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Seniors share COVID-19 experience through oral history project

  • Franklin Medical Reserve Corp volunteer Denise Schwartz interviews Judy Raper, associate dean for community engagement, about her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/28/2022 4:38:57 PM

Years from now, members of the Franklin County community and beyond will have access to the oral histories of area seniors, sharing their experiences of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have this beautiful treasure trove of local people’s experiences in a time that we are still trying to understand,” said Denise Schwartz, a volunteer with the Franklin Medical Reserve Corps who has been interviewing adults ages 55 and older for the Senior Resilience/Oral History Program happening in partnership with Greenfield Community College. “When people have someone who wants to hear their voice, they feel their lives have some meaning.”

In February, Schwartz began meeting via Zoom with participants — referred to in the project as “narrators” — asking them to share stories of their personal experiences of living through a global pandemic. The stories are in the process of being transcribed and will eventually be archived at GCC.

“Interviewing and telling stories is something I love,” she said.

Schwartz explained that last year, as a member of the advisory board for Older Adults Seeking, Inspiring and Serving (OASIS) — a GCC program that provides an opportunity for local seniors to connect with students via mentoring relationships — she approached Judy Raper, associate dean of community engagement at GCC, about collecting the stories of community members living through the pandemic.

“Every demographic was impacted in different ways and no demographic had a universal experience,” explained Raper, who helped recruit people to be interviewed. “But I think for older adults it hit pretty hard.”

Raper said she finds that older Americans are not heard from as much as other age demographics.

“It felt like a really important opportunity … to be part of documenting something that will one day be talked about in history books, but also with a focus on how it impacted adults in Franklin County,” she said.

The plan originally was to begin recording last fall in GCC’s downtown studio, but a COVID-19 case spike derailed those plans, Schwartz said. After the holidays, they decided in light of the ongoing pandemic, interviews would best be recorded via Zoom.

Schwartz said in the roughly 20 interviews collected so far, resiliency — the theme of this particular oral history collection — has been a common thread.

“These folks, in general, said, ‘Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we just have to get through this,” she said. “I was pretty taken by that. … They figured out ways to just get through it.”

The natural environment, Schwartz said, played a key role in that.

“Most people said … ‘We live in a rural area, so we went outside and we walked,’” Schwartz recalled. “We would see our neighbors, and they were walking. We were socially distanced, but we weren’t isolated.”

Schwartz also found technology to be a shared experience among those who told her their stories.

“We have this idea that older adults are digitally illiterate, and many are, but in general, the folks who recorded their oral histories said Zoom was critical in helping them get through the darker days of the pandemic,” she recounted. “They learned how to Zoom; they took classes, they had reunions with family members, they reached out and communicated with people.”

Schwartz said oral histories are not only “treasure troves” for future generations of researchers or historians to have access to, but they’re also a special resource to future generations of people who knew that person.

“I hope we can let people know that when these stories are archived … they can go and listen to the stories of people they know, and think, ‘That person’s just like me,’” Schwartz said.

Corinne McKeown, director of the Franklin Medical Reserve Corps, said the project — which earned the local unit the National Innovator Award, a “prestigious Medical Reserve Corp recognition” — has inspired “community-building and meaningful dialogue.” Ultimately, she hopes these stories can be used in the future to help emergency management and public health professionals better understand how people coped, or didn’t cope, through the pandemic that began in March 2020.

“When people tell their stories, they feel heard. They feel valued for their experience,” McKeown said. “Just doing that helps people to be more resilient.”

Franklin County residents ages 55 and older who are interested in sharing their pandemic experiences are invited to reach out by emailing seniorresilience@wmmrc.org.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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