Persistence (or impertinence) of memory

Foodless this week. Instead, especially for subscribers, here’s a link to my “WordPress Annual Report” for 2014, which might interest you (numbers of views, busiest day, and so forth). Yes, there was that one crazy day last summer with over 37,000 views on my Powassan report, 110,000 overall… 

And now, lest we forget:

The long-term care insurance memory test

I decided recently to apply for long-term care insurance. This is where you’ll get reimbursed for so many days of being in a nursing home or assisted living facility – or for having custodial help at home. Part of the insurance application includes an interview, either in person or over the phone, and a large part of that interview is a “simple” memory test. Why? Because if you’re having memory issues, they don’t want to insure you because you may be getting Alzheimer’s, and if so they’ll drop you like a bad habit. Such is health care in this country.

They wanted to do the interview over the phone on Friday morning at 9. I was advised several times to take this interview very seriously. Well, one of my congenital failings is not being able to take much of anything very seriously, including any kind of “test” at my age because I swore off “tests” when I graduated from college. So I didn’t give it a second thought until the day before the test when something disturbing happened to me:

I couldn’t remember Jon Voight’s name. I was chatting with my wife about one movie or another, and needed to remember the name of the guy who played Jim in the movie Mission: Impossible, and I was saying, “You know, the guy who played Jim and turned out to be a traitor, the guy in Midnight Cowboy, Angelina Jolie’s father, you know, that guy.” Well, she didn’t know him either, but soon enough it came to me with a big whoop of triumph and self-satisfaction, except that I’d forgotten the spelling (John Voigt? John Voight?) and had to look it up to discover there was no “h” in John.

Whatshisname(Like, who is this guy? I know the face, but…)


Was I having… “memory issues?” Those of us in our sixties, nay, late sixties, may kid each other about our “memory issues,” and some of us in fact do have “memory issues,” and it’s not the least bit funny. Suddenly, I was very seriously determined not to have memory issues come 9 o’clock Friday morning.

(Me, summer ’14, looking dazed. About 15 years after my blog avatar photo, which I still prefer.)


I was pumped on coffee and lubricated with several glasses of water to keep the blood loose and limber through my cerebral arteries. I was also, get this – just a wee bit nervous. At 9:03, Sylvia called. She offered cursory introductions and pleasantries, and serious warnings about not cheating with pen or paper. I promised, no cheating. The interview was being recorded. I must remain focused. Then she explained: “I’m going to speak a list of ten words. After each word, I’d like you to repeat it back to me so I know you’ve heard me correctly. I’m going to do this three times, and after each time I’d like you recite to me as many of the words as you can remember, in any order. Ready?”



“Snood,” I said.


“Prurience,” I said back.



“Prune whip.”

“Prune whip.”

And on through scapula, plumb bob, schadenfreude, anemometer, snifter, exoskeleton.

Okay, these weren’t exactly the words she read, or even in the same dictionary. In fact, and I recall them perfectly, they were quite a bit more plain: cake, park, wisdom, marriage, rest, notice, knee, planet, telephone, and boat. She read them three times, I regurgitated them three times (missing boat once, and I think telephone once), and then she went on to the “animal test,” but just before this, I asked,

“Sylvia, how’d I do on the ten words? I thought I did pretty well!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. White, I can’t tell you that.”

“Well, I think I got at least 9 of 10 – that’s pretty good, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry, I’m not permitted to say.”

Okay, on to the “animal test.” In the “animal test,” Sylvia said there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, which completely defrocked it as a legitimate test and indelibly marked it as a diversionary tactic to distract me from me real mission never to forget those ten simple words. So Sylvia said she would name three animals and I was to tell her which one was most different. Gorilla, camel, cat (I said gorilla – the only biped). Eland, okapi, agouti. No, just kidding, it was lion, chimpanzee, beaver. I said chimpanzee, another primate and biped. On and on it went, and then at the end she surprised, no, blindsided me: “Now. Name as many animals I’ve mentioned as you can.” Well, I gave it my best shot, but I may have missed one or two.

And the grand finale, after the jungle safari escapade, was to recite the ten simple words again. I got ’em all. I was counting them off on my fingertips as I said them. Glory! Success!

“You’re sure you can’t tell me how I did? Just a hint?”

“No, I can’t. It’s all part of your application.”

“Well, I thought I aced it, considering how I forgot Jon Voight’s name and it was driving me crazy two days ago.” (no, I didn’t say this…)

In fact, of course, in this highly connected but fractured world, Sylvia doesn’t even work for the insurer I was applying with. She’s a freelance interviewer, contracting with an outreach company hired by an underwriter who in turn has been hired by the insurance company, and she’ll never meet any of them, or her interviewees. It’s all by phone. All on the clock. All on the script.

Sylvia was perfect. She could be anywhere from her 30s to 70s, pleasant-voiced, script-bound, liquidly mechanical in her dialogue, rigidly sociable in her demeanor, maybe with another name like Joan and not Sylvia. I wonder what her real life is like, what her own memory is like, and if I were spouting cake park wisdom marriage rest notice knee planet boat telephone out loud on a busy street somewhere with people’s heads turning and she magically happened to be there and heard me, if she’d turn to me and say –

“Mr. White! I’m Sylvia, the insurance company phone interviewer! Do you remember me?”

“Sylvia! Of course! I’ve never forgotten you, and I never will!”

The ten words will eventually evaporate from my aging brain cells, but Sylvia will cling to my synapses for ages to come.


Just so you know: you need to remember at least 6 out of the 10 words to pass. Everyone (of course) gets their own unique word list, so you can’t study ahead of time.

The CDC reports that more than half of us will need long-term care at some point in our lives. Costs typically run about $150 to $200 per day.

If you’re interested in LTC insurance, I think the best place to start is the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, a trade organization for the insurers. If you contact them, a broker (not an agent) will call you – one who will try to match the right insurer and plan to your particular situation. In my case, I was lucky enough to land Matt McCann as my broker. Matt was (and still is, on occasion) a prominent radio personality formerly with WUBT in Chicago, and Larry Lujack’s sidekick, but got into the LTC brokerage business after his mother became ill. Matt travels widely, promoting LTC insurance on television and for live audiences. He knows LTC stuff cold, and he’s also a cool guy with a major league radio voice.

There it is, for now. Next time, our favorite recipe for Harissa sauce, an essential part of a healthy Mediterranean diet.







Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.