Living with ADHD in a distractive world
By Jeeni Criscenzo
I was surprised at the number of comments made to a recent post I put on Facebook about Attention Deficient Disorder with a photo of my desk that included such strange things as a small brown egg and a ½” diamond drill bit. It seems that my incessant state of distraction is a common problem in people my age (aka Seniors).
One person informed me that there is such a thing as Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder – AAADD ! Another linked to a comical video about a woman who went from one task to another without getting anything accomplished.
I didn’t laugh. When you have spent your life dealing with an inability to focus alternating with hyper-focusing, both to the detriment of yourself and everyone around you, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) isn’t very funny. ADHD is a neurological syndrome whose classic defining triad of symptoms include impulsivity, distractibility, and hyperactivity or excess energy. Even though I can celebrate the bonus of creativity that comes with ADHD, some days the frustration of dealing with it is exhausting.
I seemed to have my ADHD “managed” until recently and the suggestion that age could be an “activator” of this setback was upsetting, so I decided to do a little research on some of the things mentioned in the comments on my Facebook post. I wondered if it was possible that so many people my age actually have ADHD, or was something else going on? First, I tried to confirm that there actually is a diagnosis called Age-Activated ADD. If you google it, you come up with hundreds of incarnations of the same two stories – one of that video, and one of someone claiming to tell you their personal experience of AAADD – except that every one of these stories is EXACTLY the same. But there are virtually no studies of ADHD on adults older than 45 years of age and no mention of Age-Activated ADD.
One reason there is so little research on aging ADHD is the lack of childhood memories to help support a diagnosis. Because people with ADHD don’t have a linear sense of time, they often don’t have strong childhood memories. Since ADHD is a chronic condition that follows people from childhood and doesn’t turn up in adulthood unless you had it as a child, an adult diagnosis requires memories of symptoms during childhood.
Although ADHD can generate a host of problems, there are also advantages to having it, such as high energy, intuitiveness, creativity, and enthusiasm.
In my case, I was never diagnosed with ADHD, but when I was in my
20s 40s I read the book, Driven to Distraction by Drs. Hallowell and Ratey, and it was clear that they were describing me and my life from early childhood. I identified with the cases they described and the problems I had throughout school. I could see myself in every chapter and I cried because at last I knew there was an explanation for the chronic day dreaming, the inability to pay attention despite an extremely high IQ, and the intense impatience with people who spoke slowly or took too long to make decisions.
The book explained that the word “disorder” inappropriately puts the syndrome entirely in the domain of pathology. Although ADHD can generate a host of problems, there are also advantages to having it, such as high energy, intuitiveness, creativity, and enthusiasm. In my case, inattention was a greater problem than hyperactivity or impulsivity. And this inability to focus on tasks, follow instructions and listen when spoken to, has created challenges for me throughout my life.
While recent research suggests that the main cause of ADHD may lie in structural differences in the grey matter in the brain, dopamine, a chemical naturally produced in the brain that is important for concentration or sustained attention, working memory and motivation, has a therapeutic effect for patients with ADHD. Ritalin, a drug used for the treatment of ADHD, works by raising levels of dopamine.
Exercise has also been shown to have short-term but powerful benefits for adults and kids with ADHD because it encourages the production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. One reason I’m having more trouble keeping focused recently could be my abrupt decrease in exercise since I broke my leg. What’s interesting is that dopamine can help my baby-boomer peers who are having memory problems even though they don’t have ADHD or dementia. Exercise also produces endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain – exercise is nature’s antidepressant.
ADHD Symptoms Not Always ADHD
Certain medical problems, drug side effects, and even changes related to aging, can mimic the symptoms of ADHD. As we age, it often becomes harder to remember things. If you can’t remember why you opened the refrigerator, or where you parked the car, you probably don’t have dementia or ADHD, it’s just age-associated memory impairment. Some women feel distracted or forgetful, for instance, during perimenopause or menopause. If your memory problems started occurring relatively recently — for instance, within the last couple of years — then they’re less likely to be due to ADHD.
Multi-tasking and Distraction
Our problems with distraction are compounded by social media and our “always accessible” technology. For those of us who have embraced social media, multitasking has become a way of life. There simply are not enough hours in the day to maintain our electronic connections and accomplish tasks in the real world. But a growing body of research shows that people who try to manage more than one unrelated task at the same time typically don’t perform as well.
