Volunteers preserve memories for families

Storykeepers record patient stories for posterity

Asking hospice patients to share and record their stories not only provides enjoyment to the patients as they recall important moments in their lives, but it also gives families a lasting memory of their loved ones. More than 300 hospices, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities have found that Project Storykeeper, a program offered through the International Association of StoryKeepers, is not only a good way to help families, but also a way to attract new volunteers.

Volunteers attend training sessions that teach them how to talk with patients to get them to share stories, how to introduce the idea of recording or writing down the stories, and how to listen during the storytelling, says Mary Lorenz, volunteer coordinator at Mount Graham Hospice in Safford, AZ. "The training to become a certified storykeeper is about 15 hours, and we offer it on a monthly basis for new volunteers," she explains.

Training is a combination of CD classes and online support, says Dennis Stack, founder of Project Storykeeper. Prices for the training programs start at $79. Kits that contain booklets that contain "starter" questions are $29, with discounts for multiple orders. The kits contain materials for writing notes as well as CDs onto which audio recordings can be copied.

"People don't have to use our kits, but the training is necessary because there is a progression of questions that prompt people to remember moments in their lives," he says.

Audio recordings are used rather than video recordings because patients are more comfortable with them, says Lorenz. Digital recorders are purchased by the hospice for use by the volunteers, she says. Costs for digital recorders start at $40, so it is not an expensive part of the program, she says. "Usually, on the first visit, the volunteer talks with the patient and family member and explains that he or she can provide this service to preserve part of the family history," Lorenz says. This is a volunteer activity for which the hospice does not charge, she says.

Although family members are eager to have the stories recorded, patients often express the opinion that "no one wants to hear my stories." Volunteers respond to this statement by saying that they want to hear them and if the patient doesn't want them shared immediately, the CDs will be held by the hospice until after the patient's death, she explains.

A storykeeper volunteer visits the patient multiple times, once a week, until the patient loses interest in the project, is physically unable to continue, or dies, says Carolyn Cruson, BSW, social worker and volunteer coordinator at Hospice of Missoula (MT). "The length of the volunteer's visit and how long the project continues is left up to the patient," she points out. "Most patients enjoy telling their stories, which family members may have heard multiple times, to a new audience."

New stories are disclosed

Because volunteers are taught how to listen and interject questions that tie stories together to present a picture of the patient's life, family members often learn more about the patient than they ever knew, Cruson says. "The questions are designed to provoke memories that patient's might not have discussed with anyone before," she adds.

Stack says, "Simple, nonpersonal questions help patients start talking about their early childhood, then progress through the rest of their life with stories about special events, achievements, and family members. We try to connect the dots between the stories that family members may have heard throughout the years."

Even when families believe that they know a lot about their family history, a storykeeper volunteer can add to their knowledge, says Lorenz. "We have a lot of Latter Day Saints in our area, and they are very active in genealogical research and family history," she says. "Our project has helped them fill in gaps by finding out about the family member's first date or first meeting with their spouse." These and other memories might stay hidden until the volunteer prompts the patient with careful listening and nonjudgmental questions, she adds.

Volunteers for the storykeeper program can come from veteran volunteers already working with your hospice or from volunteers recruited specifically for the program, says Cruson. "They have to be comfortable listening to people's stories, have a natural curiosity about people, and be able to ask questions that coax details of the stories," she explains. The storykeeper position also attracts some volunteers who might not normally think about volunteering for a hospice, Cruson adds. "Recording the stories gives them something to do that is positive and doesn't focus on death, so they are more comfortable," she explains.

Lorenz says, "I would recommend that all hospices make this type of program part of their service." Patients benefit by talking about important details of their lives, and family members learn more about the patient, she says. "I can't tell you how many times a family member has described the patient as a quiet, serious person, and then the patient tells us stories about themselves that show a fun-loving, adventurous young person. It's an important part of that family's history that would be lost without the storykeeper volunteer."

Need More Information?

For more information about storykeepers, contact:

  • Carolyn Cruson, BSW, Social Worker and Volunteer Coordinator, Hospice of Missoula, 800 Kensington Ave., No. 209, Missoula, MT 59801. Telephone: (406) 543-4408.
  • Mary Lorenz, Volunteer Coordinator, Mount Graham Regional Medical Center Hospice Services, 1600 20th Ave., Building E, Safford, AZ 85546. Telephone: (800) 664-3509 or (928) 428-5668. Fax: (928) 348-3868. E-mail: maryl@mtgraham.org.
  • For information about Project Storykeeper training, supplies, and services, go to the International Association of StoryKeepers web site at www.prostorykeepers.com. Click on the "volunteer" button at the bottom of the page.