Mnemonics for Seniors

  • Mnemonics can be effective strategies for older adults, but they require more training than younger adults
  • Mnemonic strategies with less memory load, like the keyword and the face-name association methods, are better strategies for older adults than strategies with a high memory load, such as the pegword and loci methods
  • The durability and effectiveness of mental images are enhanced if you spend some time attending to the quality of the image (e.g., how pleasant it is)
  • Because older adults have more trouble changing their habits, they are much less likely to continue to use a new method without explicit instructions to do so
  • Mnemonics that involve words rather than images may be more useful for most older adults
  • Mnemonics are not particularly useful for remembering information heard in the course of conversation, remembering an action performed, remembering to do something. Teaching yourself to repeat information is probably a more useful skill.

Aids to memory such as acronyms, rhymes, linking information by creating visual images or making up a story, are called mnemonics. Most popular memory courses teach mnemonic strategies. It is however only one type of memory strategy.

Mnemonics are however particularly appropriate for remembering names and dates. In a survey of over 100 elderly adults, learning and remembering people's names, and learning and remembering dates, were the two memory skills they most wanted to improve (Leirer Morrow Sheikh & Pariante 1990).

However, although mnemonics can be very effective, they do require a great deal of effort to master. In this page I report on research into the usefulness of various mnemonic strategies for older adults.

Pegword method

The pegword mnemonic is a strategy for learning lists. You memorize a list that converts numbers into visual images (one is a bun, two is a shoe, etc), and then use those images as pegs for the items you wish to remember. Thus, to remember a shopping list you imagine each item in turn with these images: an apple in a bun; a shoe full of beans; etc.

While the pegword strategy is effective, it does require a lot of training to be used successfully, and doesn't appear to be a good strategy for older adults.

Four studies have found no lasting improvement in memory when middle-aged or elderly subjects have been instructed in the pegword technique (Smith 1975a, Mason & Smith 1977, Hellebusch 1976, Wood & Pratt 1987).

Method of loci

The method of loci (places) is the classic mnemonic, first invented by the ancient Greeks, and is considerably easier to learn than the pegword technique. Using a place you know very very well - perhaps a familiar route, your house, or a particular room in it - you mentally visualize the items you want to remember in particular places.

This technique has had somewhat more success in improving memory in older adults, although not to the extent seen in younger adults taught the strategy. This may be due to older adults' slower rate of processing information. Older adults who are already experienced in using imagery are likely to find the technique more useful.

Robertson-Tchabo, Hausman, & Arenberg (1976) found elderly subjects successfully used the method, but only when explicitly instructed to do so.

Anschutz, Camp, Markley & Kramer (1985; 1987) found elderly subjects could be trained to use the method to remember shopping list items, but tended not to use it when asked to learn new lists several weeks later, and many reported not using the strategy when interviewed several years later.

Rose & Yesavage (1983); Kliegl, Smith & Baltes (1989) found the improved memory performance seen in elderly subjects was less than that found for similarly trained young adults.

The reduced benefit of the method to older adults may be due to their slower rate of processing information. Lindenberger, Kliegl & Baltes (1992) found that elderly adults who were experienced in using imagery (graphic designers) performed better than other elderly adults, although still not to the level of young adults.

Keyword method

One of the most effective mnemonic strategies is the keyword method. This is particularly effective for learning new words. Gruneberg & Pascoe (1996) had success in teaching a group of older women Spanish words using the keyword method of foreign language learning.

Face-name associations

Perhaps the most widely used mnemonic is the face-name association method. This strategy involves choosing something distinctive about the face, finding a word or phrase (the "keyword") that is similar to the name, and creating a visual image that links the distinctive feature with the keyword.

Yesavage & Rose (1984a) found older adults significantly improved their memory of names using this method, although the improvement was limited (they still only remembered 24% of names - but this was double what they remembered prior to training).

General remarks about mnemonic training

Long-lasting memory improvement is hampered by the difficulty older adults have in changing their habits - that is, they rarely use a new method without explicit instructions to do so.

The effectiveness of the method of loci and keyword method can apparently be increased by having the participants make affectiveness judgments (such as judging the degree of pleasantness) of each image they generate. This appears not only to increase the degree of improvement, but also the durability of the images (how long they are remembered for) (Yesavage & Rose 1984b (method of loci); Yesavage, Rose & Bower 1983 (face-name assoc)).

While relaxation training may improve learning in elderly adults who are anxious, it appears to hinder learning if the participants have low anxiety levels! (Yesavage, Rose & Spiegel 1982)

It does appear that age affects mnemonic training, in that it becomes less effective the older you are, especially with the more complex method of loci vs the simpler keyword methods (Yesavage, Sheikh, Friedman & Tanke 1990). This is not to say older adults cannot learn these techniques, merely that that older adults need extensive and intensive training to really benefit (Neely & Backman 1993a,b; Stigsdotter & Backman 1989).

Older adults can learn effectively by teaching themselves, but such instruction needs to be supplemented by periodic group discussions (Flynn & Storandt 1990).

Verbal mnemonics may be more useful for older adults who find imagery effortful. Hill, Storandt & Simeone (1990) found that a take-home manual on the use of organization in aiding memory resulted in substantial improvement. The story method has also been found to be of benefit (Hill, Allen & McWhorter, 1991), although its effectiveness depends on the person's ability to construct a narrative (Drevenstedt & Belleza 1993).

The most problematic memory tasks for older adults however are probably those which involve information experienced only once, incidentally – something heard in the course of conversation, remembering an action performed, remembering to do something. Training in the benefits of repetition is probably of more benefit than mnemonic training, for these instances.


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  2. — 1987: A three-year follow-up on the effects of mnemonics training in elderly adults. Experimental Aging Research, 13, 141-3.
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  5. Gruneberg,M.M. & Pascoe, K. 1996. The Effectiveness of the Keyword Method for Receptive and Productive Foreign Vocabulary Learning in the Elderly. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 102-9.
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