“That’s the myth of multitasking,” says Edward Hallowell, MD, ADHD specialist and author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. “It’s like playing tennis with two balls: Your game’s not as good as it would be with one ball.”
He suggests that we strive to go linear—do one thing at a time, moving from one task to the next. Try it: Instead of talking on the phone while answering emails and helping your child do homework, go linear; it won’t take longer and you’ll be sharper.
Survival Strategies for a Distractive World
Since I’ve had a lifetime of practice dealing with problems of focus and distraction, I’ll share some of my ADHD hacks although I don’t claim to use all of them:
Remove distractions: I confess to slipping on this, but there is more than one reason why I practice voluntary simplicity. The less clutter I have around me, the fewer distractions to snare my attention. There is a saying: A place for everything and everything in its place. Before starting a project, I try to shove everything not related to that project into a LABELED box, drawer or folder. Resist the temptation to address each item that you pick up. Your task is to remove the items from view, not to take care of them. Yes, some of those items will never get back out of the box or folder – and that just means that they were probably not that important. A clean desk helps you think more clearly.
Make lists: I’m the Queen of To Do Lists! I try not to waste time prioritizing my lists because my priorities always change. When I sit at my desk, I pick up the list, pick the task I think at that moment needs to be done, determine if I have sufficient time to work on it, and I make a conscious decision to work on that task alone. Break tasks into chucks that you can complete in one block of time and list the chunks separately so you can complete them and cross them off your list. I don’t have any luck making lists on my computer because nothing replaces the physical satisfaction of using a pen to cross off an item on my list.
Silence the phone and shut down Facebook: This is the hardest thing for me to do. I discovered that when I go out into my garden to work, I cannot hear the phone or the buzz of a Facebook notification or a text message. And somehow the world survives without my intervention. So now I do this when I’m working at something – writing, or housecleaning, or whatever. I give myself Social Media breaks, just like a lunch break, and I should probably set a timer for these.
Have clocks – big clocks – that you can easily glance at when you are working. Most people don’t realize that hyper-focusing is just as much a symptom of ADHD as distraction. I need to keep referring to my clock or I’d write right through a week. A clock can also keep you conscious of time as linear – a common problem with ADHD. I also use the alarm on my Google calendar to remind me of appointments.
Have a place for things you often misplace: Put a basket by the front door for car keys, cell phones etc. Replace your credit card in your wallet as soon as you use it even if you are holding up the line. Keep all of your passwords on index cards in a box. Keep all of your bills and receipts in a box. Keep the TV remote in a box. Keep everything in its very own box! Put everything you need to clean the bathroom in a box in the bathroom. Have duplicates in the kitchen. Eliminate the need to go to another room to complete a task. You will forget what you were about to do by the time you go to the next room.
Write down where you park the car: Keep index cards in your purse or wallet and write down where you park the car. You probably won’t need to look it up because the act of writing it down forces you to be in the moment and conscious of where you parked.
Don’t multi-task: Live in the moment. Love what you are doing. If you are talking to someone, think that this might be the very last time you talk to them so you want to remember what they are saying.
Say new names out loud at least 3 times: If introduced to someone, ask them to repeat their name. Say it out loud while looking at them and repeat it again in your conversation as soon as possible before you forget it. And at the end of the conversation be sure to tell them, “I enjoyed talking to you, –Name—.” Even better, touch them on the arm when you say it and make sure you are looking at their face for distinguishing characteristics.
Have a schedule: This one is really hard if you work from home, but I try to do it. I have to add “Take a walk” to my schedule. The more things you can do as a matter of habit, the less you will need to try to remember what you were about to do. And be sure to put “Take a Break” on that schedule and have a start and finish time.
Use technology to eliminate things you need to remember: Use automatic bill paying (if you know you’ll have the money in your account), etc.
Well, I managed to get through this entire article without getting distracted. I took a break for lunch and a break to check my email. Now I’m sending it off, crossing it off my list and going to make dinner! I hope this was helpful to my aging friends who may or may not have ADHD.
Ed. note: Updated 8/26 to provide link to related material