I was recently invited to write a guest post for an Alzheimer’s blog. https://memoriesfrommylife.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/more-about-a-chance-to-give-back-2/ The invitation was prompted by an experience I had interviewing a family friend who is in middle stage Alzheimer’s. I was attempting to record her stories as she reflected on some old family photographs. After posting the audio recordings and digital photos on www.Legacystories.org my friend’s family would be able to look at these family photos and hear their mom’s narration of what she recalled from the day the photos were taken. The experience offered some challenges and sweet surprises.
Never Afraid to Try Something New
“Polly want a cracker? Polly want a cracker?” Ann, a middle-stage 85 year old Alzheimer’s patient, chuckled as she offered a perfect imitation of the parrot from her childhood. She looked at the photo of her six-year old self, staring up at the family’s parrot in its cage, her younger brother on the other side of the cage, gazing upwards with equal attention. “We were told to stand just so, and to look up, which is what we did,” Ann said. Again, she crowed, “Polly want a cracker?” then laughed. “That’s just how he sounded!”
Ann was able to describe the photo in detail, and where in her grandmother’s house the photo was taken, pointing out the hand-sewn, tailored plaid dress she wore, made especially for her. “My younger brother is wearing just what young boys wore,” she explained. “Well, not when they were playing, but for formal occasions.”
Missing from Ann’s narrative were details such as when and where the photo was taken, information that others might not know about. I shut off my digital recorder and asked if she could include that information if we made another try at recording her story. She nodded, and when I pushed the record button she quickly began talking. But this time we’d lost all the lovely details of the parrot crying out, the descriptions of growing up next to the ocean, so close that the parrot could look out to sea and alert the family when ships passed by. I shut the recorder off again.
“Ann,” I said, “I wonder if, when you’re talking and forget to tell me about the parrot, I could simply point to it. Would that help you know that I want to hear about the parrot?” She nodded.
I was helping Ann record the stories and memories that were stirred by these important photos, which we would then store in her account on Legacystories.org. Once the photos and audio recordings were uploaded onto the website, her family could look at each photo while listening to Ann’s words describing the photo, just as she had done while sitting in her daughter’s dining room. I hoped we’d be able to create a recording of her voice alone. My past interviewing experience, both writing for newspapers, and writing personal histories, had always permitted me to ask questions, to clarify, to prod for more information. This method of interviewing, recording audio, was something new, not just for Ann, but for me as well.
Our next attempt was more successful. Ann was able to identify where the photo was taken as well as when, and who was in the photo. I pointed to the parrot. “Polly want a cracker?” she recited, then chuckled again. She noted the water fountain, described a few details, and then she described other items in the photo. At the very end, she revisited memories of the fountain, and laughed. “My brother and I had a lot of fun with that fountain.” Her voice reflected the twinkle in her eye.
We then recorded stories about other photos that Ann and her daughter Linda had chosen. The last photo was of Ann and her husband on their wedding day. The two young women in the photo were similarly dressed, making it difficult to identify who was the bride. With coaching, Ann described that she and her husband were on the right in the photo. But then she got stuck. “There’s nothing else to tell,” she shrugged.
“Oh, Ann, you have some wonderful things to say about this,” I countered. “If I wrote down a few key phrases, would that help you know we’d like to hear about them?” “Yes,” she said, “That would help.”
I grabbed a pen and paper, sent a prayer of thanks that Ann was still able to read, and jotted down two or three words—New Jersey, boardwalk, ocean. Ann nodded and then began telling me about the photo taken that had been taken on her wedding day, 1949. She told us she was the girl on the right, with her husband. I pointed to the other couple standing with her and her husband. She recalled how sweet the girl was, her best friend. Silently, I pointed at one of the phrases I’d written down—boardwalk. Ann continued describing what she recalled of the scene behind her. She offered vivid details, clearly shared. Summing up, she concluded, “It was the perfect end to a perfect day.”
As I packed up my things and headed home I thought about the privilege of working with Ann and helping her record her stories for her family. For me, too, it was the perfect end to an amazingly perfect day.
Some interviewing tips for audio and/or video
1. Simple is often magical. Try simple steps first; they are less likely to add confusion, and may be just what the person needs to add special details to their story.
2. If a person has agreed to an interview, they have already expressed a willingness to please. Do not abuse this, but use it confidently. The person being interviewed wants to please you.
3. When gathering audio or video recordings, think ahead to what you are hoping for as an end product. If you simply want to gather a record of a family gathering, you will have fewer constraints than if you are hoping for a clear story from a single person. The interviewer’s reflex is to insert herself into the interview by asking clarifying questions. Audio, unless it is of a conversation (think Story Corps) is typically a single person narrating a single topic.
4. Be willing to experiment, to discover what strategies will be most helpful for each person, while keeping you, the interviewer, as the unseen (and unheard!) presence. Even if a person has Alzheimer’s, he/she is still an individual, and may need creative solutions to help with this process.
5. Don’t be afraid to rerecord. But pay close attention to your interview subject. If they are growing fatigued, take a rest, change rooms, take a walk, whatever you think might help, then see if resuming recording is possible. It may need to wait for another day, another time.
6. Be mindful of the time of day when you attempt to record stories. If you are not the caretaker, ask the person’s caretaker what his/her best time of day is, then do your best to arrange to record during that optimum time.
7. Your job is to help the teller share her story to the best of her ability. With that in mind, relax, really listen, and enjoy the experience of traveling to a time and place outside your own experience, knowing that your efforts are creating a gift for the teller’s family, and others you may never know about.
Marjorie Turner Hollman
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks: Reclaiming hope in a world turned upside down.