Channeling the Elderly

Channeling the Elderly

Social historian and yarn spinner David Greenberger brings his stories of—and by—the elderly to town.


October 13, 2011

David Greenberger, a frequent contributor to NPR through essays and music reviews, began recording conversations with elderly patients in a Boston nursing home where he worked in 1979 after finishing art school. These chats were originally published in his self-published magazine Duplex Planet, which is described as “an ongoing work designed to portray a wide variety of real characters who are old or in decline.” Greenberger eventually began giving spoken word performances using the elderly folks’ words while backed by musical combos. On October 23, Greenberger will appear at Bottletree Café with the Shaking Ray Levis at 8 p.m. For details, go to

Black & White: Tell us what to expect at your upcoming performance in Birmingham. The Shaking Ray Levis are associated with improv music, which I don’t particularly care for.
David Greenberger: There are no elements of improv in what we do, even with the Shaking Ray Levis. Those guys are improvisers but in the context of what we do, it’s composed music. I actually never like having improvised music with this sort of text, which has a conversational voice. I feel like the conversational voice is to be believed. A true conversation is sort of improvised, in a way. To really believe those conversations, it’s just sort of rolling out like a saxophone solo. So with that being the sort of foreground—or the narrative—in these pieces I need for the music to be anchored, to be sort of specific; to be the sort of architecture that this voice lives within.

So Dennis and Bob (of the Shaking Ray Levis ) are well-known as improvisers but everything that we’ve done has always been completely composed and scored and we know exactly where we’ll be in the piece. Within that, they’ve got some room to play around, just like even non-improvising musicians would. But for the most part, we’re doing a scripted and scored thing.

What prompted you to start sharing your conversations with the elderly in a public format?
Well, I was out of art school, I was a painter. In the 1970s, I met some old guy and I thought that I’d like to meet some more like that. I was sort of intrigued by the idea that I’d met somebody who was significantly older than me. At the time, I was about 25. I never knew them before, they weren’t related to me. And in my experience—and probably most people’s experience—the people I knew who were elderly were relatives, and so there’s a sort of a limited, familial dynamic in play where they always see you as the grandchild or the nephew or whatever it is.

“I would meet these people who were closer to the ends of their lives. I didn’t have to get too caught up in mourning the loss of who they used to be and I could be with them in the present moment because I never knew them before.” (click for larger version)

What was kind of liberating for me was that in meeting this one particular guy, I realized it was just the same as meeting anybody else. And the fact that he was older than me didn’t really enter into it. We just found common ground to talk about.
I took a job at a nursing home for a couple of years in 1979. I just did it for a little while—it was all elderly men at this nursing home, which was a small converted house. But in stepping into that environment, I really felt that, as an artist, I found my voice, in a way. It was something that I wanted to communicate to an audience who didn’t know these people. But [the point was]not to get to know them but to get to know aspects and various possibilities and various faces of aging and decline. And to do so without them being your uncles or aunts or grandparents or parents, because your own mortality is so tied to that. And I would meet these people who were in decline and closer to the ends of their lives. I didn’t have to get too caught up in mourning the loss of who they used to be and I could be with them in the present moment because I never knew them before.

Say you met somebody who had an accident and lost an arm. And all their friends and family are horrified and feel bad about it. But he moves on and he’s a guy with one arm. Well, you meet this guy and you never knew him when he had the other arm, so you’re not as limited in the same view of him as those other people who, in a way, will always think, “What a shame. He used to love to play Frisbee or baseball” or whatever it was. You can just sort of accept him as is, and that’s also quite empowering to the person who is going through it. Because then they meet people who didn’t know them before and they can just move forward with their life.

How often does dementia or Alzheimer’s come into play with what you do?
When I first started doing this stuff, there were a few people [with some form of dementia] at that one nursing home. But I never really cared to know what the diagnosis was because it didn’t really matter to them. The diagnosis, in a way, can become a distraction. As soon as you say “Alzheimer’s” you’re just seeing that word. But if you would just talk to them, it defines Alzheimer’s in a different way. You’re defining them first as an individual who happens to have Alzheimer’s. You’re seeing them through that window of, “Oh, what a shame.” And I always prefer to not even know what the diagnosis is because that’s really going to be an incumbrance in the dynamic of a relationship to just getting to know them on their own terms.

The Alzheimer’s word is used a lot more than it was before. I don’t think there’s a greater number of people suffering from various aspects of mental decline. So it’s out there as a popular word and idea to support, which isn’t a bad thing. But it sort of tips the balance a bit. That issue’s always been around. In one way or another, there is no cure for the slowdown of your life, which includes the various parts of our bodies. Those things wear out, including our brains.

I would argue that I don’t think most people would want to be very wide-eyed and completely alert but flinchingly having to stare down their own death. In a way, I think the very act of becoming confused and uncertain about what’s real and what isn’t allows for a gentler passage, as it were. Which isn’t to say that I’m opposed to doing things about it. Certainly early onset things and people who are frustrated and know that something’s happened are to be helped.

I did a project in Milwaukee a couple of years ago that was specifically focused on people with memory loss. I had an artist residency and was in Milwaukee for about four months creating a CD that was called Cherry Picking Apple Blossom Time. (A documentary was made about the project.) Most of the people that I spoke with all had varying degrees of memory loss. For some of them, there was nothing that you would even notice. For other people it was a profound loss. I would say something and they would say something that was completely different from what I said. And then I would try to follow them there and then they would head somewhere else. It was the full range of faces of memory loss.

Tell me about Duplex Planet.
Well, I started that in 1979. It was a chat book-sized little periodical. It was a format that I was interested in doing at the time. [Readers] would get to know characters little by little over time, just like you would if it was somebody that you run into once in a while at the supermarket—an old guy that you would see there—so that after three or four months readers start to recognize certain characters . . . More people got to know my work and it was channeled into more traditional media like books and stuff. There was a comic book adaptation in the mid-’90s. And then that’s when I started doing these performances and recordings of monologues with music.

Tell me about the oddest or most unusual elderly person you’ve worked with.
Well, I think, in a way, the people I knew earliest on in that nursing home where I worked because of my age. I was 25 and everything was knew to me. I learned a lot. I think I became articulate about what I was trying to do.

Those people show up in my dreams and it tends to mean other stuff to me. There was one guy there, William Ferguson was his name, who I really liked. He clearly did have some form of dementia. But he was a perfectly happy guy. He was clearly making stuff up when he was talking to me. He was about 90. I might have said something to him about the president or something. And then he would say something about Eisenhower. He would talk about driving around with Eisenhower in a jeep after the war and picking up Fräuleins and buying them ice cream.

He was clearly inventing stuff but with such loving vigor. It was real to him in the moment, almost like speaking aloud a dream. I think what I learned from him was that anything that anybody was telling me was real and I should accept it as real. It was real to them. Whether or not it actually happened, it doesn’t really matter. There’s this guy sitting in front of me who’s completely aglow with this stuff that he’s talking about. And for me to say that didn’t happen only ends the conversation. So it’s better to talk about Ike, talk about the jeep. Go with him wherever he’s going. Because the whole thing at the end of the day is just to be present with somebody else . . . The thing that matters is that we have our kind of emotional memory of having been with somebody. &

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