Interviewing is an Act of Love, Even After Memory Starts to Fail

by Jerry Waxler

Last year I visited a recording booth run by the nonprofit organization StoryCorps. The purpose of the booth was to invite people to interview and record stories of their elders. Thanks to its presence in communities and the publication of stories through National Public Radio, StoryCorps has become an influential advocate for the simple act of asking, listening, and recording the stories of our elders and each other.

Thanks to the publicity and outreach of the StoryCorps, and other social factors, the general culture has become increasingly interested in preserving the stories of their elders. And yet, for many people, a sensitive topic arises. They fear it may be too late, because Alzheimer’s is stealing their loved ones’ memories.

And so it was with great interest that I recently heard that the StoryCorps is investigating this exact problem, trying to find the stories of those whose memory is starting to fail. The program is called the Memory Loss Initiative. To learn more, I interviewed Dina Zempsky, senior outreach coordinator of the initiative.

My first question related to my surprise. How could an interviewer reach past the ravages of the disease to reclaim the past. Zempsky explained that short term memory deteriorates before long term memory, so people who forget what happened five minutes ago can have a clear memory of something that took place 50 years ago. I knew this was true in principle, but didn’t realize these memories would be accessible in coherent stories .

Zempsky assured me that the Memory Loss Initiative has successfully helped many people gather such stories. She said, “When people actually make the effort to interview their parents, the resulting stories are usually clearer and more interesting than people expect.” And the session of storytelling does more than simply pass on information. Zempsky explained that the families of Alzheimer’s sufferers have come to expect failure and disappointment in their attempts to communicate. These interviews allow them to share intact memories, offering everyone a sense of success, restoring dignity through the simple act of asking and listening.

I asked Zempsky to help me understand, “Why don’t people know about these memories? Why aren’t more families connecting to these past experiences?”

She said, “Even when their memory is intact, most of us don’t take the time to sit down and ask questions.”

Her answer hurt me with the same nostalgic regret I have heard from so many others. Even when my parents were alive and clear minded, I didn’t ask them about their younger days. In the absence of any intentional attempt to elicit the past, their history remained hidden.

When I hung up the phone, I was stunned by this offer of hope for people who think it’s too late. To learn more, I turned to another national organization whose members preserve stories, called the Association of Personal Historians. One Personal Historian, Sarah White, shared her experience interviewing a client with failing memory.

“My client and I had completed the interviews, and they went much as other people suggest — he was able to recall past events quite clearly,” said White. “In fact, he did a masterful job of dictating his life story; completely without notes, he delivered a story with a clear sense of what each episode meant in the big picture of his life. It was an honor to be witness to that act. He had been a great attorney, and all that courtroom prowess was evident as he worked from what was left of his memory.”

She continued, “Only specifics such as names and dates were missing. I certainly didn’t want to pause him to ask “Now what was that guy’s name? How was it spelled?” while he was in the midst of that creative act. But now he’s a couple years older and foggier.  So my problem is figuring out how to fill in the blanks that his mind didn’t supply the first time and is having even more trouble this time around.”

The solution for this particular elder was to research the details amidst his personal papers. But for the rest of us, this is a cautionary tale. Get those stories while there is still time. One step you can take is to go to the StoryCorps website, under Memory Loss Initiative, and learn from the interviewing tips.  If you live near one of their booths, you could visit them in person, and directly benefit from their recording studios and interviewing guidance. Or you can hire them to visit your organization. To keep their work alive, make a charitable contribution.  Visit their website for more details.

And while you are preserving the memories of your loved ones, consider preserving your own. Research indicates that education, mental exercise, and other mental stimulation can reduce the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Of course, it’s not possible to know for sure, but just as physical exercise protects the heart and arteries, it makes sense that mental stimulation will protect your neurons. And it’s fun to stay mentally active so it’s a win-win situation. While you challenge yourself to write the stories of your life, you will stimulate your mind in the present, create a legacy of your past, and at the same time increase your chances for mental vigor for years to come.

Notes

StoryCorps Memory Loss Initiative, click here.

To read my observations of the StoryCorps experience, click here.

For more information about Association of Personal Historians, visit their website. And if you want to make the most of what they have to offer, consider their annual conference, to be held near Philadelphia in October, 2009.

Sarah White’s home page is http://www.whitesarah.com/

3 thoughts on “Interviewing is an Act of Love, Even After Memory Starts to Fail

  1. This article speaks to my upcoming project, When I Was A Kid and Other Stories on Stage for seniors on our communit center, funded by a Mass. Cultural Council Grant. We are going to solict stories from seniors to be “played back” by our troupe of young actors, giving seniors a chance to share memories with young people and others in the community, but also to deepen their own experience and express memories & feelings relating to the stories they tell.

  2. I love this project, Kelly. It sounds like a multi-faceted opportunity for sharing, learning, and community building. Excellent!

  3. Pingback: How is Coffee Like Writing a Memoir? « Writing to the Center

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