UMaine students in class on aging share stories of people living with Alzheimer’s

Orono Commons feature
Sunlight shines through the window in Carmen Tardy’s room at Orono Commons nursing home. A collage of family photos hangs on the wall above the bed. The 89-year-old Tardy, dressed impeccably in lavender sweater and scarf, sits in her wheelchair facing two University of Maine students, both young women in their early 20s.

“Do you have any life lessons you can share?” one of the students asks.

“Not right now,” Tardy says.

That’s OK, the students say. They’ll come back to the question later.

This conversation took place as part of an undergraduate class in UMaine’s Child Development and Family Relations program called Adult Development and Aging. The students participated in a project called Legacy Storytellers through the Alzheimer’s Association of Maine, where they interviewed someone with early to middle-stage Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia about their life. From the interview, the students wrote a short story about that person to give to their family.

Tardy was one of five residents of Orono Commons who worked with the 11 “volunteer scribes” in the class. Samantha Divita, one of three students paired with Tardy for the six-week project, says she wasn’t always so shy about sharing her life story.

“The first session she didn’t really say anything. But the more we went the more she recognized our faces and she’d talk with us. She was comfortable with us, but she’d still tell us when it was time to leave,” Divita says with a laugh.

Divita says Tardy spoke highly of her parents, as well as her five children and nine grandchildren or two great grandchildren, though she can’t always remember their names.

“She’d laugh a lot and say, ‘That’s my life. That’s my poor life,’” says Divita, a junior majoring in child development and family relations.

Each Legacy Storytellers session begins with introductions and an icebreaker activity meant to get the volunteer scribes and residents reacquainted and comfortable with each other. The students worked from a list of questions covering different parts of a person’s life: childhood and early adolescence, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood and parenthood, and finally life’s wisdom.

Karlee Price, a major in communication sciences and disorders, says sticking to the script can be a challenge.

“I found we just kind of went with whatever came up. Some days she couldn’t remember a certain part of her life, so we just talked about whatever she wanted to talk about or whatever she could remember that day,” Price says.

Ian Cameron, a lecturer of human development and family studies, teaches the Adult Development and Aging class. The course examines the misconceptions, myths and stereotypes about both the aging process and the elderly, with a focus on social, physical, cognitive, economic and demographic issues. One thing Cameron wanted his students to take away from the class was that as humans live longer lives, rates of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are going to increase.

“It’s very difficult for 20-somethings — even if they’ve been exposed to a grandparent with Alzheimer’s — to understand that this disease is going to affect them personally at some point in their lives,” Cameron says.

Maine has the one of the oldest populations in the country, a demographic trend that Cameron expects to continue throughout his students’ lives. He likens the traditional population model of the United States to a pyramid, with younger people at the bottom making up the largest chunk of the pyramid, middle-aged people in the middle, and small slice of older people at the top. That model has been flipped upside down, Cameron says, so that now the older people are the largest portion of the pyramid, while younger people make up the smallest section of the population. That will affect the types of jobs available to his students, especially if they choose to stay in Maine.

“We are literally a laboratory for the rest of the country,” he says. “It represents many challenges, but also opportunities.”

Cameron became aware of the Legacy Storytellers program late last year after meeting with Mark Pechenik of the Alzheimer’s Association, Terri Gallant of Eastern Area Agency on Aging, and Sandra Caron, professor of family relations and human sexuality. In 2016, Pechenik, Gallant and the UMaine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies collaborated on the initial effort to bring the program to campus.

Cameron says the primary goal for the students was to produce a story about the residents’ lives. A secondary goal was to have the students form a personal relationship with someone living with Alzheimer’s.

“These people know things that young people don’t,” he says. “One of the last questions they asked was, ‘What life lessons have you learned?’”

The students say they took that lesson to heart. Kayley Johnson, a psychology major, says she looks at aging differently since visiting the nursing home and talking to the residents.

“There’s so many negative connotations attached to aging in our society,” Johnson says. “But seeing them every week, they’re just human. They’re just people and aging doesn’t have to be bad.”

This was the first time Orono Commons has participated in the Legacy Storytellers program, says Director of Social Services Trudy Neal. She says she was impressed by the connection between the UMaine students and the residents.

“It can be sad to watch somebody’s memory slip away, and I think often times we focus on the negative result of that. But there are things you can do to make the last chapter of their life more enjoyable,” Neal says.

Neal has a personal connection to one of the residents interviewed as part of the class at UMaine: Her mother is Carmen Tardy. Neal says her mom is lucky to have a lot of family visits, which is not the case for residents who don’t have family or friends nearby. In those situations, she says the one-on-one visits provided by the Legacy Storytellers are invaluable.

“They love having people come in and talk to them and ask them about their lives” Neal says. “Elderly people have so much to offer. They’ve lived their lives. And what they have the ability to share they want to share.”

Several of the students said they plan to keep visiting the residents after the Legacy Storytellers project. Divita says she noticed the positive effect it had for Tardy.

“I think we were helping to prolong her memory,” Divita says. “She was always up and ready when we arrived and I think she looked forward to it. She knew we were coming, so I know her mind is still working when weren’t there.”

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751