Senior Moments?


As an ever-multitasking millennial and global health practitioner, I was not at all surprised to read about a study that shows that millennials are pretty darn forgetful.  As it turns out, this generation is quite likely to forget what day it is, misplace house keys, accidentally skip a meal, and maybe space on bathing. But here’s the kicker: we’re even more likely to experience these day-to-day memory lapses than senior citizens! That’s right: the next time you’re visiting your family and misplace your cell phone, just ask grandpa – he’ll probably remember better than you.

Really though, are you shocked? Between posting multiple pictures on Instagram and linking them to Facebook and Twitter, getting a daily digest of world news from 10+ sites, working multiple jobs, taking care of my puppy, keeping up on housework, exercising, getting into the mountains as much as possible, maintaining long-distance friendships, checking in with family, being active in local community issues and maybe reading a book for pleasure now and then, it’s no wonder I have to check my iPhone to see what day it is. And my story is not unique.  If you’re a millennial living in America, your life schedule is probably on par with mine. Unless you’re living under a rock or, let’s say, in an adobe hut in the Andes somewhere.

From 2008 to 2011, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Peruvian Andes. Life was much different. Quieter. Simpler. I lived in a modest adobe home with a Quechua-speaking family, in a small farming village called Tumpa, which was nestled in the Cordillera Blanca.  If you haven’t heard of it, the Cordillera Blanca is an impressive stretch of the Andes Mountains and includes 33 snow-capped peaks that tower 18,000 feet. Tumpa is at the base of Mount Huascarán, which clocks in at 22,205 feet. It’s the highest peak in the country, as well as in all the Earth’s tropics. And then there was me, the first foreigner to ever move to Tumpa.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, my assignment was to work with youth on community health issues. With a bachelor’s degree and a good attitude, I convinced school teachers and health post nurses to work with me, the new gringa in town. Armed with flip charts and stacks of Peace Corps manuals, we designed and implemented health curricula in the local school, aiming to change and improve health behaviors. I led tooth brushing and hand washing campaigns, organized community recycling days, planned theater workshops and taught teenagers about puberty and sexual health. When I broached this topic with the adults in Tumpa, asking if I could teach sexual health to their children, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Many of them had become pregnant in their teenage years, and that trend was continuing in their children. My career in global health began while sipping mate de coca in adobe kitchens, while chatting in broken Quechua with my Peruvian neighbors.

Don’t get me wrong – I was not busy all the time. In fact, I was not busy most of the time. Life in Tumpa was quiet and slow. There was barely Internet access or cell phone service – I’d have to stand on my tiptoes in my adobe kitchen window with my arm extended out and the Nokia on speaker phone to have a conversation. In my ample free time, I read books for pleasure, practiced yoga, prepared my meals, shared tea and food with my family and neighbors, washed my laundry by hand, updated my blog, sat on benches and chatted with community members about the weather and crops, and went on long walks in the mountains. The activities were deliberate and happened one at a time. The pace was unhurried.

The biggest different between my life in Peru and my life after Peru is the noise – the ever expanding Workflowy to-do list, the deadlines, the access to information, the happy hours, the meetings. Post-Peru me is a multitasking machine, and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t love it. I’m no expert on memory issues, but I wonder if the pace of the modern day American Millennial is a contributing factor to our general forgetfulness.

Some experts point their finger at stress. “Stress often leads to forgetfulness, depression and poor judgment,” said Patricia Gutentag, a family and occupational therapist. “We find higher rates of ADHD diagnoses in young adults. This is a population that has grown up multitasking using technology, often compounded by lack of sleep, all of which results in high levels of forgetfulness.” Mix in job applications, relationship issues and financial woes in this terrible economy, and you have got yourself a recipe for forgetfulness.

So for my first post to the The Korbel Report, I’d like to make a small point about health from a holistic perspective. The power and potential of technology is so obviously great, especially in the fields of global health and development, but we are only starting to learn about the potential consequences or negative externalities of the tremendous innovations of the Millennial era. Part of me wonders if we just slowed it down a little, lowered the volume, or hit the “off” button more often, would that create some space to sharpen our minds and remember the little things? At this rate, with my phone buzzing and inbox pinging, we may never know.

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