How to Remember Names

A former elementary school teacher helps people combat forgetfulness




Photo by Mike Olliver

Fifteen men and women gather around tables at a senior center in Silver Spring with a common goal: to improve their memory. They share their struggles of putting a name to a face, entering a room only to forget why they went there, or trying to think of a word that escapes them.

The participants find comfort—and some laughter—in the discovery that they are not alone. Sue Stimak, a 65-year-old Silver Spring resident who teaches the men and women in a five-week Memory Academy class through Holy Cross Health, explains that their brains age along with the rest of their bodies—but reassures them that there is something they can do about it.

Part support group, part skill building, the class uses The Memory Bible, a book by Gary Small of the UCLA Longevity Center, and a curriculum developed at the university to teach participants memory techniques.

Stimak, a former elementary school teacher, became a Memory Academy instructor about eight years ago after a two-day training class. “I love learning,” says Stimak, who also teaches fitness classes for seniors. “I was getting up there in years, too, and thought this would be good information.”

Stimak helps Memory Academy participants who are experiencing normal memory challenges associated with aging to find strategies that work. The participants typically range in age from 50 to 80, although the strategies can help anyone.

Forming connections is a common theme in the training. To remember a grocery list, for instance, Stimak suggests grouping the items. Or to remember two things, create a mental snapshot of one thing you want to recall and link it to the other item—sometimes the zanier the better. To remember you parked on Level 3B, visualize three bees buzzing.

Still, we all make mistakes and need to have a sense of humor about it, Stimak says. Once, Stimak was putting up fliers for the memory class when she ran into a woman who was new to her water aerobics class. “I had in my mind her name was Sandy,” Stimak says. “I came up to her and said, ‘Oh, Sandy, how are you doing? Here’s information on my memory class.’ And she starts laughing. She said, ‘It’s not Sandy. It’s Jenny.’ I said, ‘See, I need this class as much as anybody else.’ ”

In her own words...

Selective Memory

“We are bombarded with so much it’s hard to sort out what’s important to remember and what isn’t. You don’t have to remember everything. That is why we use reminders like alarms on phones or clocks—those are triggers to help you.”

Don't Get Discouraged

“A big part of memory training is telling yourself: ‘It might be hard, but I am going to try my best to do it.’ We try to turn it around and make it into a positive thing.”

Senior Moments

“Sometimes [a memory lapse] will happen once a day, sometimes it won’t happen in a month. Just laugh and say, ‘Oh, that was a senior moment,’ because just about everybody has had one and they can totally relate to you. Go on and continue with what you were saying, or change the topic.”

Paying attention

“Many times when you say, ‘Oh, I forgot this or that,’ you haven’t really forgotten it. You just didn’t pay attention in the first place to put it in your brain.”

Remembering Names

“As you listen [to an introduction], think about what his or her name sounds like or means to you. Try to associate the name with something you know, or maybe the name creates an image. …For Robin, you can think of the bird. If the last name is Berger, you can think of a hamburger. If the name is Sylvia, what could you come up with that is similar? Silver. It doesn’t have to be exact, it just has to be close enough to trigger your memory.”

What She Forgets

“I’ll be in the middle of a sentence, and the word is just not there. There are a couple strategies I use. I start thinking of adding more information. Or, if I’m teaching an exercise class, I’ll be doing a jumping jack and all of a sudden if the word doesn’t come, I’ll say, ‘Do this’ [and show a jumping jack]. And they know what to do.”

Caralee Adams is a freelance writer who lives in Bethesda and covers education, parenting, personal finance and health for local and national publications.

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