HAMDEN, Conn., March 18, 2009— -- Every week, Jack Albertini visits his 88-year-old mother, Mary, at Maple Woods at Hamden, an assisted living community in Connecticut. But today will be different.
Jack, who is 56, is having his mother's life story recorded, snatching her fading memories from the grip of Alzheimer's.
It is one chapter in a nationwide oral history project called the Memory Loss Initiative, a nonprofit effort to document the history of everyday, older Americans while they can still recall it.
"My mom has a lot of memory left in her at this point, and that might not be so forever," Albertini said. "Hearing her life story from her lips is much different than hearing them from an aunt or an uncle or a cousin."
After days of sifting through family photographs, Albertini sat down for a 40-minute interview with his mother, asking her about her life and where she grew up.
The answers came haltingly.
"We lived with my grandfather and he bought and sold horses," Mary recalled. "I went to business school for a while. We had a band. We all chipped in and paid for it ourselves. Sometimes we got a few dates out of it, too."
Across the country, StoryCorps, the umbrella organization for the Memory Loss Initiative, dispatches specially trained technicians and recording equipment for anyone to use -- free of charge. Since StoryCorps began in 2003, more than 35,000 have shared their story; 1,000 people have taken part in the Memory Loss Initiative since July 2006.
"She has a lot of story to tell," Albertini said. "I know a lot more about her life now than I did before we started this project."
At the end of each session, families get a copy of their interview on a CD. Another copy is kept on file at the Library of Congress as part of an archive, open to the public.
The project seeks to capture moments in the lives of real people that might otherwise be lost. From Mary Albertini's childhood at her farmhouse in New York State to Milton Haber's little league baseball game 70 years ago, the philosophy is to honor others' lives by listening.
Everyday People Share Piece of History
"The ball came to me. I got up and threw it all the way out to second base," Haber recounted. "They tagged him out. And I became a hero that day."
There's a recording of 82-year-old Jo Ann Chew reminiscing about her courtship late in life with her husband, Bob, who is also her interviewer.
"My heart began to beat a little faster after quite a few months and I think yours did too," she said. "Then we decided we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together... "
The interview allows for a conversation, a focus, that might not happen at the dinner table. Ken Morganstern tells his daughters about the joys and importance of family.
"I'm sitting here thinking I have no regrets on anything," Morganstern said. "The important thing is I have a family that I love. And they're loving people. That's the biggest thing you can leave."
Each family decides what questions to ask. What answers to seek.
"There is no other Mary Albertini out there. She was a much rounder person than I had ever imagined," Albertini said. "We felt like we were being spotlighted as who we are. And that was a special feeling."
To learn more about StoryCorps, the Memory Loss Initiative and how to schedule an interview, you can visit their Web site at www.storycorps.net.
To see the complete Medicine on the Cutting Edge archive, click here.