Worth Recognizing: Community Members Who Go Above & Beyond

Carlene Jackson: Creating personal histories that help heal elderly patients

arlene Jackson is a storyteller of a special kind: The stories she tells often help the healing process for elderly patients at two local hospitals.

Jackson is one of 16 volunteers in the Living History Program offered at Christiana Hospital’s ACE (Acute Care for the Elderly) unit and at Wilmington Hospital’s rehabilitation unit. Patients admitted to the ACE unit usually stay for about four days for such ailments as pneumonia and kidney injury.

Jackson and other volunteers in the program aim to increase the patient’s quality of care by introducing the individual behind the illness to everyone involved in his or her care. She interviews the patient, then writes a two-page narrative about the individual’s interests, career and family life. Armed with this information, the medical staff can then provide better care and treatment.

For instance, a Christiana Care speech therapist used the name of a patient’s granddaughter to help him sound out the letter M, thus making the process personal and engaging. The life history is included in medical records and the patient gets to keep a copy too.

The national Living History program was initiated by a former nurse in an Iowa hospital in 2000, and introduced at Christiana Care in 2011. It’s for 65-year-olds and above.

Jackson, a Kennett Square resident and former bridal salon owner, has interviewed over 200 people—more than any other volunteer since the program started. She says she laughs with them, cries with them, and serves as company when no one visits. Jackson, who says her interviewing and writing skills have improved with time, writes three to four stories a month.

One of her stories was about a 103-year-old black man who at first wouldn’t look at Jackson. “He was brought up not to look at white women,” she says. Born in the coal region of Virginia, he was one of five orphaned children raised by a 12-year-old sister. He grew up in extreme poverty, trapping squirrels for food and making his own shoes at the age of 7 from a cardboard box, leather, and rope he found. Despite that challenging childhood, grew up to be an electrician.

Another narrative was about a 92-year-old who as a young man was a county doctor in upstate New York during the pre-antibiotic era. “He talked about how penicillin was made,” says Jackson. He charged $4 for house calls and $3 for office calls. He often used snowshoes during bad weather to make house calls, but one day he drove his car and got stuck in the snow. A farmer used his oxen to pull him out.

One man was among the last of the Band of Brothers, the World War II regiment made famous in a book and TV miniseries. Another patient spent 25 years volunteering with his wife as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus at nursing homes. And another was a Holocaust survivor. “With him I cried a lot,” says Jackson. “He held my hand and handed me tissues.”

Listening to and writing about people’s lives has taught Jackson that most individuals have a strong instinct to survive and persevere. Their strength and courage give Jackson the faith to deal with her life challenges.

“I’ve had a few things happen in my life,” she says. “Their stories and the relationships I’ve formed help me and enrich my life.”

Christiana Care Visitor & Volunteer Services Director Margarita Rodriguez-Duffy says that although it’s hard to measure the overall health outcome of a patient who agrees to participate in the program versus a patient who doesn’t, the feedback is positive and encouraging.

Patients say they feel valued and cared for, says Rodriguez-Duffy. And family members sometimes say, “I didn’t know that about him,” after reading a narrative.

Last year, Living History Program volunteers received a Governors Volunteer Award for their service.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.