It is in narrative that we situate ourselves within various identities and cultural discourses. People do not lose the urge to share story as they age, and they do not abandon story techniques that have worked throughout a lifetime of talking and telling to others. They keep their showpiece stories, their rehearsed or performance narratives, brightly polished, ready to trot out to new audiences, even when they are not too sure how long they can keep audience attention. People strive to preserve their sense of self throughout their lives. Telling their stories is a primary way of presenting that self to oneself and to others. Narrative including life story or autobiographical elements is a key way in how we frame our lives: it lets us record and view events through place, gender, history and culture.
The Carolinas Conversations Collection demonstrates how stories about health and wellbeing can construct a bridge between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities by focusing on questions such as these:
How do we use language to construct illness: how do we re-cog-nize our changed selves, our changed bodies, our new identities when we find ourselves changed by age and health? How does our inscribed self show traces not only of one’s own leftover bits of memory and experience but also of the response and reflection from others? How do we change our stories to accommodate what we think our listeners expect, when those hearers are professionals or when they are friends? Looking at selfhood has additional implications for older persons with cognitive impairment: the construct of personal identity is a key point in discussion of the ethics concerning the capacity of the person for decision-making and advance directives.
The Carolinas Conversations Project responds to a need for research among older persons, an area where communication has been identified as crucial, but where spoken data from older persons from a range of racial, ethnic and linguistic groups is often unavailable or inaccessible. This password-protected digital collection, or corpus, provides access to time-stamped audio/video recordings linked to transcripts and analytic tools, within an online management package. Using this corpus gives researchers from multiple disciplinary and medical areas a window into how older persons speak to younger people and to contemporaries and how they construct or co-construct memory and identity, and lets clinical researchers link ways of speaking to clinical outcomes. The corpus hosts two cohorts of speakers:
Cohort One: men and women who are 65 years and older, with chronic conditions most frequently linked in the two Carolinas to causes of death. Members of this cohort have two conversational interviews, one with young clinical professionals, and one with community partners of similar age and ethnicity.
Cohort Two: men and women who are 65 years and older, with cognitive impairment, most frequently Dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Members of this cohort may have one to ten interviews over time, with researchers and student visitors to their residential communities.