijacked into sweeping the entranceway, which was really filthy, I noticed as I went past, and then decided (why not?) to sweep the entire breezeway and around the washing machine, and before I know it an hour has gone by, the broom is still in my hand, and I’ve forgotten what I was doing before.

One comforting theory to explain the memory problems of increasing old age is “that the brain is full – it simply has too much data to compute. This is easy to understand when you realize that the name of your third-grade teacher is still taking up space, not to mention the lyrics to Volare.” (Steve Martin, Pure Drivel, 1998). Amazingly, this theory has come to be taken seriously in recent years. After all, it stands to reason that people who have lived longer have more stuff in their brains – especially if they are of the generation in which it was taken for granted that you would memorize at least a dozen telephone numbers. (Now people don’t even know their OWN phone number!)

I guess I’ll have to be more patient with my husband, who gets really irritated and hard to live with when he can’t find something. What else can I do? One solution is to pare down the number of objects I own, which I am trying to do (think Swedish Death Cleaning). Maybe I’ll change my initials from RJO to FJO. Or maybe not. I’d probably forget I’d done it the next day.

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