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Feb. 5, 2019

by Carol Zernial, WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

While cleaning out the piles of articles, papers, books, cassettes, etc. that belonged to my mother, we discovered that her anxiety was much more severe than we had realized. We knew that she suffered from anxiety and had once been diagnosed with Panic Disorder, but we didn’t know how hard she worked at managing it.

My sister made an interesting observation: Mother’s anxiety-reducing techniques that she used every day were so ingrained that she was still putting them to good use when she moved into a memory care unit where everything was different – homelike but not home. Alzheimer’s had taken away her words, memories and so much more, but her muscle memory for calming herself was observably intact.

Dancers use muscle memory all of the time. Choreography and steps can be so complex that we can’t consciously think through each individual movement for each part of our body simultaneously. Competitive athletes instinctively adjust to the moves of their opponents, handle the ball effortlessly, and ski or swing the club/bat/racket etc. with the muscle memory of a lifetime of practicing these exact moves over and over again.

My mother could still peel potatoes in the kitchen without any help long after she couldn’t put together a sentence. Muscle memory goes deep. It is routine repetition. They say that anything can become a habit if you practice it for at least 3 months. So what habits would we like to have as caregivers and just to live a better life?

If someone with dementia can retrieve the deeply embedded habits of a long “cleansing” breath, of using humor to calm a tense situation, of reciting words of reassurance to herself and others, we as caregivers can develop muscle memory for habits that we want to exhibit without thinking.

For those of us who seem to be angry all of the time, we can develop the habit of asking ourselves why we are angry and at what or who? This simple question might help us find the real source of our frustration: It could be us. Perhaps we don’t really know what to do. Perhaps we are simply hungry or tired. Perhaps something significant needs to change.

For those of us who are on the run all of the time, overwhelmed by our long “to-do” lists, we can develop the habit of asking ourselves which of our tasks are the most important. What do we have to do today? What can someone else do? What can wait? Can we simply give up?

For those of us who think that everyone and everything is against us, we can ask ourselves if someone or something is really out to get us. Why do we think that person is acting that way? If we were in their shoes, how would we act? If we ran that company, how would we respond to us? We can get in the habit of assuming positive intent and tilting towards being empathetic rather than coming out fighting.

Muscle memory can either keep us in the rut we are currently in by doing the same things over and over. Or we can strengthen some new muscles, and develop new routines and responses that serve us better in our busy lives. If we keep practicing them until they are truly ours, we won’t even have to think about it.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and emeritus Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.

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