TBI has a huge effect on your ability to concentrate and focus on anything, and whilst I found that improving my concentration really helped improve my memory, I didn’t just work on it for a while then never have to bother again. Concentration, like fitness, requires constant maintenance and should become a lifelong habit. When you find a way of concentrating that you enjoy then make it a lifelong habit!
However, it is not the only way in which the memory can be improved because even with good concentration, your brain is still exposed to human error. Things that aren’t exposed to human error are things like electronic organisers, dictaphones, calendars or writing things down on good old pen and paper - none of those things forget! I always thought that I didn’t have an electronic organiser, then I remembered that I had a smartphone, and it is very likely that you have one of those too.
The smartphone may be killing the conversational skills of an entire generation, but it is the best brain injury assistant that I have found in 12 years. It is an electronic organiser, dictaphone, calendar and notebook all rolled into one with the option to download many additional apps to solve other problems you haven’t yet come across.
When I first started to use a memory aid, it was a small notebook almost ten years ago and I remember being embarrassed about getting out my notebook and pen to write something down in a shop where others could see me. Fast-forward to 2019 and we now live in a world where videoing yourself in the middle of a busy shopping centre or superimposing virtual rabbit ears on your head then posting it on the internet for the world to see wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow! I hate how much I use my phone. Unfortunately, like much of the population, I am completely addicted. But the good thing is that any embarrassment factor is gone and using your smartphone as a memory aid today will go entirely unnoticed. I have a terrible memory, but I don’t forget that many things because I use my phone to remember things for me.
Some of the functions I use regularly are:
Calendar: I put notes in my calendar wherever I can, even social events. For example, if I arrange to go for a coffee with a friend on Sunday, I’ll put it straight into my calendar. Nine times out of ten, I will have completely forgotten by Sunday. But these days I put it in my calendar and I also set a reminder for 8 pm the night before to send whoever I am meeting a reminder text. I find I must be strict with putting things in my diary straight away. Otherwise, it is at the mercy of my working memory and will likely be forgotten!
Reminders: I use the reminders function to remind me of certain things and set them to go off at the right time. For example, if I have a doctor’s appointment and there is something that I need to ask the doctor, then I will set it to go off 5 minutes before the appointment when I will (hopefully) be sat in the waiting room.
Shopping list: I use a list making app called Paperless, particularly the function where you can make checklists with tick boxes. As you enter items to your list, they appear in bold text with an empty tick box. You can tick them off and they appear underneath the list in text that is greyed out. During the week when I think of something that I need to buy, I go into the app, find the item I need from the greyed-out list and simply uncheck the box to make it appear in bold with an empty tick box. If I have not bought it before, I just make a new item. The next time I go shopping, there is a pre-made shopping list ready for me.
Alarms: These are similar to reminders, just a little more aggressive! Anybody that has spent any time with me will know about my alarms, as I have plenty! I set them to sound at strategic times to ensure that I remember to do certain things at certain times. A couple of examples are ‘take my medication and write in my diary’ every night at 9 pm and ‘take the bins out’ on a Thursday. I am confident that I would hardly ever remember either of these without the alarm to remind me. I live on a small cul-de-sac and we have to take our bins to the end of the street to be emptied - even passing nine empty bins to reach my house wouldn’t be enough to remind me that my bin needed emptying.
Notes: This function replaces the old memory notebook that I used to just write anything that needed to be remembered. Only this has the luxury of a search function, so there is no more searching through old notes to find something ‘you were sure that you wrote down!’.
Email: I usually send and receive any emails from my phone before I log on to a computer as there is virtually nothing a computer can do that a phone cannot.
Voice commands: I once attended ‘Way Ahead’ the national Headway event and I attended a presentation by a lad with a pretty severe brain injury on how he used technology to assist him in his life. He had limited use of his hands and used voice recognition technology a lot. I now use it a lot; to text, to check the weather, check what’s in my diary that day and to read me the news before I even get out of bed.
Habits: ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’. You may be bad at remembering where you put your glasses even though you only had them a minute ago! I used to put my glasses down somewhere momentarily to then forget where. But what was worse, I then couldn’t see and needed my glasses to look for my glasses! How do you solve this? Get into a HABIT and a ROUTINE of always putting them down in the same place. If you do something often and without exception for long enough, then eventually it becomes a habit, i.e. you do it without thinking about it. Some examples of habits I am in the routine of using daily are where I put my keys and wallet down. The first thing I do when entering the house is lock the door and hang my keys in the same place, put my wallet in the same place and if I ever take them off, I put my glasses down in the same place. This means that if I misplace any of these three things, then I can find them quickly.
I know this works because when I go to my parent’s house in Scarborough, I am out of my routine and I almost always lose either my wallet or keys!
Make a Memory Hub: This works in a similar way to making a habit. The idea is that you set up a small area for everything that requires memory. It is an area, preferably a desk, where you keep a calendar, your phone, your glasses, hook for your keys, passport, a computer or laptop, a concertina file for your bills and another concertina file for any receipts of things of value that you have bought. Basically, if it needs remembering, it should be kept in your memory hub; this way if it’s important then you always know where it is! If you need to borrow anything from the memory hub, for instance, your passport to fill in a form, then it stays in your hand until you put it back in its place. You don’t put it down for a second but put it back where it belongs - and you don’t do it in a minute, you do it straight away!
The point of the above memory loss strategies is to alleviate your brain from the stress of trying to remember everything, leaving you free to put your mental energy into something else. If you try to remember something, yet know you have a memory problem, then you make a bigger effort concentrating on trying not to forget. Attempting to concentrate too hard uses a lot of energy and it is likely that you will forget it anyway.
You concentrate using your frontal lobe (the part of your brain behind your forehead). Too much concentration leaves you exhausted and likely with a headache. Don’t make yourself feel like this; there is no need when you can offload the stress and let something else do the remembering for you. You can offload what you are trying to remember on to another person (ask them to help you to remember it) or a memory strategy. The moment you have told somebody or correctly entered it into a device, then you will feel relieved and will no longer have the same amount of anxiety (if at all). Eventually, you will accept that you can’t remember things like you used to before your TBI, but learn to trust the strategies and life becomes simpler and less stressful.