Sunday, April 27, 2008

Getting Senior Citizens to talk about their experiences on camera

This post is in response to Lissle's question:
"I'm doing a short documentary on seniors' perspectives, trying to get seniors to talk about their experiences on camera. any advice?"
(BTW, Lissle is one of the Davis Forum - Spring 2008 - scholars, whom I had the privilege of meeting at the USF in February this year. She found her way to Victor's blog post about a Blogging talk that Chun See and I co-conducted for senior citizens, in 2006. Victor alerted me to that comment, by leaving -- you guessed it! -- a comment in a related post of mine, LOL. So I thought I'd post a response here instead).

Here are THREE main points I'd consider, if I were to embark on a similar project:


#1 - Approach senior citizens who already trust you
I'd start with seniors citizens whom I know personally, or recommended by my friends. That way, I'd already have that implicit trust. It will also be easier to explain what I intend to do with this project, and what it involves.

(I mentioned about establishing trust in my USF talk; see Part 3).

Incidentally, I managed to videotape an interview with my father a few weeks ago. About his basket ball career in his younger days. I was surprised that he readily agreed to being on video. He'd only asked me one question -- why I wanted to do the video. I said I might enter it for a video project but it was more out of an interest about his life when he played basketball for Singapore. He was happy with that explanation.

#2 - Tell them why their story is worth telling the world
I'm generalising here, but my sense is that most senior citizens (of this generation) are even more private about their thoughts and experiences. Something that the younger generation may not fully appreciate.

But I think if they are convinced of why their story (not yours) is worth sharing with the world, then they'd be more willing to be interviewed.

How you go about convincing them, I guess it's an art :)

It would also help if there's a theme or topic to your documentary. Something to help them decide if there's a story worth telling.

#3 - Create a sample video
Create that demo video. I'd use it to show other senior citizens whom I intend to approach. If this is done well, I'm sure it will reinforce #1 and #2.

They might even help connect you to other senior citizens.

Self-reinforcing loop.


There are more than these three points to consider, depending on the understanding and comfort level of individuals you approach. For instance, whether you'll be publishing your documentary on the Internet, and if so, do they understand the implications of sharing content on that medium. Also, in any research project, there's that ethical aspects that researchers have to adhere to.

But unless it's formal research that you intend to do, I'd say keep things simple as a start. I believe if you do #1, #2, and #3 as a first step, that will help you refine the subsequent process and determine how complex or formal you wish your project to be.

OK Lis, I hope this helps. Feel free to email me at, or post your questions here.

Good luck, and do let me know how your documentary turns out.


  1. Hi Ivan, it's high time that senior citizens talk about their perspectives and experiences for the benifit of the younger generations. It's a pity sight to see many of the elderly people languishing at the HDB void decks.
    Life has become meaningless.

  2. Thankyou Ivan! The doc is going well and I will be posting it on my blog. Also, I'm thinking of going further with an actual project involving me filming and editing short portraits of seniors (I'm graduating and so need tasks anyway) geared towards my generation, maybe to show in museums or to be on library databases. Especially if I asked them about specific events which they lived through, for oral history's sake.

  3. Interesting blog topic, Ivan. Something close to my heart.

    I agree with pchew's comments, though I am a few years younger than him (like as if its a big deal :)

    Actually I'm just learning how to grow old...and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    I told a friend recently that "growing old is a necessary stage in everyone's life if they could live long enough to experience it".

    Most of my contemporaries do not wish to blog or join the virtual community because of the misconception that they are stripping their thoughts in public and may even be accused of being a show-off. There's some kind of invisible barrier or 'generation gap' in interacting with the Internet-savvy youngster.

    Cheers to senior blogger like pchew and Chun See. "Carry on Blogging", friends. Lets invite more senior citizens to join the blogosphere.

  4. Hey James/ Thimbuktu, love this statement: "Actually I'm just learning how to grow old...and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

    See what gems you "seniors" have?! :)

  5. Hi James, you are right about the generation gap. Before I started blogging I noticed most bloggers were young and internet savvy. I was afraid to make of fool of myself. But with my cousin, Ivan's encouragement, I had my first blog and I said to myself there is no turning back.

  6. Yes,Philip. I have such inhibitions in the beginning too.

    Blogosphere is a new dimension...the type of space we do not have before the Internet phenomenon, a breakthrough of the time and space barriers. Like travelling in a time-machine, elderly people could rewind to as far back as their memories could stretch and share these travelogue of life, of places they visit and their memorable experiences, with younger people. Every traveller, each from an individual perspective,has a different story to tell,although the places we visit may be the same.

    Some places, like those destroyed during the Tsunami or other calamities, are already gone. But the memories of these places would remain if somebody had blogged about it.

  7. I completely agree with everything you all are saying! I feel passionate about 1) the existential idea that people should slow down and appreciate the simple beauty of the person next them (a film puts a frame around something, giving it attention immediately) and 2) as harsh as it sounds, yes, getting people to document and open up while they're still here. There are many more connections to be made in this world. And furthermore, isn't it just a fact that talking about your life makes you feel better about it?


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