The Doc Project

Producer's notebook: tips for interviewing someone with memory loss

What are the ethics around interviewing, and recording, someone with dementia? This question was on my mind when I started working on my documentary, that, through the theme of memory, retells my grandmother's story of surviving the Holocaust.
Arielle Piat-Sauvé as a child, with her grandmother, Fay. (Piat-Sauvé family)

What are the ethics around interviewing, and recording, someone with dementia?

This question was on my mind when I started working on my documentary for CBC Radio's Now or Never. Through the theme of memory, my doc retells my grandmother's story of surviving the Holocaust and why she's sharing her story for the first time.

Arielle and Fay. (Piat-Sauvé family)
There was also another element to my documentary about memories — my grandmother has dementia. And while this mostly affects her short-term memory, and not her long-term memories of the war, I wanted to ensure I proceeded cautiously.

My grandmother had consented to participating in this radio doc during several earlier phone conversations with me, but I had to constantly remind her that I was coming to record her and re-explain the whole process. I was worried that once she saw my microphone she would suddenly change her mind. I had never been in this kind of situation. Usually, when a source consents to an interview, the agreement is clear.

David Studer, director of Journalism Standards and Practices at CBC News, says these kinds of situations can only be dealt with in a case-by-case scenario. But there are two questions journalists should ask themselves in this situation.

First, when you're dealing with someone whose mental capacities to make decisions might be diminished, you need to make sure that the information you are getting is based in fact and that you're getting a true picture of what happened. "If you believe you're getting the essence of the story, then that's satisfying," says Studer.

Hearing my grandmother's Holocaust story for the first time

Arielle Piat-Sauvé's grandmother is one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Canada, and until recently, Piat-Sauvé had never heard her story. Listen to the documentary →

The other side to this is about protecting the person you're interviewing. This means making sure the source isn't being taken advantage of and is in an appropriate position to answer the questions being asked. If the individual in question is worried about being taken advantage of, Studer suggests having another person present, either someone with power of attorney or someone who can speak to their best interest.

For my case specifically, I was dealing with my grandmother's memories and her telling of a story the way she remembered it. My mother, who heard her story before and had also written down most of it, was there each time I interviewed my grandmother. This proved to be a great way to dealing with her memory loss because my mother was able to confirm things as my grandmother spoke about her past.

While no one has power of attorney over my grandmother, it was important for me to get her on the record agreeing to participate in the documentary. I did also assure her that she wouldn't be harmed as a result of sharing her story. In the end, she never went back on that decision and I didn't run into any issues during the interview process.

Studer says my case isn't one you see everyday. In fact, he doesn't recall a situation ever where we were racing against the clock to record memories before they were gone forever. But when these types of stories do arise, it's important to cover them.

"We want the most direct and unmediated set of facts or stories out there," says Studer.

In the end, my grandmother let me interview her over the course of several days. To my surprise, she was completely at ease throughout the whole process and comfortable speaking into a microphone. I'm so glad I was able to record my grandmother and to honour her story before it was too late.

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