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The Role of Occupational Therapy in Managing Short-Term Memory Loss

Cut out of human shaped face with puzzle pieces missing symbolizing STM loss

Overview of Short-Term Memory Loss: Definition and Causes

Short-term memory (STM) loss refers to the inability to retain recent information for a short duration, typically ranging from a few seconds to a minute. This form of memory loss impacts the capacity to recall recent events, conversations, and instructions and can significantly affect daily functioning. It can be caused by various factors, including aging, neurological conditions like Alzheimer's disease and stroke, traumatic brain injuries, stress, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition.

So, what exactly is going on in the brain? In all these cases, the brain struggles to convert short-term to long-term memory, typically due to disruptions in the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of memories. The specific nature of these changes can vary widely depending on the individual case. However, for some people, STM issues may arise due to the following:

  • Neurotransmitter Imbalance: Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that facilitate communication between neurons (nerve cells). In conditions like Alzheimer's disease, there is often a decline in neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, which is crucial for memory and learning (Snowden et al., 2019).

  • Neural Networks and Memory: The brain's ability to remember and process information relies on complex networks of neurons. These networks are like intricate circuits where each neuron is connected to many others, creating pathways for information flow. When a person forms a memory, whether it is short-term or long-term, these neural networks are actively involved in encoding, storing, and retrieving that information. When the neurons, or the connections between them, are damaged or altered, the flow of information gets interrupted (Jiang & Parsons, 2023).

Neurons communicating with each other.
Neural networks play a key role in encoding, storing, and retrieving data.

  • Hippocampus Dysfunction: The hippocampus is a critical region for memory formation. STM loss can occur when this area is damaged, or its function is impaired, as seen in cases of stroke or traumatic brain injury.

  • Frontal Lobe Changes: The frontal lobes of the brain involve many cognitive functions, including memory. Damage or dysfunction in this area, which can result from head injuries or neurodegenerative diseases, can lead to STM loss.

Memory loss teaches us the preciousness of the present, as past moments slip like sand through our fingers.

The Impact of Short-Term Memory Loss on Daily Living

Difficulty in Learning New Information

When STM is impaired, it significantly impacts everyday activities, such as meal preparation for older adults or maintaining an organized calendar. For an older adult trying to meal prep, STM is essential for remembering the steps of a recipe or recalling where ingredients are stored. Without this memory function working efficiently, they might forget crucial steps mid-preparation or repeatedly check the recipe, leading to a fragmented and frustrating cooking process. They may also need help remembering where items are in the kitchen, turning a simple task like making a sandwich into a challenging and time-consuming endeavour.

Similarly, for someone trying to keep a calendar organized, STM is key to recalling appointments or tasks shortly after they are made. If STM is compromised, they might forget to jot down an appointment or misremember the time or day it is scheduled for, leading to missed or double-booked events. This can be especially problematic in a professional setting, where keeping track of meetings, deadlines, and tasks is crucial. The individual might find themselves repeatedly checking emails or other communication for details they have forgotten, which can be time-consuming and reduce productivity.

In both cases, the impairment of STM creates significant obstacles in completing tasks that were once routine and simple. For the older adult, what was once an enjoyable activity of cooking can become a source of anxiety and frustration. In the case of calendar management, the constant struggle to remember and organize can lead to stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed. These examples highlight how crucial STM is for the smooth execution of day-to-day activities and the independence and confidence of individuals.

Challenges in Following Conversations

Short-term memory loss can significantly affect an individual's ability to follow conversations, which in turn can have a profound impact on social interactions and relationships. For instance, consider an older losing track of the conversation's topic or struggling to recall what was said earlier. This can make it difficult for them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion, leading to feelings of embarrassment or frustration. They might also inadvertently repeat themselves or respond inappropriately because they don't remember what has already been discussed. These challenges can make social situations stressful rather than enjoyable, potentially leading to social withdrawal.

In a professional context, imagine someone in a meeting who struggles with STM loss. They may find it hard to keep track of the various points being made by colleagues. This can result in them missing important details or being unable to effectively participate in the discussion. They might ask questions that have already been answered or fail to respond when their input is required, which can be misconstrued as a lack of interest or engagement. Over time, this can lead to a decrease in professional confidence and strain relationships with colleagues.

