By Fanny Julissa García, Summer Institute Communications Coordinator
During the second week of the 2017 Oral History Summer Institute, fellows welcomed Dr. Michelle Winslow, who traveled from Sheffield in the United Kingdom to present her use of oral history in palliative and end-of-life care. Dr. Winslow is the co-founder of the oral history service at the Sheffield Macmillan Unit for Palliative Care, where she pairs volunteers with patients interested in producing audio recordings of their life history. Preparation for these interviews includes training volunteers on oral history practice and interviewing skills.
Palliative care, as Dr. Winslow explained, includes the act of caring for people who are facing serious illness and end-of-life processes. The care patients receive helps to improve quality of life and aims to relieve pain and other distressing symptoms, including the psychological impacts of illness, which can include depression and anxiety.
The goal here is to normalize dying as a fact of life, and she uses oral history to help individuals remember themselves before they became ill. Long-term illness, she said, can disrupt a person’s sense of self, and oral history provides an opportunity to restore dignity, autonomy and affirm life.
Dr. Winslow’s oral history service creates high quality voice recordings, which enhance holistic care and benefits both participants and families. The oral history service uses the life history method to produce a multi-layered audio and written document of the person’s entire life. “Recalling and describing life events brings to light underlying patterns of meaning,” says Dr. Winslow, and may help participants conclude “unfinished business,” as well as appreciate the interest taken in them as people.
Many of the recordings are archived and available for research and Dr. Winslow explained that an added benefit of the oral history service and the process of recording patients in end-of-life oral history interviews is that they provide healthcare professionals an opportunity to hear these recordings and gain a deeper understanding of terminally ill patients.
Mary Marshall Clark and Cameron Vanderscoff, Co-Directors of the 2017 Oral History Summer Institute believe that what is most fascinating about Dr. Winslow’s work is that “in following the careful path of oral history procedures and ethics, Dr. Winslow has instantiated a flawless oral history program in multiple sites that will only grow.”
Vanderscoff agrees and added, “Her work pushes us to consider not only how our practice can find new traction and purpose in palliative settings, but how we can develop the oral history process itself as an act of care. She connects oral history more closely with an ethic of shared meaning-making, and for revisiting the potential of the life history approach as a positive intervention for both interviewer and narrator.”
For more information about Dr. Michelle’s work, read “Recording Lives: The Benefits of an Oral History Service” in the 2009 edition of the European Journal of Palliative Care.
Fanny Julissa García is a recent graduate of the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the Central American Refugee Crisis and the rise of immigration detention centers in the U.S. She currently works as a social media marketing content writer for various organizations including Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change, the Columbia Oral History Master of Arts program, and the CCOHR 2017 Oral History Summer Institute.