How to Improve Working Memory

How to Improve Working Memory


Those of us who have normal cognitive function rarely think about the number of tasks our brains are doing at any given time.  We drive, cook dinner, write birthday cards, and accomplish a whole host of daily activities without giving much thought to all of the information and steps that are required to carry out each task. But people with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and brain injuries experience cognitive decline that makes everyday tasks difficult. Although it’s not always possible to reverse the decline, working memory can often be strengthened with the help of memory occupational therapy.

What is working memory?

Working memory refers to the thoughts and information you hold in your mind so you can use them to complete a task or follow multi-step directions. Working memory is the ability to act on past memories and use the information in new situations. It helps us to learn and to build on what we already know in order to accomplish tasks and to solve problems. We use working memory many times a day, every day. We use it to cook, to bathe and dress ourselves, to engage in conversation, to follow directions, to remember phone numbers, and in many other daily activities.

Of course, we all have occasional lapses in working memory, such as when we go to the grocery store and forget two of the six things we’d planned to buy, or when we misplace our keys. These minor lapses are usually more indicative of trying to do too much at once than they are of a decline in functioning. Most of us employ strategies, such as writing grocery lists and adhering to routines to avoid or compensate for these lapses. Similar strategies are an important part of occupational therapy for memory loss.

Occupational therapy activities to improve working memory

Occupational therapy can go a long way toward helping seniors to compensate for memory loss and maintain maximum independence. Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) can all affect a person’s ability to retain the information required to complete everyday tasks.  Occupational therapy can help by providing support to improve working memory and maximize on the patient’s strengths. Some of the steps an occupational therapist might take are:

  1. The reduction of anxiety, stress, and overload

  2. Establishment of clear routines

  3. Visual reminders (such as a checklist posted on the bathroom mirror in order to remind the patient about the steps to getting dressed in the morning).

  4. Activities to strengthen working memory

An experienced OT will have a wide range of activities to engage each individual patient’s interests while helping to strengthen their memory and promote independence.  Examples of working memory activities in occupational therapy include:

Image matching – Picture matching targets visual memory skills. This is an activity that can be made more or less difficult in several different ways, and the occupational therapist will help determine the best level of difficulty for each patient.

Word matching – This activity targets verbal memory skills, and like picture matching can be adjusted for various levels of difficulty.

Item categorizing – Occupational therapy activities that ask patients to put items into categories (such as “items that belong in the kitchen”) help to strengthen working memory.  They can be done with pictures, words, or household items.

Task sequencing – Following recipes, doing laundry, and setting the table are all examples of multi-step tasks. An occupational therapist might use these familiar tasks to help strengthen e a patient’s working memory.

Aerobic exercise or resistance training – This one might come as a surprise, but research suggests that resistance training and aerobic exercise an actually strengthen your brain! Some occupational therapists make it a point to engage their patients in physical activity for both body and brain health.

Bella Vista offers occupational therapy in San Diego

At Bella Vista Health Center, our occupational therapy programs are designed to help maximize functional independence and quality of life for patients with a wide range of conditions, including dementia, Alzheimer’s, and MCI. If you or someone you love is seeking occupational therapy services in a safe and nurturing environment, please give us a call at (619) 644-1000 or come visit our 5-star skilled nursing facility in Lemon Grove today.