The impact of STM loss on following conversations extends beyond mere communication challenges; it can affect an individual's ability to maintain social connections, fulfill professional roles, and nurture personal relationships. The resulting frustration and potential for social isolation underline the importance of understanding and support from those around individuals facing these challenges.

Increased Dependence on Others

When someone suffers from short-term memory loss, the increase in their dependence on others can significantly impact many areas of their life. This dependence often involves needing help with routine activities such as cooking, shopping, or managing finances, tasks they might have previously handled with ease. This can lead to feelings of reduced capability and a loss of confidence. There are also safety considerations; individuals may need reminders to turn off appliances or take medications, which can be especially hard for those who have always valued their independence. Forgetting to use a walker and subsequently falling is another significant concern for individuals with short-term memory loss. This issue particularly affects older adults who rely on mobility aids for stability and safety. Forgetting important personal care routines such as bathing, dressing appropriately for the weather, or even eating regular meals can occur. This can impact health and well-being and can be demoralizing for individuals who prided themselves on their independence and self-care.

A caregiver is helping an older adult to dress.

In social settings, they might lean on friends or family members to help them navigate conversations and remember names, making social interactions more stressful than enjoyable. Additionally, in a professional context, reliance on colleagues for reminders about meetings, deadlines, and tasks can affect their sense of professional identity and how they are perceived at work. This growing dependence is not just a practical issue; it's emotionally challenging, affecting self-esteem and sense of autonomy. It represents a significant shift in their lives that requires understanding and support from those around them to help maintain their dignity and quality of life.

The Importance of Occupational Therapy in Addressing STM Impairment

Occupational therapy plays a crucial role in addressing challenges related to STM loss, and enhancing the quality of life for those affected. This role involves several key aspects:

Personalized Cognitive Rehabilitation

Personalized cognitive rehabilitation for STM loss involves detailed assessment to understand the specific challenges faced by each individual. This assessment involves evaluating the person's current STM abilities, identifying the specific areas where they are facing difficulties, and understanding how these challenges impact their daily life. Based on this assessment, occupational therapists then create customized intervention plans that are tailored to address the unique needs of each individual. Memory rehabilitation is a standard part of rehabilitation in many settings, including stroke (das Nair R et al., 2016).

These intervention plans typically include a variety of exercises and activities specifically designed to strengthen STM and enhance overall cognitive functioning. For example, an occupational therapist might introduce memory exercises that involve recalling sequences of numbers or words, or engaging in tasks that require attention to detail and concentration. These activities are not only structured to improve memory directly but also aim to boost other cognitive functions that support memory, such as attention and processing speed.

The activities are often designed to be progressively challenging, gradually increasing in complexity as the individual's memory improves. This approach ensures that the person remains engaged and motivated, and it allows for the continuous adaptation of the therapy to meet their evolving needs. One example of this approach is Spaced Retrieval Training, discussed in greater detail below.

These intervention plans are not confined to clinical settings. Occupational therapists also guide individuals in integrating memory-strengthening activities into their daily routines. This might include strategies for organizing tasks, setting reminders for important activities, or using mnemonic devices to remember key information. The aim is to make these strategies practical and applicable to everyday life, thereby improving the person's ability to function independently and confidently.

"Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose." – From the television show "The Wonder Years"

Compensatory Strategies

One key aspect of these compensatory strategies is the use of memory aids. Occupational therapists often recommend tools such as notebooks, where individuals can jot down important information like appointments, tasks, or instructions. This practice helps in externalizing memory and reduces the reliance on impaired STM. Similarly, electronic reminders, such as alarms or calendar alerts on smartphones or other devices, are invaluable for remembering important dates and times. Visual cues, like sticky notes placed in strategic locations (e.g., on the fridge door to remind one to take medication), also play a crucial role. It may also involve setting up large paper calendars in a prominent place where the individual can easily see and refer to them, or using color-coded systems to categorize and prioritize tasks and appointments. These visual cues serve as constant reminders, helping to compensate for lapses in STM.

