Do you often get confused between being forgetful and having short-term memory deficits? Most people think they're the same thing, but they're not.

The difference is more than just semantics—it's crucial for understanding how cognitive changes, especially in relation to dementia, truly work.

The Personal Story That Explains It All

A few years ago, my life presented me with a memorable lesson that clarifies the distinction. Here's the short version: I lost my keys at work, a scenario we've all feared at some point. Despite my best efforts to remember where I put them, the keys were nowhere to be found. Fast-forward to a colleague asking if I’d possibly left them in the fridge. Eureka! I had.

Why did my keys end up in the fridge? At home, it's a routine to put my keys on top of the eggs in the fridge so I won’t forget them. But at work, this was out of the ordinary. So what does this tell us?

Forgetfulness vs. Short-term Memory Deficits


We all forget things; it's a universal human experience. It could be names, chores, or where we put our keys. Forgetfulness can occur at any stage of life, and it's generally considered a normal part of aging. In my story, forgetting where I placed my keys was an act of forgetfulness.

Short-term Memory Deficits

This is entirely different and more severe. Imagine if my colleague had asked me if I put my keys in the fridge, and I had no recollection at all of doing so. This is a short-term memory deficit, a failure to store new information, and it’s a defining symptom of dementia and other cognitive disorders.

The Comic Book Analogy

Think of your life as a series of comic book frames. Each frame is a moment in time. For most of us, the frames before and after the current one exist; we remember the past and can plan for the future. But for someone with dementia, only the current frame exists. What's before and what's after simply do not register.

Normal Aging vs. Memory Problems

It's normal as we age for our thinking to slow down or for us to occasionally have trouble finding words. It's an entirely different issue to not remember something altogether.

Why Understanding the Difference Matters

Understanding this distinction not only clarifies how we discuss memory and cognition, but it also sheds light on the mechanisms of dementia. When we can delineate between forgetfulness and true memory deficits, we can better empathize with those experiencing cognitive decline and create strategies to cope with these changes.


It’s important to clarify this difference because dementia isn't just about being forgetful—it's about losing the ability to store new memories. And that’s why differentiating between forgetfulness and short-term memory deficits is vital for everyone, from caregivers to doctors to those who are themselves navigating the labyrinth of cognitive decline.

So the next time you forget where you left your keys, take a moment to appreciate the fact that you can remember you have keys to find in the first place.

Let me know in the comments below if you have questions about dementia that you need answered.

If you would like more information on how to help a parent living with dementia, join our next free workshop here.

Read More:

Best Smart Tech for Seniors Living Alone with Mild Dementia

Driving with Dementia: A Guide for Families

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About the author

“Think Different” Dementia’s owner, Lizette Cloete, OTR/L graduated as an Occupational Therapist from the University of Pretoria in South Africa in 1992. Lizette has almost 30 years of experience as an Occupational Therapist in a variety of settings, the latest being in the home health environment. She enjoys teaching on the topic of dementia, most recently presenting at a national conference on the topic “Dementia Made Simple”.

Disclaimer: These blogs, videos and any work done by Lizette Cloete OT, as a Member of Think Different Dementia, LLC, is given only as educational content and consulting work. This does not create an Occupational Therapist-Patient Relationship. The educational content and consulting work performed should not be considered medical treatment as an Occupational Therapist. The consulting work does not take the place of medical work normally performed by a licensed Occupational Therapist. Please consult a licensed Occupational Therapist for medical advice.

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