Beth Macy is the families beat reporter at The Roanoke Times in Virginia. She was part of team that won a 2009 Casey Medal in the Multimedia category for “Age of Uncertainty,” a series about Roanoke’s aging population.
I was at a party a few years back when a recently retired copy editor came up to me and cheerily volunteered: “I have dementia — in case you didn’t know!”
I hadn’t known. At 63, with a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, Lynn Forbish was still with it enough to describe what it felt like to lose her mind. “Sometimes I can’t remember whether to hook my bra in the front or the back,” she told me.
I wrote her story in 2007, a narrative about a prickly, old-schooljournalist who, in losing her memory, regained part of herself. It got me thinking: If being a caregiver for someone with financial resources was as difficult as Lynn’s family described, what was it like for those without? How would the country handle caring for the 76 million baby boomers about to retire? How would we handle it in Roanoke, a retirement destination that already has an elderly population similar to that of many Florida locales?
Photographer Josh Meltzer and I plunged into the project in late 2007 as we usually do: We went hunting for people whose stories taught us something about what it means to take care of our community’s frail elderly. More importantly, we sought out caregivers whose stories moved us and, we knew, would move our readers too.
I talked to the region’s gurus on aging, sussing out the gaps in our stretched-thin network of care. Research librarian Belinda Harris found helpful people for me to talk to elsewhere. Data delivery editor Matt Chittum helped make sense of the Census data. Joshhung out in area churches looking for caregiver families.
We found Linda Rhodes, subject of the kickoff narrative in the series, at an adult care center PR event, of all places. She was a storyteller’s dream — honest about the good and the bad — and she reminded me of the importance of keeping an open mind when searching out stories. (You may come away with a much better story than the PR folks intended.)
Linda was too young to retire, and yet there were very few resources to help her keep her husband, Tommy, at home. Her inability to access home care was a compelling story for us to tell. It also led to an analysis piece that became the heart of the series: an examination of Medicaid funding of home care and why it falls short in Virginia.
To bring that story alive, we featured a home-care aide who knew more about what impoverished elderly people face than all the experts we’d talked to combined. We explained the national geriatrician shortage by profiling a local doctor who saw himself as a warrior for the cause. We examined rural health-care access issues through the perspective of a woman so desperate to take care of her husband, who was confined to bed in a nursing home, that she took a job there.
Because the series ran occasionally — 10 stories in all, over the course of six months, with videos accompanying nine of them — our readers sent in story ideas and leads. With an increasingly shrinking newsroom staff, we had to work at the series between other assignments — so the staggered publication was borne of necessity. But happily, that ended up playing in our favor. For example, the rural wife who took a job in her husband’s nursing home presented herself when she called me in tears the day Linda Rhodes’ story ran.
Readers used — and continue to use — our searchable database to see which facilities have the best ratings, where they’re located and whether they accept Medicaid. So if you’re a middle-aged daughter in Kansas, say, struggling to place your mother in a Roanoke facility, that online information can save you many hours of research.
Multimedia editor and site designer Seth Gitner worked with a local geriatric psychiatrist to develop a Web-based memory assessment that users of the site can use to test themselves for dementia.Producer Tracy Boyer created an interactive graphic that shows county-by-county demographic trends across the state.
It was important to create an ongoing resource in the community that families could turn to in times of crisis — for area resources, advice, a glossary of geriatric care terms. Most importantly, we wanted them to know they are not alone.
The required collaboration among our team was intense and sometimes bumpy, as we all came at the project from different perspectives. Though this was our fourth project together, even Josh and I had to come up with new ways of working together without stepping on each other’s toes. We worried that we would tire our subjects by interviewing and re-interviewing them the old-fashioned way, photographing them for the print product and then returning to do it all over again for the Web video.
Josh ended up pulling most of the stills he used from his video, and we learned by trial and error that it didn’t always work to have us both at the same events at the same time.
But we shared information constantly. I sent him summaries of my interviews, and he invited me to take notes from the 20 hours of video he had shot. Early on, Editor Carole Tarrant laid out a production schedule designed to give the online designers and producers a month’s lead-time. Midway through the project, our newsroom re-organized and I ended up with three different metro editors in the course of about two months — until Carole realized it was getting away from her and wisely took the reins. Strong leadership is critical for a project that has this many tentacles.
Nearly a year after the series ended, I was still getting phone calls from stressed-out caregivers. Those calls were a powerful reminder that, while newspapers struggle so hard to court young readers, we often overlook important, compelling stories about the people who need us andhappen to still be reading our work.
It’s our responsibility to help all generations understand the public and private costs of this demographic storm. We owe it to them to ask tough questions and present the complicated answers in as many forms as we can, whether it’s through a searchable database or a 120-inch narrative.
The 2009 Casey Medal Judges called “Age of Uncertainty” a brilliantly structured presentation on the challenges facing a region and its aging population. By documenting the stories of caregivers, patients and families, the multimedia project is a great balance of narrative and user utility – not an easy thing to achieve. The incorporation of numerous social networking sites demonstrates a creative use of the medium to tell an important story.
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