The Memory Gym—Exercising Our Words

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 26, 2017

I don’t believe I have Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia – yet, but I am having memory problems, ones that are common to getting old. All my friends are having this problem. We especially have trouble recalling names, titles or proper nouns. Quite often we say things like, “Oh, you know, what’s her name, you know, who was in what’s that film, the one about, you know, that thing …” Everything is on the tip of our tongue. Often the word or name we’re looking for will pop up in our head hours later, which implies an access problem and not a storage issue. It’s like having a junk drawer with all kinds of stuff, and we know a 1/4 teaspoon measurer is in there somewhere, but we can’t find it. We can usually find the 1 tablespoon measurer because we use it more often.

Is that the key – using our words more often?


I had an idea in the shower. What if I made a list of all the subjects I want to retrain mastery of as I get old, and then for each topic make a list of key words and names that associate with that idea, and then study those lists regularly, would that help? Or does it matter? I have to consider I might be forgetting these words because they aren’t worth remembering. On the other hand, maybe I’m becoming forgetful because I’m not exercising those words enough. What if language is like muscles and could be exercised? We go to gyms to keep our bodies in shape, why not have a gym for pumping words?

Yesterday’s experience of “What Was Her Name?” left me feeling slightly despondent. I have two natures, ones I call Western and Eastern, for their philosophies. My Buddha natures allows me to graciously accept the fate of getting old. It’s natural and inevitable. On the other hand, my Puritanical heritage tells me I should fight till the bitter end – to conquer nature, to stomp it in the ground. If I had been on the Titanic the western side would make a raft out of deck chairs. My Eastern side would sit in a deck chair cherishing the experience.

What’s fascinating about this morning idea of a memory gym is realizing there are cognitive areas I want to maintain and those that I would abandon. That I’d be willing to commit triage on my memories. I’m also fascinating by which topics I’d pick to study. Would I study jazz or politics? Science fiction or science? History or current events?

When they attacked what’s his name for not knowing any world leaders I thought, “Well, shit, I can’t think of any either.” Actually, as time passed I thought of a few. Should I waste time learning the names of Trump’s cabinet? Or would those memory cells be better used memorizing the best jazz albums of the 1950s?

I had a friend who told me before he died, and it was probably suicide, that he had gotten down to loving  only two things in life – Benny Goodman and Duane Allman. I thought that very sad, because I loved countless things at the time. I thought his depression had limited his interests, but now I wonder if it was memory. I can’t remember all those things I loved when I had that last phone call with John.

Growing up we chase after many interests, but as we get older, it gets harder to keep up with all our passions. Our brains get stuffed, and then they start to leak. Do we need to consciously make an effort to retain what we love most?

I’m learning there’s a relationship between words and what we love. Without words to define our memories, everything fades into the background chaos of reality. I have had two experiences of losing my ability to use words. Once in the sixties when I took too much acid, and once when I had a mini-stroke. In each case, as my ability to use words returned I realized their power. I can’t tell you what that feels like, but I can give you something to contemplate. Think of you, your dog and a ball. Both of you see the ball, but what does words give you?

For a Zen master, collie dog, baby, and old person without words, a ball is just a ball. Now think about a football player and fan, and how words let them make so much more of a ball. Right now I love listening to jazz and knowing its history. When my words are gone I’ll still love listening, but I’ll miss the history. What is “A Love Supreme” without the words of the title or the words John Coltrane? Without words it will only exist when playing, like a tree falling in the forest. With words it can exist as part of my personality.

A Love Supreme


10 thoughts on “The Memory Gym—Exercising Our Words”

  1. You’ve been having some great blog entries lately, Jim. The theme of aging seems to stand out. Thanks for them because I’m the same way. I retired in part because I couldn’t remember the names of the kindergarteners in my class anymore. Yikes – not good for the kiddos. lol – I have trouble with names of authors like you had with Berta Merisot – and yesterday I couldn’t think of the word (and now I can’t remember it again – oh yes, the simple word, “exception.”) I’m still okay with book titles and author names but it’s not like it was even 5 years ago.

    I’m really glad this is a normal part of aging rather than an indication I have some form of dementia. My mom is pretty good still but it shows – she’s 93.

  2. Jim–It’s interesting that you are writing about this now. I’m also feeling many of these same things, but I had attributed it to the cold weather and the fact that we are stuck in the house. I usually walk my dogs every morning, but it gets harder with bad weather. We go in snow, but two weeks ago we had 2 days where I fell on “black” ice that you couldn’t even see until you fell on it.

    I think it would be interesting to increase our physical activity and see if that helps our mind function better. I don’t really like Florida, but maybe all old people should go there, just to stay active.

  3. Dear JHW,
    Your write is extremely well. That is the opposite of dementia, so you can relax.


    1. Thanks, Dyvind. But I do have whatever common ailment that comes with age that causes folks to forget words. I don’t worry too much, but all my friends who are my age have it too. I’m a little worse than some, though. Writing helps me retain words.

  4. Ditto. That’s a word I expect to retain for quite some time. I only hope that I retain the understanding of it’s meaning for quite a while. As for a memory castle, well I’d get lost and then the (OMG!I I forgot the f***ing word – chatelain /majordomo /guy who’s supposed to take care of things) would have to find me.
    My Mom is 89, and still at least 60% of the person she was twenty years ago. All the facets of her personality, intelligence and sharply-pointed opinions are still here – they just tend to fade in and out, and sometimes take a short holiday. I’ll skip the litany of now vs then, history, etc.

    She’s still a hard-ass when she wants to be, and sometimes is a lot sweeter than she might have chosen to be. Except when going to the Doctor. Hell, I’m already trying to skew my doc’s opinion every chance I get.

    Probably because I don’t trust him. He’s not 50 yet.

  5. My mom is 93. She has a very good memory, but her words are getting lost – she won’t remember the name of something she wants at the grocery store, she won’t remember the name of her friend. Lots of things. She’ll have to describe them to me – only the name of the thing or person is gone.

    She’s done everything “right” – good food, exercise, social life and mental activities like reading and Words With Friends and playing bridge. I don’t know. I think you can postpone it some, but it’s basically part of aging. Reagan did crossword puzzles – he was president – plenty of mental exercise – it didn’t help him – of course Alzheimers might be different. (My brother has Parkinson’s.)

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