Living With Changes in Your Memory


Memory is a complex process that goes on in the brain. Difficulties with memory are common following a brain injury. The difficulties can vary from person to person. The same problem can affect different people in different ways.


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How memory works

keypoint Memory is our ability to take in information and events, to store them and recall them in the future.

 You may think of a memory as an event you either remember or you don’t. In fact, memory is a process that involves many different parts of our brains working together.

The way memory works is very complicated. So to make it more straightforward, we will look at memory as having three steps:

How memory works

  1. taking in information and events
  2. storing information and events, and
  3. recalling the information and events later


It might help to think of memory as similar to using a filing cabinet.

Taking in information or events is like picking up files you are going to put in a cabinet


taking in


Storing information or events is like putting the files in the cabinet to keep them safe.




Recalling information or events is like taking the files out of the cabinet again.



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How a Brain Injury Affects Memory

A brain injury can cause your memory to stop working properly. The injury can affect more than one of these steps:

1. Taking in

You do not take in information fully so there is no information to store.

2. Storing

You take in information but you cannot put it in to storage. The reason you cannot remember something is because you did not store it.

3. Recalling

You take in information and you store it. However, you have a problem getting the information out of storage. You may be able to remember the information if someone gives you a clue or hint.

It can be difficult to tell which of these three steps is affecting your memory. Some people have problems at more than one step. If you would like to find out more about your particular memory difficulties, a psychologist or occupational therapist can advise you

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Memory Terms Explained

Here is a brief explanation of some memory terms you may have heard since your brain injury:

Amnesia means ‘loss of memory’. It comes from the Greek word for forgetfulness.

Retrograde Amnesia is a loss of memory for events before a brain injury.

Anterograde Amnesia is a person’s inability to make new memories after a brain injury.

Post Traumatic Amnesia is the period of confusion which happens as you emerge from unconsciousness but before your brain is able to fully process information. In most cases Post Traumatic Amnesia passes when your brain has recovered enough to make sense of what is happening.

Short Term Memory

The phrase ‘short term memory’ means different things to different people. Even experts don’t yet agree on when short term memories get moved into long term memory. However, in the context of brain injury, it is most useful to think of short term memory as the way we make new memories.

We usually transfer information from our short term memory to long term memory by going back over the information. This process is called consolidation. This is why repeating things can help you to remember.

Long Term Memory
We store things that happened weeks, months and even years ago, in our long term memory. Then we can recall them when we need to. Long Term Memory is the brain’s system for storing information for long periods of time

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What You Can Do

General advice

While there are no quick fixes for memory difficulties, there are things you can do to work around them.

Get into a routine

For example: have your shower before breakfast every day. Then, feed the cat after breakfast every day.

Reorganise your home

Having your house well organised means you will not need to rely on your memory so much. For example: have one place in the kitchen to put your keys and phone when you come in.

Improve your general well-being

Eating healthily, exercising, getting enough sleep, and learning to cope with stress and mood changes, can all have a positive effect on your memory.

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tools Tools to aid your memory


Put your appointments in to your diary or your phone. Get in to the habit of checking every morning to see what is coming up that day.

Wall Calendar

Use a wall calendar, as well as a diary or phone, to keep track of your appointments. Then you have a back-up in case you lose your phone or diary. Also, family members can see what’s planned.

Electronic Calendar

All smart phones and computers have electronic calendars now. You can use the electronic calendar to set reminders for appointments and events. Try free software such as iCloud or OneDrive. These keep your phone calendar and contacts safe, even if you lose your phone.

Alarms and timers

Use your phone alarm or a timer, to remind yourself of things you need to do every day – for example: taking tablets. Alarms and timers are also handy for cooking or if you are taking a rest during the day.

Managing Bills

Set up all your household bills for automatic payment by Direct Debit. This will save you having to remember them. If you are not paying by direct debit, pay the bill on the day you receive it, or put a reminder in your phone or diary when to pay it. Get a notice board. Pin bills that need to be paid on to the notice board. When you pay a bill, write the date you paid on it. Then put the bill away safely in a file or folder.


