A Gift to All

Students visited a retirement home to write residents’ biographies, and came away with much more than a book

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
January 23, 2020

At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, AJ Dela Cruz ’21 and Jade Ma ’23 walked into Woodlands Senior Living in Waterville. They marched up the stairs, took a left, and knocked on the last door on the right. Within seconds, the door opened. Wearing his relaxed jeans, red polar fleece vest, and aviator glasses, Eugene greeted them.

One more step and the students entered a different world.

For the past four weeks, Eugene’s living room had been a gathering place for the three. Same time, same day of the week. Surrounded by bits and pieces from his life, Eugene (last names of Woodlands residents have been omitted to protect their identities) had been sharing memories from his childhood up to the current times. Students had listened attentively. While their mobile phone recorded Eugene’s voice, they noted his words in their notebooks—as diligently as they would in the classroom. Dela Cruz and Ma, volunteer scribes in Colby’s Legacy Storytellers program, had a major task ahead: writing Eugene’s biography.

But this was neither part of an English class nor for a publisher of any kind. It was solely for a very special audience: Eugene, his family, and anyone else he’d want to share it with.

Ann Thomas ’21 (left) and Mira DiSilvestro ’21 listened to Suzanne’s story as she showed them her family photos.

Launched in 2012, the Legacy Storytellers program was created to hear and preserve the stories of the elderly with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. “I think that it is a program that’s unique to the Alzheimer’s Association, Maine Chapter,” said Alison Russell ’18, manager of education and community volunteers at the chapter, based in Scarborough. In a state with more than 28,000 people living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and almost 70,000 caretakers, many could benefit from it. Russell has been revising the program’s training manual to make it accessible to anyone interested. Currently, Colby is one of the seven colleges partaking in this initiative. “We are so grateful for Colby’s continued leadership and commitment to the Legacy Storytellers program,” said Russell.

The project arrived at Mayflower Hill in 2015. Sara Hoffman ’18, then a first-year student, heard about it from Cate Talbot Ashton ’80, then Colby’s associate director for careers in health professions, who knew of Hoffman’s interest in Alzheimer’s research. Having a grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease and participating in a similar project in middle school, Hoffman quickly recognized the value of the Legacy Storytellers program. “We felt that it was so mutually beneficial—teaching the students so much but giving the participants an opportunity to both give back and to tell their story,” she said. Receiving student and faculty support, the program rolled out in the fall of 2015. Ever since, it has brought together students and the elderly every fall and paved the way for them to form deep connections.

Jade Ma ’23 (left) and AJ Dela Cruz ’21 met Eugene in his apartment on Tuesdays.

“I like being able to facilitate intergenerational experiences that benefit all parties,” said Jennifer Coane, associate professor of psychology, who has witnessed the program’s evolution as its faculty advisor. “As a memory researcher, I just love the fact that the whole project is based on memories.”

From the students’ side to the residents’ to the families’, Coane could list many benefits of the program for everyone. She also could tell several heartwarming anecdotes. Like that one time the Department of Security called informing her that a resident’s family member was looking for her on campus. Why? To ask for more copies of the book. She also showed photos from the previous year’s publishing party, including an image of a little girl, a granddaughter of a resident. “She was just curled up in a chair all by herself reading her grandmother’s book,” Coane said.

To get to that moment, though, a lot had to be done.

Coane worked closely with students to build Colby’s version of the program, then turned it over to students. For the last couple of years, she said, it has been a “well-oiled machine,” with Coane only overseeing logistics. Student leaders—Annabel McLaughlin ’21, Hannah Southwick ’21, and Mira DiSilvestro ’21—take care of the rest.

For the last three years, Colby has collaborated with Woodlands Senior Living to capture residents’ stories. Overall, Kristen Gilley, director of development at Woodlands, estimated that about 20 of their residents had a book written by Colby students. This year Gilley and her team chose residents who have fewer visitors than others and who would benefit from one-on-one time with students.

That turned out to be the case—beyond her expectations.