A calendar with a sticky notes reminder that says "Schedule your Appointment"

Adapting Daily Routines

A primary strategy involves establishing consistent and structured daily routines. Consistency helps to create a predictable pattern, reducing the need for constant recall of what comes next. For example, an occupational therapist may work with an individual to develop a fixed schedule for meals, medication, exercise, and other daily activities. This structure can significantly alleviate the cognitive burden associated with remembering each task, as the regularity of the routine itself aids in cueing the person about what to do and when to do it.

In addition to establishing routines, OT also involves organizing the living environment to make it more conducive to someone with STM loss. This can include simple but effective strategies like labelling cabinets and drawers in the kitchen or organizing items in the home in a logical, easy-to-remember manner. For instance, keeping all items related to a specific task, such as bill paying, in one designated area can help cue the individual about what needs to be done, minimizing the reliance on memory.

Occupational therapists might recommend simplifying tasks by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps. This simplification can make complex tasks less overwhelming and easier to remember and execute. For example, instead of viewing meal preparation as one large task, it can be broken down into steps like choosing a recipe, gathering ingredients, and then cooking, making the process more manageable and less reliant on memory.

Enhancing Safety and Independence

Occupational therapists work to identify these risks and implement strategies to mitigate them, thereby enhancing safety and promoting independence. One common area of concern is the risk associated with forgetting to turn off appliances. This can be particularly dangerous in the kitchen, where leaving an oven or stove unattended could lead to fire hazards. Occupational therapists address this by helping individuals establish safety routines, such as always checking the kitchen before leaving the house or going to bed. They may also recommend the use of automatic shut-off devices or smart home technology that can remotely control and monitor appliances.

Medication management is another critical area. Forgetting to take prescribed medications or taking them incorrectly can have serious health consequences. Occupational therapists assist by setting up medication management systems, such as pill organizers with daily compartments or using medication dispensers with alarms. They also educate clients on strategies to associate medication-taking with other ingrained daily habits, like having breakfast, to ensure consistency.

A person fills a weekly pill box organizer

In addition to addressing specific risks, occupational therapists also work to enhance the overall safety of the living environment for individuals with STM loss. This might involve organizing the home to reduce clutter and the risk of falls, installing grab bars in key areas like the bathroom, or ensuring adequate lighting throughout the house. These environmental modifications not only make the space safer but also easier to navigate and comfortable.

Furthermore, OTs often collaborate with family members and caregivers to create a supportive environment. They provide education on the nature of STM loss and practical ways to support the safety and independence of their loved ones, such as how to effectively remind them of important tasks without undermining their autonomy.

By identifying potential safety risks associated with STM loss and implementing practical strategies and environmental modifications, occupational therapists play a vital role in enhancing the safety and independence of individuals affected by memory challenges. This comprehensive approach not only addresses immediate safety concerns but also supports the overall well-being and dignity of these individuals.

Exploring Spaced Retrieval Training: An Evidence-Based Method for Enhancing Memory

Spaced retrieval training is a cognitive rehabilitation technique used to help individuals with STM impairments. This technique leverages the spacing effect, a well-documented psychological phenomenon where learning is more effective when study sessions are spaced out over time rather than conducted in a single, prolonged session.

The basics of spaced retrieval training involve:

  • Teaching Information or Skills: The therapist first selects a target piece of information or skill that the individual needs to remember. This could be anything from a name or a face to a simple task like turning off the stove.

  • Initial Recall Attempt: After introducing the information or demonstrating the skill, the therapist asks the individual to recall it after a short interval – typically a few seconds to a minute.

  • Gradually Increasing the Interval: If the individual successfully recalls the information, the therapist gradually increases the time interval before the next recall attempt. If the recall is unsuccessful, the interval is shortened or remains the same.

  • Repetition and Gradual Extension of Time: This process of recall and gradual extension of the time interval is repeated several times. The goal is to extend the time intervals progressively, helping the individual retain the information or skill over increasingly longer periods.

  • Real-world Application: The therapist encourages the individual to apply the learned information or skill in their daily life, further reinforcing the learning.

The effectiveness of spaced retrieval training lies in its ability to strengthen memory through repetition and the gradual extension of recall intervals. This method is believed to enhance the encoding and retrieval pathways in the brain, making it easier for individuals with STM loss to access and use the information or skills they have learned.

