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Everyday Memory - The Importance Of Context

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These studies suggest that it is very important to understand the context in which everyday memory occurs, and that the context may be more important than age in predicting who will remember and who will forget. In the medication adherence study (Park et al., 1999), older adults were less busy and had a more routine schedule. This type of routine lifestyle can enhance repetitive everyday memory events like taking medications by automatizing these events (Park et al., 1999). Older adults may not have to use much of their active memory resources to remember to take medications if they take pills every morning at breakfast and at night after they brush their teeth. They will automatically reach for the pill bottle due to the chaining of taking medication to other regularly occurring events. In contrast, middle-aged adults' everyday memory is functioning against considerable background noise. Middle-aged adults in the study of Park et al. (1999) reported having too many things to do and leading irregular, unscheduled lives. They were juggling so many competing tasks in their working memory that they allocated less attention to remembering to take medications, and thus forgot more often than older adults, even though they had objectively better memories than older adults. Finally, health likely has a special status for older adults who are experiencing an increasing number of chronic conditions. Failure to take medications may result in serious harm and ill health compared to middle-aged adults, who have fewer conditions and more physical reserves. Thus, older adults are likely to prioritize remembering to take medication and to develop strategies to do so.

All everyday memory events are not equally important to individuals, which explains some of the differences in findings between laboratory studies and naturalistic studies. In laboratory studies, participants are asked to remember information that is essentially irrelevant to their everyday life, and it is not possible to prioritize what is important to them and what is not. If you were traveling in Europe, you would be more likely to forget where you put the token for the subway than where you put your passport, because you would prioritize keeping track of your passport very highly, given the consequences of losing it. It seems likely that older adults will perform well on everyday tasks that are highly prioritized. Laboratory studies on everyday memory also show age differences because older adults are most disadvantaged on everyday tasks that are new to them, since they cannot rely on existing knowledge or routines that have become automatized to support their memory.

When memory supports and routines are removed from a naturalistic environment (as they are in a laboratory), older adults who function very well in their everyday environment may appear to be cognitively compromised. If, for example, an older adult were to move to a new environment, simple tasks such as finding the grocery store, remembering where the bills are kept in the new house, and remembering the new address and phone number would require expenditure of cognitive resources, which do become limited with age (see Park and Gutchess for a review). In addition, memory aids the individual may have relied upon, such as landmarks (a familiar bank or grocery), medical personnel, and friends and family who know the individual's needs, may no longer be present. An older adult in a new naturalistic environment may perform much more like older adults tested on everyday memory tasks in the laboratory. In contrast, older adults in a familiar environment may perform as well as or better than distracted middle-aged adults.

In sum, a full understanding of everyday memory functioning of older adults can occur only if the person, the cognitive demands of a task, and the environment are considered together. To the extent that environmental or task demands on cognitive resources are high, it is likely that older adults will function less effectively than younger adults. For example, if an older adult who has just had heart surgery has to take six new medications upon returning home, he or she may not fare well, because the cognitive demands of this new task are high due to its unfamiliarity. However, this same adult might may take six medications with a high degree of accuracy if this is a long-term medication regimen, because cognitive resource demands would be low due to the high familiarity of the task. Much remains to be understood about everyday memory in older adults, and this is a fertile ground for future research.

DENISE C. PARK MEREDITH MINEAR

BIBLIOGRAPHY

FRIESKE, D. A. P., and PARK, D. C. "Memory for News in Young and Old Adults." Psychology and Aging 14, no. 1 (1999): 90–98.

MORRELL, R. W. P.; PARK, D. C.; KIDDER, D. P.; and MARTIN, M. "Adherence to Antihypertensive Medications Across the Life Span." Gerontologist 37, no. 5 (1997): 609–619.

PARK, D. C., and GUTCHESS, A. H. "Cognitive Aging and Everyday Life." In Cognitive Aging: A Primer. Edited by D. C. Park and N. Schwarz. Philadelphia: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis, 2000.

PARK, D. C.; HERTZOG, C.; LEVENTHAL, H.; MORRELL, R. W.; LEVENTHAL, E.; BIRCHMORE, D.; MARTIN, M.; and BENNETT, J. "Medication Adherence in Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients: Older is Wiser." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 47 (1999): 172–183.

PARK, D. C. M.; MORRELL, R. W.; FRIESKE, D.; and KINCAID, D. "Medication Adherence Behaviors in Older Adults: Effects of External Cognitive Supports." Psychology and Aging 7, no. 2 (1992): 252–256.

REESE, C. M. C.; CHERRY, K. E.; and NORRIS, L.E. "Practical Memory Concerns of Older Adults." Journal of Clinical Geropsychology 5, no. 4 (1999): 231–244.

WEST, R. L. C.; CROOK, T. H.; and BARRON, K. L. "Everyday Memory Performance Across the Life Span: Effects of Age and Noncognitive Individual Differences." Psychology & Aging 7, no. 1 (1992): 72–82.

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