“I thought the students would come, sit and ask these canned questions, say their hellos, goodbyes, and they’d walk away. There were residents telling the students that they loved them at the end and inviting them to come for Christmas.”

Kristen Gilley, director of development at Woodlands

Now she gets requests from both residents and their families to participate in the program, especially after the books come out. “Every session we add more people to a waiting list,” she said.

It’s not only participants and their families who look forward to the books, but also the other residents and the staff at Woodlands. “We go about our daily work lives, making sure that the paperwork is done and everybody’s chart is done correctly,” said Linda Johnston, executive director. “You don’t always have time to sit down and say, ‘Gee, you ran a farm, and then you worked at the mill,’ and just hear the life story.”

These books have also become a way for the community to get to know its members. “I shared [the book] with a lot of people in here who wanted to read it before I let my daughter take the one that I was going to give her,” said Janet, whose book came out in fall of 2018. “I felt like I was an important person.” Her daughter, she said, was thrilled with it and is keeping it for her children.

Kelly Richardson, program coordinator of assisted living, recalled the reaction of another resident, Vesta. “She got to show it around like her trophy,” Richardson said.

For some, the book wasn’t the end of the story. For instance, George, who was also part of the program in fall of 2018, had lunch with “his” students. “I loved it,” George said. The students brought him a stuffed animal wearing a Colby sweater, which he proudly displays in his apartment.

George still keeps multiple copies of his story, written by Hannah Johnson ’21 and Hannah Southwick ’21, in his apartment.

“We wanted to make sure that George knew that we see him as a friend,” said Hannah Southwick ’21, whose grandmother passed away from the disease. “When I was growing up, I really saw the profound impact that [Alzheimer’s] had on my family,” said Southwick, an English and studio art double major who wrote George’s story with Hannah Johnson ’21. Southwick is a three-time participant in the program, which inspired her to start recording conversations she has with her other grandmother.

Besides her interest in listening and telling stories, Southwick keeps coming back to the program because she sees a transformation in the residents. “They always start off saying, ‘My life wasn’t that interesting’ or, ‘Oh, you don’t want to hear about this,’” she said. Those feelings changed as the sessions went on, she observed.

The program’s transformative effects were felt across the board.

Ben Bogorad ’21, a biology major and Russian minor, thought this project could be his way to truly make an impact on the community. But his interviewee, Richard, also had a life-changing impact on Bogorad. “He told me that what really really matters is just to be outside and to explore,” Bogorad said. “And I’ve really taken that to heart.” Since then, he has been seizing every opportunity to explore Waterville and Maine. Because of that, he said, “I think my mental health has been amazing.”

Another person who imparted wisdom to students was Eugene.

As Eugene recounted his memories, students travelled back in time and learned from his experiences.

Eugene’s living room has a homey feeling with hundreds of classical music CDs filling towers and a brown wooden console, displaying photos from his life, stretching from one end of the wall to the other. Where it ended began the caramel leather couch, where Eugene took his usual place in the middle. Across from him, Dela Cruz and Ma sat on two kitchen chairs that he placed before their arrival. A low coffee table separated the generations.

In his husky voice, Eugene began telling them about his family’s journey from China to the United States during World War Two, his accomplishments as an engineer, and his experiences as a father and a husband. He even surprised himself by how much he recalled. “I remember things that I had forgotten, or it’s not in my active consciousness, and it comes out as a sidetrack from the main question,” he said.

Ma said that hearing Eugene’s stories is one of the highlights of her week. Although they had only known each other for a short period of time, Ma feels a connection. “I definitely feel like we are friends, and I want to continue to visit him.”

Dela Cruz, a psychology major with a concentration in neuroscience and an Italian studies minor, said she enjoyed listening to Eugene’s memories, especially from his childhood. But that wasn’t all she learned from him. “He tells all these stories, but at the same time he tries to throw in a lesson.” She looked forward to the visits, not only because they were a nice break from school, but also because the conversations reminded her of conversations with her grandfather, who recently passed away.

