With "Life Stories," Hospice Archives Stories of Those Who've Passed Away

Jun 25, 2015

Great Lakes Caring volunteer Dana Perrin speaks with resident Ann Martin
Credit Robbie Feinberg

For anyone who’s ever lost a parent or grandparent, the emotional trauma can hurt badly. But what can make it worse is their memories and history are often lost with them. One Michigan-based hospice network, though, has brought in a program that works to preserve those memories for future generations.

Inside a dimly lit room at the Brookdale assisted living facility in Battle Creek, resident Ann Martin straightens up in her wheelchair as volunteer Dana Perrin pulls out a tiny voice recorder.

“You can just talk right into this, and then after a few sessions, we’re gonna have the Great Lakes Caring team put it on a disc,” Perrin explains.

Martin moved into Brookdale about a year-and-a-half ago, to be closer to her daughter, Pat.

"Almost two years!" Martin says. "It’ll be two years in November. And so far, I’ve had my ups and I’ve had my downs."

The transition’s been a little tough. After Martin’s husband passed away more than two decades ago, Martin was fiercely independent. She cooked and cleaned on her own, and visited family whenever she wanted. But when the family decided that Martin needed more support, she came here, to Brookdale.

“First, when you’re away by yourself in your own room, it’s like, 'Aww,'" Martin says. "But afterwards, I thought, ‘Hey this is pretty neat! Everything’s close!’ I could do everything! I could walk.“

Perrin pops into Martin’s room about once a week, recorder in hand, as part of a program from the hospice service Great Lakes Caring, called “Life Stories.”

For more than six years now, Great Lakes volunteers have spent hours with patients, asking them questions like Where were you born or Talk about your first kiss. That leads to stories that are eventually pulled onto a personalized disc and given to patients’ families.

"I really didnt know my grandparents well. My mothers parents died young, and I dont have much memory of them. So it would have been nice to know them or know what they were about."

Becky Matthews, Great Lakes Caring's vice president of hospice, says the company wanted a program that would give families a legacy -- something that wouldn’t just last for a few weeks. Life Stories made sense.

“As you get older, and you know your parents are getting older and more fragile and sometimes their memories are going, and then they’re gone, you would really cherish having those stories," Matthews says. "And those are what made your parents what they are.”

Back inside Brookdale, Martin has already talked about trips to Denmark and Ocean City, New Jersey. But Perrin’s favorite story of hers came from the 1940s, during World War II.

“Personally, I really enjoyed the fact that she shared that she was a USO girl and met her husband at an officer’s dance," Perrin says. "We divulged into that, how he proposed to her."

Then Perrin turns to Martin.

"Or did he really propose?" she asks. "We were still on the cuff of that. Did he say ‘Will you marry me?’ Or did he just say, ‘Will you come to Ohio with me?’"

Martin replies: "Well, he had just finished officers’ candidate school, where he graduated. And he said, “Now, I just have time off so I can go home. Maybe at some time you can go with me.” I thought, ah ha! Before I knew it, he was back again, and finally, he took me!”

Great Lakes Caring's Matthews says the biggest challenge in getting those stories out is modesty. Many patients don’t think their stories are special enough to be recorded.

As Perrin wraps up today’s interview session, Martin says the same thing.

"How many times should you come?" Martin asks.

"How many times would you like me to come?" Perrin replies.

"Well, I’m running out of thoughts!” Martin shouts.

Sitting behind Martin is her daughter, Pat Lipps. She says that doesn't matter. She just wants to hold on to the memories.

"I really didn’t know my grandparents well. My mother’s parents died young, and I don’t have much memory of them. So it would have been nice to know them or know what they were about," Lipps says. "Even when mom says she doesn’t have much to say, she’s not a celebrity, yet it’s all the everyday that we’re a part of!”

They’re just a few stories on a disc, but Lipss says that for her children, even her grand and great-grand-children, they’ll be cherished.