Memories are made of….

Rena Yudkowsky, Memory Coach,       
Photo credit:  Zelda Lubling
Rena Yudkowsky, Memory Coach Photo credit: Zelda Lubling

How will this past year be seen – in the future, when we have hopefully stepped far away from peering down the tunnel of this pandemic – what will our individual or collective memories be?

As someone who’s spent time working on family history, I’m struck by the different points of view family members sometimes bring to recollections of times past.  Will that also be true of this year after it becomes history?

This is Google’s take, now, on how we googled away 2020:

Some among us experienced the very worst that the pandemic could throw our way – we offer our warmest empathy to them.   Some are still living with the anxiety, the dread of not knowing the outcome for a person close to them who is seriously ill or whose source of income is permanently shutting down.

Most of us though, while not necessarily unscathed, have not been critically injured.  On that future day when we’re again sitting cozily surrounded by family and friends, will we give a backward glance to this time, or will we just slam the memory doors shut behind us and look straight ahead?  I asked an expert on memory for her thoughts.

Rena Yudkowsky is a professional memory coach and experienced geriatric social worker.  Her web site, called Memory Matters, features her blogs, with its many tips, and announcements of the courses she offers:

Rena’s FaceBook group attracts English speakers from all over the world and carries helpful videos.  She actually jumped into the online format before the rest of us were immersed in it during our months of lock-downs and distancing.  “It was providential. I started a year before we knew about Covid-19 with a very interactive program.  We had a small group, but they came from all over the world – that’s the beauty of working online,” she said.

Full disclosure:  I first met Rena Yudkowsky nearly 20 years ago when we were both working at Melabev, a non-profit organization based in Jerusalem for memory impaired older adults and their family caregivers.

Rena now addresses people over 50 with garden variety memory issues.  She presents coping skills and techniques for remembering your neighbors’ names and where you put your keys, or face masks.  Caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients or similar dementia have heightened concerns when their conversation hits a blank or senior moment; they are afraid that they are “losing it” like their loved one did.  Therefore in addition to presenting mental exercises for strengthening memory skills, Rena reassures her viewers that they are normal and can develop ways for retrieving the words that are on the tip of the tongue.  She radiates an optimistic, “You can do it!” attitude.

Below is an edited version of our discussion this week.

Rena, in a recent webinar you stated that memory issues are aggravated by stress, lack of exercise and limited socializing.  Do you see the stress, the being grounded and the limited in-person socializing that epitomizes this pandemic, impacting on our memory skills or mental health?

Absolutely!  All of this is certainly affecting cognitive health!  Stress impairs your ability to focus and function.   And loneliness is a killer.  There’s a web site, the Unlonely Project at that claims that loneliness and the physical isolation caused by Covid-19 are “as lethal as 15 cigarettes a day.  It’s one of today’s major public health crises.”  We tend to underestimate the effects of isolation.

But then the question is, “What are we going to do about it?”  Let’s talk about what we can control.  We’re being challenged, with so much uncertainty right now.  So we need to face the challenge and be creative.

  • For example, for my parents’ special anniversary this year, we celebrated with them on Zoom. With Zoom, I admit, you can’t hug the grandchildren or cuddle a newborn great-grandchild, but you can see them and “visit” with family members who live far apart and who, if you celebrated in person, might not be able to attend!  We could connect in a way that we might not in person.
  • People can reach out to other people. I know two women who have set up a word game, Jotto, that they play with each other every day just using their phones.  There are probably more games like this.
  • Some people right now miss the gym programs or other forms of exercise that they once had. But we can still go out walking or do some dancing in the living room.  A 20 minute walk every day can get the blood pumping to the brain.
  • Online you can find yoga classes for free. Yoga is not only calming, it’s also mentally stimulating.
  • For more mental stimulation, learn something new every day. That creates new neural connections in the brain, neuroplasticity.  This neuroplasticity means that our brain cells can adapt and change according to new circumstances.  Our brains are capable of continuous development.
  • For treating anxiety and stress, I recommend meditation or prayer. Meditation can be very relaxing.  T’fila gives bitachon (inner security).  Believers know that G-d can take care of all of us.  We turn it over to Him – He’s running the world anyway, so we can let go.
  • Many people, when they “blank” or have a senior moment, become upset. Being anxious just aggravates it.  Take a few deep breathes when you get stuck in trying to recall something.  In a little while, if you don’t force it, it will come back.
  • Also, when I pray for the list of people who are ill, I am reminded to be grateful for my own health. Being grateful for what we have is very important for our mental health.
  • We also need to take care of our need for sleep. Being well rested enables us to eliminate negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

Although your focus is short term memory issues – what will we, in the long term, likely remember from this period?  What will we take away?

That will be very individual, based on our experiences.  For some people of course there will be the memories of grief and loss.  For the rest of us, it will depend on our natures – whether we are very sensitive to any kind of upset or change, or whether we can take things in stride and stay relaxed.  There are studies on gender differences that show that women, who are considered to be more emotional and more verbal in general, often have better memories of stressful times.  Different personalities – perceptions – upbringing will determine what we take away from this time.

Many of us have learned to live with uncertainty during the pandemic and the accompanying government regulations.  During this time we learned to live one day at a time.  We may always have known we should do that, but now we really learned that lesson.

We learned to live with less, to be less materialistic, to live without some things we use to consider essential.  Remember before last Pesach when eggs became scarce?  We lived with that!

Despite a lot of anxiety and depression, we learned to be resilient, to do more than we thought we could.

Everyone is facing special challenges right now, but caregiving for a person diagnosed with severe memory loss is particularly challenging.  Caregivers need to take good care of themselves!

One of the experiences I have is the minyan that meets in the parking lot in front of my house.  I love it!  Three times a day I hear them!  That will be one of my take-aways of this time.

How did you get into this – offering understanding and coping skills to laypeople?

When I began working at Melabev I took Memory courses that Leah Abramowitz* had coordinated.  She then asked me to present what I’d learned to the Melabev staff.  I continued to research the field after that and eventually built my program.

*Leah Abramowitz, co-founder of Melabev, was its director when Rena worked there, and Mrs. Abramowitz also ran the Geriatric Institute that offered a range of courses for professional staff.  In 2008 she was awarded the honor of “Yakir Yerushalayim,” Worthy of Jerusalem, and last year the “Bonei Zion” Prize by Nefesh B’Nefesh for outstanding Anglo Olim for contributions to the country.

Her most recently published book , Aging in Wellness and Adversity, contains some 25 vignettes illustrating issues that families and professionals face in caring for vulnerable seniors.  A variety of family constellations are depicted.  Currently Leah Abramowitz is the coordinator of courses in English and Hebrew through Herzog College that deal with memory issues.  The courses are geared for professionals and interested lay people.

Improving your Memory שיפור הזיכרון – לדוברי אנגלית

About the Author
Susan was born in McKeesport, PA and grew up in Chicago, receiving her B.A. in English Language & Literature from the University of Chicago. She studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, for one year in the early 60s, and made Aliya in 1987. She was a teacher and has been a freelance writer. Susan retired after two decades of public relations and grant writing for the non-profit, Melabev. She is currently working on family history projects.
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