Be Aware of Special Issues When Interviewing Elderly Persons

Interviewing elderly persons for their memoirs can have a different set of challenges than with younger persons. Elderly persons may be frail, drowsy, forgetful, and struggling with age-related illnesses. Interviews tend to be in shorter time segments. And, as husband and wife Sandra and Tony learned, elderly spouses interviewed together often have conflicting remembrances of the same events, and family members may not be on board with the project.

Faithful Testimonies
“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.

File photo.

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.


  1. I interviewed an elderly couple who disagreed with details, too, but I wrote it up in interview format so both sides of the stories show up! The wife is very conservative and was reticent, so we had to quit after a couple long interviews. Had to reorganize meandering info, edit to eliminate anything the wife might think unseemly. This was only for family and not much about the kids so not quite the same problems there as Sandra and Tony had. With older people, best to get going asap because of health issues that may crop up and stall the project (as I also experienced).

  2. Thanks, Linda.

    Editing is so very important in writing memoirs, especialy in situations like the one you described. As writers we should be truthful, but we don't have to be brutally honest. Writing around difficult issues is an option, depending on the purpose of the memoir. In my first memoir, the author would tell me stories and then say, "We can't print that, it would be too hurtful." Not every author is that sensitive.