Consulting the calendar is a cure for absentmindedness

As we age, it’s common to stew about where to draw the line between “senior moments” and the first signs of dementia.

Last Thursday I had back-to-back signs of growing forgetfulness — and was troubled.

I arrived at my dentist’s office for a 10 o’clock appointment and wondered why the receptionist was smiling like the cat that swallowed the canary.

“Your appointment was Tuesday,” she said.

I had entered the appointment on the wrong day on the calendar, then ignored the email reminder. I even ignored the text message the office sent after I didn’t show up Tuesday. It was identified only by an unfamiliar phone number, and my brain spun out a sinister theory: The “you missed an appointment” text message was a new kind of sales ploy from a business wanting a callback.

“No worries. It happens all the time,” the gracious receptionist reassured me. I believed her — it wasn’t the first time I’d mixed up an appointment, and friends mention similar lapses now and then.

It was a second screwup the same day that really rattled me.

The appointment rescheduled, I was left with 2½ hours to kill before a 12:45 ushering gig at (I thought) Steppenwolf Theatre. I decided to get on the el and shop on the Clybourn corridor near Steppenwolf. When I arrived at the theater at 12:35 and announced I was ushering, the woman at the box office looked perplexed. There were no plays that afternoon.

“Am I supposed to be at the Goodman?,” I asked myself aloud, while she probably wondered why she should be expected to know my schedule. Destiny of Desire, I said, and she confirmed it was at the Goodman.

Why I don’t know, but I’d felt certain that “usher 12:45” on my calendar — without a place indicated — meant Steppenwolf. Like the dentist’s office, the Goodman had sent out a reminder that I hadn’t paid attention to.

Since the dentist’s office is on Dearborn a block from the Goodman, I could have had a leisurely couple of hours shopping in the Loop before strolling over to the Goodman. Instead, there I was rushing back downtown to where I’d started out.

Luckily, it’s a quick trip on the Red Line between Steppenwolf and the Goodman. I was only 10 minutes late and arrived before usher call. No one at the Goodman knew about this blunder, but I still felt disconcerted. Am I on the slippery slope to Alzheimer’s disease?

Forgetfulness does increase with age, various web sources confirmed, but there’s a great distance between it and Alzheimer’s. Forgetfulness is forgetting where you put the keys; Alzheimer’s is forgetting what the keys are for.

Other things become apparent, too, with Alzheimer’s, such as having trouble understanding instructions, solving problems, planning, or completing familiar tasks; getting lost in familiar places; repeating and repeating what you say.

Whew. I was reassured but still wanted to avoid more spacey episodes.

Absentmindedness, psychiatrists say, is caused by inattention. The cure is to pay better attention.

I’ll confess to inattention, but I also think retirement has something to do with my absentmindedness. My retirement schedule contains very few things that happen at the same time each day or week. Chicago Greeter tours, ushering gigs, occasional medical and other appointments — none is on a fixed schedule. The calendar is strewn with one-time engagements.

A calendar is for keeping track, readers must be thinking. I obviously haven’t been checking mine as often as I should, relying too much on memory.

The clear solution then is to make the calendar complete (with both time and place for every appointment) and look at it before beginning the day.

That would not have kept me from entering an appointment on the wrong date. Paying attention to the reminder email would have. We’re all drowning in email, but some messages really should be opened and read.

As I was finishing this post, a couple of emails arrived from fellow Greeters with whom I’d made tentative plans for next Monday. I hadn’t written the proposed get-together on my calendar. That prompted another resolution: Put tentative plans on the calendar or I could end up double-booking.

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