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Preserving the Past, Understanding the Present: Student Studies Alzheimer's Patients’ Stories

Before the 2013-2014 academic year, senior Erin Burdick knew “nothing” about Alzheimer’s. Now, after working on a project through a Chapel Hill Foundation Fellowship, she will present on the disease 5 p.m. May 5 in the Alumni Conference Room of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Angell College Center.

Burdick’s presentation, the “Plattsburgh Alzheimer’s Project: Memories of Work and Play,” uses stories and test results she gathered in meetings with three Alzheimer’s patients and their families at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Third Age Adult Day Center. She investigated which memories were more vivid to the patients — memories of work or memories of play — and whether the patients responded better to stories or photos.  

Combining Fields of English and Science

Burdick, an English and political science major, saw the project as a way to combine English and science. She applied for the fellowship with the help of Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor of English at the college.

“She was interested in taking on this project, and she asked if I’d be interested in working with her,” Burdick said. “She’s been there to answer questions, which is great because I wanted to do my own thing.”

First, Burdick educated herself on Alzheimer’s, reading a slew of books and meeting with a professor in Rochester. Then, she began meeting with patients and families at the Third Age Center.

Preserving Stories

“Working with the side effects of the disease was very challenging,” Burdick said. “In getting patients to tell me about their lives with more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, a lot of times, they just shut down and didn’t want to talk to me.”

When patients shut down, Burdick gave them space and time to gather themselves. She said she would come back another time. Eventually, she heard the stories she needed.

“I’m collecting their memories,” Burdick said. “I’m putting their pictures and their stories together so the families and patients can come see them and relive the past.”

The Chapel Hill Foundation Fellowship: Challenges of an Aging Society was designed to provide an opportunity for the in-depth study of issues related to aging. In addition, the anonymous donors wished to stimulate independent research and develop interaction between students and the larger community.

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