Spaced retrieval training is particularly beneficial because it is adaptable to the individual's pace and capabilities, can be easily incorporated into everyday settings, and requires no special equipment or materials. It’s a practical and effective tool for helping individuals with memory impairments improve their recall and, consequently, their independence and quality of life.

Some die sitting on a table wit the word short long term relating to memory.

Spaced retrieval training is an evidence-based technique supported by research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. This method has been studied extensively in the context of memory disorders, particularly in individuals with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and has shown effectiveness in improving memory retention (Creighton et al., 2013).

The gradual fading of memory brings a silent change, erasing familiar names and faces from our world, and leaves us in a recognizable and strangely foreign place.

In the context of dementia and other memory impairments, research has shown that spaced retrieval training can help individuals remember important information such as names, tasks, or safety instructions. It has been particularly effective in teaching practical, everyday skills and information that can improve the quality of life and independence of those with memory impairments.

However, it's important to note that while spaced retrieval training has shown positive results, its effectiveness can vary depending on the individual, the severity of their memory impairment, and other factors such as the nature of the information or skills being taught. It is often most effective when used as part of a broader therapeutic approach that includes other cognitive and behavioural interventions.

Case Study: Using Spaced Retrieval Training to Remember to Turn Off the Stove

Background: John, a 68-year-old retired teacher with mild cognitive impairment, has been struggling with short-term memory issues, particularly forgetting to turn off the stove after cooking. His occupational therapist decides to use spaced retrieval training to address this specific challenge.

Step 1: Setting the Functional Goal

  • Goal: To remember to turn off the stove after cooking.

Step 2: Initial Question and Response

  • Implementation: The therapist asks John, “What should you do after you finish cooking?”

  • Response: If John answers incorrectly or is unsure, the therapist provides the correct answer: “Turn off the stove.”

  • Repetition: John repeats the answer back.

A sticky note located on a stove with a reminder writing Turn off Stove??

Step 3: First Recall Attempt

  • Timing: After 15 seconds, the therapist asks John the question again.

  • Response Assessment:

    • If John recalls correctly, move to step 4.

    • If incorrect, the therapist repeats the correct answer and has John repeat it back, then tries again in 15 seconds.

Step 4: Increasing the Interval

  • Doubling Time: When John answers correctly, the therapist doubles the interval to 30 seconds before asking again.

  • Continued Assessment:

    • Correct response: Continue doubling the interval (1 minute, 2 minutes, etc.).

    • Incorrect response: Revert to the last successful interval.

Step 5: Practical Application

  • Real-Life Practice: John is encouraged to implement this practice during his daily cooking routine.

  • Reinforcement: The therapist asks John to verbally state the action (“I will now turn off the stove”) each time he finishes cooking, reinforcing the behaviour.

Step 6: Monitoring and Adjusting

  • Follow-Up: The therapist regularly checks in with John to assess his progress and make necessary adjustments.

  • Family Involvement: John’s family is also educated on the technique to reinforce the training at home.


After several weeks of spaced retrieval training, John begins to show improvement in remembering to turn off the stove after cooking. His confidence in his ability to manage tasks independently is boosted, and his family reports feeling relieved about his increased safety in the kitchen.

This case study illustrates how occupational therapists can use spaced retrieval training as a practical, evidence-based approach to address specific memory-related challenges in everyday life. By setting functional goals, systematically increasing recall intervals, and applying these skills in real-life situations, OTs can significantly improve their clients' memory retention and daily functioning.

Navigating the Path Forward with Short-Term Memory Loss

As we conclude our exploration of the journey of living with short-term memory loss, it's clear that while this condition presents significant challenges, there are effective strategies and supports available. From the nuanced understanding of how STM loss impacts daily life – affecting everything from learning new information to managing daily tasks and social interactions – to the crucial role of occupational therapy, we've seen that there are pathways to adaptation and improvement.

Living with short-term memory loss is undoubtedly a challenging journey, but it's one that doesn't have to be navigated alone. The support of occupational therapists, caregivers, and loved ones, coupled with the resilience and adaptability of those experiencing memory challenges, can lead to a fulfilling life despite these obstacles. As we continue to advance our understanding and develop new strategies, the potential for improving the quality of life for individuals with STM loss remains bright.

Memory loss is like losing pieces of a puzzle; with each missing piece, the picture of our day-to-day life becomes harder to recognize and complete.



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