Thresholds, Stairs and Memory Loss

Guest post by Elaine M. Decker, social artist and columnist

If you’re the caregiver for a senior loved one, you’ve probably noticed that memory loss is becoming a problem. They’ll frequently forget where they’re headed when they go from one room to another. Retirees face the same issue. You might think this is because retirees and seniors spend more time in their homes. Turns out, there’s a scientific reason for this memory gap.

The University of Notre Dame published a study some years ago that has only now come to my attention. The author is Professor Gabriel Radvansky, and his ND webpage tells us his research “is aimed at understanding… how younger and older adults differ on their use of mental models.” I’m sure this is a fascinating field, but I’m mostly interested in his paper: “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.”

In that study, subjects either walked through a doorway to another room to get something, or they walked the same distance within a room. Those who crossed a threshold (what Radvansky calls an “event boundary”) showed more memory loss than those who walked within a room. He concluded that these event boundaries compartmentalize activities in the mind, filing them in separate mental spaces. This impedes the ability to retrieve thoughts or decisions made in a different room.

His conclusion comes as no surprise to me. In fact, I can add to his findings. The more doorways you walk through, the harder it is to remember what you started out planning to do. We have a big house. I have things going on from the basement to the third floor and the two floors in between. I rarely get through a day without forgetting which floor I’m headed to, never mind for what reason. The further I have to go, the more likely I am to forget why before I get there.

Speaking of floors, stairs are another major “event boundary.” If something requires me to hit the stairs, chances are I’m going to forget what it was that put me there. If I’m lucky enough to remember why I’ve arrived on an upper floor, I’ll likely realize I left an important paper in the basement from whence I set out. Or I need a tool that’s in a closet or drawer on a lower floor.

My cat Luke’s nail clippers, for instance. He’s usually on one of the second floor beds, but his clippers are in a cabinet off the kitchen. I’m not likely to forget why I’m carrying a bowl of his food upstairs. But it can take weeks before I put the notion of carrying the clippers with me into the equation. Note to self: why not store the extra pair of clippers in the linen closet between the bedrooms? Second note to self: remember where you just put that first note.

I think I know why stairs are such a major contributor to forgetfulness, other than Radvansky's research or Murphy’s Law. It has to do with this charming A. A. Milne poem:

Half way down the stairs is a stair where I sit.
There isn’t any other stair quite like it.
I’m not at the bottom; I’m not at the top.
So this is the stair where I always stop.
Halfway up the stairs isn’t up and it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery; it isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head.
It isn’t really anywhere! It’s someplace else instead!”

There you have it. We lose our minds on stairs because when we get halfway from here to there we’re nowhere. And our minds are happy to join us there.

This leads to the conclusion that the best way to deal with these event boundaries is to eliminate them from the homes of seniors and retirees. In other words, adopt an open floor plan: one enormous room with no doorways and no stairs. My husband loves that loft-style architecture. Me, not so much.

If you’re giving this careful thought, you’ve probably realized that there needs to be at least one door: to the bathroom. Chances are, we won’t forget why we were headed there, no matter how many trips we make in a day. For most of us, that’s one thing to be thankful for. Of course, when we come out of the bathroom, figuring out where to go back to is something else entirely. That's what sticky notes are for. Note to self: add post-its to shopping list.

Retirement Sparks Again is the continuation of Retirement Sparks, humorous reflections on retirement and the ensuing life transition. It’s a collection of year two of blog posts by social satirist Elaine M. Decker, once again showcasing her signature style—edgy, irreverent and self-deprecating. Both of Elaine's Retirement Sparks books are are available on Amazon as paperback and via Kindle as ebooks.

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