Why has my memory been affected?
We store all kinds of information in our memory. We also remember things in different ways, and for different lengths of time. This is known as short-term and long-term memory.
Your short-term memory is like a temporary storehouse for information. It allows you to remember things just long enough for you to use them. When you read a telephone number, for example, you use your short-term memory to remember it for the few seconds it takes you to dial. Some people also call this your working memory.
If you need to remember something for longer than this, it moves to your long-term memory. This lets you recall events and feelings from the past.
Many people have problems with their memory after a stroke, especially in the first weeks and months. However, they may not always be down to a problem with your memory itself.
Most memory problems are actually caused by problems with concentration, because if you’re unable to focus on what you’re being told, you’re not going to be able to remember it later. So if you’re having problems with your memory, you could think about ways to improve your concentration as well.
Emotional problems like anxiety can also make it hard to concentrate. This can make you feel as if you have memory problems.
Signs of memory problems
If your short-term memory has been affected, you may find it difficult to remember:
- What someone just said to you.
- What you were about to do.
If it’s your long-term memory then you may find it difficult to remember:
What can I do about my memory problems?
Write things down
Use calendars or diaries to keep track of appointments and important dates. You can also use them to record things that happened that day.
Make a note of small tasks as you do them, so that you know if you’ve fed the cat or phoned someone.
Write short notes after you’ve spoken with someone. If you do this after a therapy session, doctor’s appointment, or even a chat with a friend, you can go back and remind yourself of what you talked about the next time you see them.
Set your phone or a cooking timer to remind you when you need to take your medication.
Leave things like your keys or wallet near the front door, so that you’ll see them when you go out.
Add pictures of people next to their details in your contact book, to help you remember who they are.
A pill or dosette box can help you to organise the medication you need to take each day, so you can easily see whether you’ve taken it or not. Most pharmacists will sort your medication into special packs for you now, so you know what you need to take each day.
“I carry a notepad and write down everything important I’ve done or been told so I don’t forget.” Elizabeth
Put reminders where you won’t miss them
Leave notes in noticeable places. Buy a pen that you can use to write on your bathroom mirror, or set up a white board somewhere obvious.
You could put up signs in the kitchen to remind you to turn the cooker off, or one on the back of the door to remind you to lock it when you go out.
Keep things in the same place
Labels on cupboards and drawers will help you know where things go. They don’t have to be written labels, you could use pictures instead.
It may help to keep your glasses on a chain around your neck, to stop you from losing them.
If writing is difficult
You could make voice recordings, using a dictaphone or an app on your smartphone. Or use pictures: you can take photos on most phones these days.
If you find writing difficult, then ask people to help you. Ask them to write down the main points of your conversation for you, so that you can take it away to read over afterwards.
Plan your day
Keep to a routine and do certain tasks, like taking your medication or locking your doors, at the same time every day.
Write a ‘to do’ list for the next day before you go to bed. That way you’ll know what you have to do as soon as you get up. You could make it part of your routine to sit down with a member of your family or your carer and do this at the end of every day.
Tiredness and stress will make it more difficult for you to concentrate and take in information, which will mean you’ll struggle to remember it later. So make sure you plan time to rest throughout the day as well.
Try mental techniques
Verbal prompts can help too. Some people use acronyms or sayings to help them remember things. One lady told us she thinks of “SLAC” when she leaves the house, so she knows she needs to Set the alarm, Lock the door And Close the gate.
Or try using mental pictures, so if you need to remember an address, like Clifton Road, picture a road leading up to a cliff.
Focusing on a particular feature can help you remember people – so you may remember that your consultant is the doctor with a moustache rather than the one with the glasses.
Some people find repeating information can help them to remember it. So when you’ve been told something new, you could get someone to ask you a few seconds later if you remember it, and then again a few seconds after that, and so on. Once you’ve remembered it for a short period, it may be more likely to stick.
“Leave extra time to do things. It might sound obvious but if you’re in a hurry to get to an appointment the stress can make memory recall and communication worse.” Joanie
Can memory games help?
There are number of games and exercises (most of them computer-based), which aim to improve your memory. However, it’s difficult to say for certain whether these really help.
Research has shown that some memory exercises can help people to improve, but they need a therapist to work through the tasks with you to make sure that you’re doing them in the right way. Even then, the improvements people see don’t tend to last very long and are difficult to apply to tasks that aren’t part of the training.
Many people play memory games at home and do find them helpful. However, they may not always be testing your memory in the way that you think they are. When you’re playing on your own, it’s very easy to use guess work or trial and error to get to the correct answer, rather than your memory. It’s something we all do and you probably won’t realise that you’re doing it. But that’s why most experts would say you need a trained professional to work through memory exercises with you, to make sure you’re doing them correctly.
Find out more about cognitive problems after stroke.