Volume 78 | Issue 2
March  2010

Executive Director's Column: Does gray matter matter?

Marsha Herman-Betzen
Ask anyone who knew me back in the day, and they will tell you I was a whiz at remembering the names of the many people I’ve met through ACUI. If someone mentioned a movie, I could immediately identify the stars, director, and hum the score. I was able to proudly recite scores from any year’s Michigan/Ohio State football game going as far back as 1969, when Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes coached. It seems like only yesterday, I could talk about a book I had just read, summarize the plot, discuss the author, and provide you with a list of books other novelists wrote in that same genre. And not too long ago I could rattle off the 30 most recent ACUI annual conference sites including theme, conference chair, and controversy du jour with effortless ease.
Unfortunately those days are gone forever.
Even more troubling is that I am so easily distracted. Multitasking was never easy for me, but now it makes my life chaotic. If interrupted, I find myself asking my colleague, “Where was I?” upon returning to the conversation. I sometimes don’t remember getting an e-mail or deleting it; I have been known to walk around the office like a lost puppy looking for my misplaced coffee mug; and if I attend a lengthy meeting, I begin to daydream, being brought back to reality by hearing a staff member say, “And she is gone!” If I told you how much money I have spent in search of the one fool-proof, fail-safe gadget or system to improve my memory, you would be amused.
It is simply exasperating, but according to the recent New York Times article “How to Train the Aging Brain,” not surprising. The Times health editor and author of “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain,” Barbara Strauch reported: “While it’s tempting to focus on the flaws in older brains, that inducement overlooks how capable they’ve become. Many long-held views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.”
In the same article, Deborah M. Burke, a Pomona College psychology professor, explained that the difficulty recalling information is because “neural connections, which receive, process, and transmit information, can weaken with disuse or age.”
I know the information is still in my head; I need just a little more time and or a bit of a nudge for this information to emerge. My young staff absolutely enjoys the sport of good-natured teasing, especially when it is directed at me. Nothing makes them laugh more than when I have committed a bone-headed faux pas that has something to do with my memory or lack thereof.
Several years ago at the annual conference in Chicago, they witnessed me responding to a handsomely dressed gentleman at the hotel who said, “Hi, Marsha! How is everything going?” I knew this person looked familiar, and I was absolutely convinced that I should know him even though I couldn’t remember his name. I immediately ran over to him, threw my arms unabashedly around his neck, and said, “I am so glad to see you! When did you arrive in Chicago?” The look of surprise on his face has been etched into my brain for a lifetime. Softly and with such kindness in his voice, he said, “I am the general manager of the hotel; we met yesterday at the preconference meeting.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw four staff members bent over in laughter.
As our workplace becomes more generationally diverse, here is what I know to be true: We must continue to find ways to recognize each of our strengths and capitalize on them. I may no longer be able to quickly recall details, but, like a lot other middle-aged people, I continue to be a trusted and valuable resource when it comes to looking at the big picture and developing a vision. The New York Times reports this is because “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.”
I am probably not going to win a timed trivia contest or remember the 29 constitution and bylaw changes that ACUI passed in 2002. It is almost certainly going to take increased patience and time on the part of my young staff to teach me how to use the latest and greatest new high-tech gizmo. I likely will continue to mix up names like Jason and Justin, and Jack and Zack, or occasionally call my 14-year employee Dave, “Keith,” my husband of 34 years (trust me, I know the difference). However, my ability to solve complicated problems is coveted by staff and volunteers, so they continue to seek my opinion and advice. And in my mind, there is no question that I am better at those skills today. If I have to resort to Googling the score of an old basketball game or the original artist of a particular song, so what!