Be Aware of Special Issues When Interviewing Elderly Persons
“David and Martha have been very special to us,” Sandra says. “David was our pastor for several years, a lay minister, and a retired dairy farmer. Martha had been an Avon lady. God helped them bless hundreds if not thousands of people through their humble ministries. The record of their lives is truly a journey in the hand of the Master.”
Sandra and Tony heard the testimonies of David and Martha over many years and felt led the stories should be captured permanently for family and friends.
“David carried on daily conversations with the Lord that guided his every step,” Tony says.
Tony had no training in writing memoirs when he met with David and Martha in 2008 to discuss recording and writing their memories.
“They were very receptive,” he says. “They were in their eighties and Martha had wanted to do something like this but felt she couldn’t pull it off because she was not computer literate. We agreed I would come to their house every Tuesday night to record. Sandra would transcribe the recordings into a computer and do the editing.”
Sandra and Tony thought it might take a dozen interviews. The project lasted two years.
A Good Start, Then . . .
The first few months went very well, although it was hard to keep David from jumping around from topic to topic. “If you asked him what time it was he would tell you how to build a watch,” Tony quips. “He was never shy. Humble, but not shy. Once we got him talking we pretty much sat back and listened.”
The interviews became less productive as David and Martha had strong words over which details went with which stories. It was helpful that David had kept a notebook of his many activities, including funeral services at which he officiated, spiritual experiences, and testimonies. Still, he and Martha disagreed.
“Sandy gave them a draft to read and they radically changed it,” Tony says. “More drafts and more changes followed. Discussions on the changes took longer than the interviews. David and Martha couldn’t agree on whether an event occurred west of town or east, whether it was in May or August. Our progress was minimal.”
Adding to the frustration was the deteriorating health of the elderly couple, including poor hearing and reduced eyesight, and for David a continuing battle with a nearly lifetime of arthritis. The transcriptions had to be printed in eighteen-point type.
Time to End an Unfinished Project
After two years Sandra and Tony felt they had done as much as they could with the narrative. They printed the stories into a single, two-hundred page, double-spaced manuscript and gave it to a son and daughter of David and Martha to determine what the next steps might be. The children had sat in on some of the interviews.
“Our thinking was for the manuscript to be at least in a spiral binding and copies printed to give to family and friends,” Sandra says. “The children were going to gather pictures and prepare a family tree.”
The children were not excited about distributing the manuscript as written. They were concerned about how some people might feel having their names and personal stories in print. They wanted Sandra and Tony to provide the manuscript on a CD and that would be the end of the project.
“There was nothing offensive to anybody,” Tony says. “When you take the names and places out the story is gutted. The children may have thought the project was just something to keep Mom and Dad occupied; a good activity to keep their minds active. We were disappointed the record of this man’s walk with the Lord would be shared only with the family and we consider the project to be unfinished; no wrap-up, no conclusion.”
Some Lessons Learned
Sandra and Tony say they learned the importance of getting up-front confirmation from the family on whether the final manuscript will be formatted as a book, what the review process will be, what the end product will look like, and who will be responsible for printing and costs.
“Most importantly, we learned we should have started the project much sooner,” Sandra says.
David and Martha are living their remaining years in a nursing home.
David and Martha are not their real names.
What are your experiences interviewing elderly and ill persons? What have you learned? Share with our readers by selecting comments below or send an email.