Like Dela Cruz, some Woodlands residents also saw their families in some of the students. Suzanne, who has been living in Woodlands since her husband’s death, remembered one of her grandchildren every time she saw Ann Thomas ’21. They were alike by the way they talk, their manners, and even their hairstyle, she said.

Every week after lunch, Suzanne would roll her walker to the common room, sit on one of the wing chairs in a corner, and wait for Thomas and her partner, Mira DiSilvestro ’21, to arrive. When they did, they pulled chairs around her and tuned into her stories about her life in Canada, her childhood growing up on a farm, playing outside with her siblings, moving to Maine. “Waterville was a mill town and a lot of people came for work,” she said.

Looking to learn more about each other, these intergenerational conversations often generated many questions on everyone’s end.

For Thomas, a physics major and environmental studies minor, these conversations were an escape from campus and her daily worries. “It’s lovely getting to know a new person, especially with the age difference,” said the self-described introvert. Hearing of Suzanne’s responses to hardships in her life, Thomas began to see things in a new light. “We ask Suzanne these questions [about challenges in her life] and she’s just like, ‘I guess you just go through it. You don’t have to worry about it too much,’” said Thomas.

Suzanne—an avid jigsaw puzzle solver, skilled computer user, and tough Hangman competitor—said she planned to give the books to her children and grandchildren living out of state. “I hope they keep them as a keepsake for remembering their grandmother,” she said.

While students preserve memories for families, these interactions become engraved in their minds as well. “I think about Vesta, Suzanne, and Silvio almost every week,” said DiSilvestro, a studio art major with a concentration in sculpture and anthropology minor. In her first year at Colby, this program helped her find belonging, she said. It also helped her gain confidence, as she was the sole interviewer for her first resident, Silvio. “This was something that I was doing by myself, that I was achieving by myself, and I had something to show for it,” she said. “We got really, really close,” she said. Every time she came in to see Suzanne, DiSilvestro made a quick stop to chat with Silvio, who often waited for her in the common room.

To celebrate these friendships and the books produced in the process, the program officially concluded with a publishing party in late November. Students, past and present participants, families, and other Woodlands residents all came together. Students talked with some of the family members they’d been hearing about for weeks. Residents flipped through the pages of their brand-new books. The staff captured moments with their cameras.

Said one of the Woodlands residents as everyone assembled for a group picture, “Are you guys going to do it again next year?”

A Potential Side Benefit

In addition to supervising the Legacy Storytellers program, Associate Professor of Psychology Jennifer Coane is collecting the recordings from the interviews. Her long-term goal is to create a database on how people with memory challenges use language in their daily lives. There’s a fair amount of research done in the laboratories, she noted, but not so much done outside of it.

“When people are talking with somebody they perceive as a friend, they’re in their familiar environment, [and] they’re talking about what they choose to talk about,” she said. “Can we learn something about language use in that way?”

By examining the way the elderly speak and comprehend other people’s speech, she’s hoping to identify patterns in communication. For instance, if someone doesn’t understand a question, she wants to investigate why that might be the case. Was the question too long? Was it multi-part? Was it asked in passive voice? “If we can find evidence for systematic language aspects that can improve or impair comprehension, that’s information that would be great to be able to share with caretakers, workers, family members,” she said. To have an effective database, Coane wants to collect more recordings in the next couple of years. “Hopefully it will be a fringe benefit that emerges from it,” she said.

In the process, students, including Hannah Johnson ’21, have been transcribing the recordings.

A psychology major and religious studies minor on the premed track, Johnson has also been a three-time volunteer scribe at the program. “I’ve always been intrigued by Alzheimer’s and the disease itself and how it operates and how people live with it on a day-to-day basis,” she said. Though she’s planning on going into obstetrics, she still feels that Legacy Storytellers ties all her interests together. “[Obstetrics is] the beginning of life, while this is more of the end of life,” she said. “It’s the circle of life, which is really cool.”