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April-May 2020 | Articles

A life well remembered lives on

A life well remembered lives on

The Hospice Biographers is a unique project founded by a London Rotarian, which provides families with a legacy from loved ones.

Imagine being able to hear, once more after passing away, the gentle voice of your mother, father, spouse or sibling, telling their favourite story about their life.

Capturing such emotionally moving moments with care and respect is the team from The Hospice Biographers.

Since the charity launched in November 2017, the 40 or so volunteers, including Rotary members, have recorded over 100 people.

The charity was founded and is led by the hard-working, persuasive and passionate Barbara Altounyan, who is a member of Putney Rotary in London.

She said: “The idea behind Hospice Biographers was inspired by my dear old dad. He was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

“My brothers and sisters were very much against me disturbing him.

“My mother was very much against it and I said why don’t we just ask dad as he’s the main person in all this.

“His face lit up, ‘Oh Barbara! That’s fantastic! Oh what fun!’

Hospice Biographers

Since the charity launched in November 2017, the 40 or so volunteers, including Rotary members, have recorded over 100 people.

“We train specialist volunteers to record the life stories of terminally ill patients so that they can enjoy it for pleasure, but also for legacy purpose so families can still hear their voices.

Recordings last for as long as the patient wishes to talk, whether 30 minutes or three hours. There is no time limit.

The benefits of capturing these special stories goes beyond leaving a memento for the families left behind, it can be very cathartic for the patient too.

Some think there is nothing to say and then they start talking. They remember long forgotten anecdotes, reasons why they made certain decisions and suddenly their life starts to make sense.

Volunteers for The Hospice Biographers come into contact with dementia patients which presents an interesting challenge.

Due to the impact of the disease on memory recall, the interview will not follow a chronological order and there will be gaps. The recordists also find themselves listening to homeless people, travellers and those in prison.

The charity has been asked to record children in hospices. Barbara says this is new territory: “We have not done children yet. We are going to be training with people in children’s hospices.”

We train specialist volunteers to record the life stories of terminally ill patients so that they can enjoy it for pleasure, but also for legacy purpose so families can still hear their voices.

Amongst the challenges facing The Hospice Biographers is covering all 200 hospices across GB and Ireland and fund-raising for the right equipment, including video equipment.

Barbara’s background as a broadcast journalist has proved to be an advantage.

She added: “It is the most privileged job you can ever have. When someone gives you their life story, they are giving part of their soul.

“It is recording their life story but it’s not just that; it gives the family a legacy, hearing the voice again.

“The person them self is often quite miserable, medication has not done much good but, by the time you leave, they say that was good, I enjoyed that.

“You as the biographer, are completely and utterly knackered!

It is the most privileged job you can ever have.”

“It teaches the art of interviewing and the art of listening and both are skills out of date these days. People don’t listen anymore.

“Most people say ‘why?’ or ‘I’m boring, I’ve had a boring life.’ or they say it’s too intrusive and my family don’t like me.

“I do manage to persuade them, and say sling it in the bin if you really don’t like it.”


For more information contact Barbara by email or visit the Hospice Biographers website.

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