Use a note book or diary to write down important information during visits to your doctor, for example. Put a note book beside the home phone for messages.


To-do List: Write down a list of things you need to do each day or type them into your phone. Tick the items off as you finish them.

Shopping List: Keep a notepad for shopping lists handy. Then you can add items to the list as soon as you think of them.

Checklists : Write a list of things you need to remember when leaving the house. For example: lock back door, set the alarm, bring phone, wallet, keys, hand-bag, shopping bags, umbrella.


If you keep your wall calendar, notebooks and to-do lists, all in the one place, you will not have to go looking for them when you need them.

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Tips for Specific Situations

To remind yourself of what happens at appointments:

  • Explain you have a memory difficulty so you need to record notes in a notebook or on your phone or a Dictaphone. Or ask the doctor to write down the important points. Or bring a family member or friend to take notes.
  • At the end of the meeting, check with the doctor that what has been noted is accurate.

To help remember people’s names:

  • When someone new introduces themselves, try using their name a few times during the conversation. Repeating someone’s name like this, can help you remember it.
  • The next time you meet the person, if you can’t remember their name, silently go through the letters of the alphabet. This can help trigger your memory

If people don’t understand why you are forgetful:

  • Explain you have a brain injury that affects your memory.
  • Suggest to family and friends to read this

If you cannot remember what you did recently:

  • Go back over your phone calendar or diary. This can help to remind you what you have been doing.
  • Take photos on your phone and look back at them later.

If you find it difficult to remember information you read:

  • Divide the information in to smaller sections.
  • Read over each section a few times.
  • Write down the main points or use a highlighter pen.
  • Some people find drawing a ‘mind map’ of important points helps them remember. For more on mind maps, see

If you cannot remember how to get to somewhere:

  • Get a printed map of the route you want to re-learn. Highlight key landmarks and mark the route in colour. or Use the map on your smart phone to guide you until you get used to the route again.
  • Ask someone to come with you the first few times if that makes you feel more confident.

If you put things down and forget where they are:

  • Have a specific place for items such as the house keys. Try putting the keys in the same place every time you come in. If you do this every day, it should become automatic.
  • You can buy electronic trackers to help you retrieve misplaced phones or keys. Do a search on the internet for ‘lost item finders’ to get more details and suppliers.
  • If you have mislaid something and find yourself getting angry, try to keep things in perspective: take a step back and remind yourself it will turn up.

To make sure you pass on phone messages:

  • Keep a note book beside the phone for messages.


  • text the message to the person straight away.

To remind yourself to take your tablets:

  • Buy a tablet organiser from the chemist or ask them to put your tablets in a free blister pack. The blister packs clearly show which tablets to take each time.
  • Then, set an alarm on your mobile phone, or clock, for the times you need to take them.

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Further Help and Information


Headway offers free community-based brain injury assessment, counselling and rehabilitation in Cork, Dublin, Kerry and Limerick. t: 1890 200 278 or see our services section .

To access a public Psychologist, your GP can refer you. HSE t: 1850 24 1850 or visit

To find a registered private Psychologist, contact the Psychological Society of Ireland. t: 01 472 0105 or visit 

Occupational Therapists

To access a public Occupational Therapist, contact your local HSE Health Office. HSE t: 1850 24 1850 or visit 

To find a private Occupational Therapist, contact the Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland.  t: 01 874 8136 or visit

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Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Wilson, Barbara A  Memory Problems after Brain Injury published by  Headway UK 2011
  • The Essential Brain Injury Guide, published by the American Academy for the Certification of Brain Injury Specialists 2007
  • Powell T & Malia Kit , The Brain Injury Workbook: Excercises for Cognitive Rehabilitation published by Speechmark Publishing 2013
  • Powell, T. Head Injury – A Practical Guide. Speechmark, Brackley. (2004)
  • Daisley, et al. Head Injury – the Facts. Oxford, Oxford University Press. (2009)
  • See our article on the use of Mindmaps (first published in Making Headway)

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