When I was young, I could memorize epic poems with ease and recite the Gettysburg Address years after I learned it in school. I seldom forgot the names of books I’d read, the films I’d seen or who starred in them.
I’m much older now and my memory is showing its age. I often misplace things like the TV remote or my eyeglasses. When I’m introduced to new people, I’ve forgotten their names by the time I walk away. Then there are all those senior moments, when I absolutely know a word or a name but can’t dislodge it from the tip of my tongue. All these things occasionally happened to me when I was younger, but they occur more often now.
Consequently, I frequently resort to memory hacks—creative workarounds that can be used to cope with memory problems. I found some online, while others are tips from friends or what I’ve learned by trial and error. I’ve rounded them up below, along with some techniques I haven’t yet tried.
When you want to remember something you’ve just heard, read or thought about, say the words out loud, so that you not only think them but speak them and hear them. You have five senses, and studies show that the more of them you enlist to create a memory, the easier it is to recall.
Write things down. My desk is festooned with reminders on sticky notes. When something is vital to remember—a doctor’s appointment, for example—the sticky note goes on the bathroom mirror, where I can’t miss it.
Take advantage of technology. Ask Alexa, Siri or another digital voice assistant to remind you of appointments and record ideas and grocery lists. You can also text reminders to yourself and use your phone to photograph things, like the title of a book you want to recommend to a friend.
If you go to another room to get something and then can’t remember what you came for, try going back to where you started. Psychologists speculate that walking through a doorway somehow resets your memory, probably to ensure that you’re ready to deal with a new environment. Memories are strongly linked to the context in which they originate, so going back to where you were when you decided to run that errand can remind you of what it was.
Give frequently misplaced items a home. These days, my eyeglasses are easy to find because I don’t put them down anywhere except in a holder on my desk or on a table in the living room. When staying in hotel rooms, I never have to hunt for the room key (or key card) because I always leave it in front of the TV. (Almost all hotel rooms have a TV.)
Use mnemonics: things that are easy to remember, which can be used to recall things that are harder. When I was a child, we got a handle on how long months were by learning the rhyme that began, “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.” You can make up your own rhymes or songs or create acronyms with initials. Let’s say you need to pick up a few things at the store—milk, eggs, apples and tea—and you don’t want to be bothered writing that down. The first letters of each word spell MEAT—easy to remember. Just don’t forget it’s an acronym and bring home steak instead.
Use the Method of Loci, a favorite tactic of orators in ancient Greece and Rome. You visualize a place you’re totally familiar with and imagine walking through it, putting each thing you need to remember in a particular spot. For that hypothetical grocery list (above), you might visualize a walk through your own home and imagine milk spilling down the stairs into the front hall, a carton of eggs balanced precariously on the edge of a chair in the living room, a giant apple on the dining room table and a tea kettle whistling on the stove. The sillier such images are, the easier they’re likely to be to remember.
If you’re trying to remember something complicated, try explaining it to a friend—or out loud to your reflection in a mirror. The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, because that requires organizing what you know and thinking it through more deeply.
If you have to memorize a long number, keep in mind that the average person’s short-term memory can only retain five to nine digits at a time. It helps to break numbers into shorter chunks, as most phone numbers do: (000) 000-0000.
To help yourself remember whether you’ve already taken a medication, turn the bottle upside down as soon as you remove the pill. (If you take a lot of meds, however, the best solution is a pill-reminder box with compartments for each day of the week.)
To remember the name of someone you’ve just been introduced to, repeat their name immediately (“Hi, Bill”) and repeat it again as you say goodbye. Notice any distinctive features the person has—maybe Bill has a long nose. Memory expert Chester Santos suggests associating names with strong images, since images are often easier to recall than words—and the sillier, the better. To remember Bill Baldwin, for example, you might imagine a bald man winning a race with a $100 bill balanced on his long nose.
One last thing: internalized ageism can affect your memory, and ageism is so pervasive that it’s hard not to internalize it. Studies show that, over time, older people who have absorbed negative stereotypes about aging do about 30 percent worse on memory tests than those with more positive expectations. There’s no hack for shedding internalized ageism, but it helps to be aware of it in yourself.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.