Interviewing Elderly Subjects

Written By: Reid
Jul 01, 2004

Interviewing techniques presented in textbooks or during seminars generally assume that the person being interviewed is an emotionally healthy and mature individual with a normal IQ. Twenty-five years ago, when the epidemic of unreported child sexual abuse attracted national attention, specific interviewing techniques were developed to address the special circumstances of eliciting information from a child. Contemporary investigators are now dealing with a new special interest group. As our population ages, investigators are faced with the task of frequently interviewing elderly witnesses, victims and suspects.

Unlike children, who reach psychological and physiological benchmarks within a year or two of established norms, the deteriorating effects of aging have a wide range. There are 80-year-old subjects with remarkable cognitive and physical abilities and, conversely, 65-year-old subjects with noticeably impaired memory and affected physiological functions. Consequently, the first goal when interviewing an elderly subject is to make an initial assessment of the person's age-related functions. In particular, the investigator needs to assess the subject's senses and memory function.

Evaluating the subject's senses

Assessing a subject's eyesight and hearing is obviously important with respect to credibility if that individual claims to be a witness or victim of a crime. Furthermore, failure to recognize vision or hearing problems within a subject may cause misleading behavior symptoms during an interview.

An investigator should not approach an elderly subject with any expectation of physical or mental impairment. In other words, it would be improper for the investigator to initially talk loudly, to use simple words, or to over-explain the situation. Rather, when interviewing an elderly subject the investigator should have a heightened awareness of the individual's possible sensory limitations and be prepared to adjust interviewing techniques accordingly.

Simple observation may reveal that a subject wears strong eyeglasses or hearing aids. Observing the subject during conversation may indicate a tendency for the subject to turn a "good ear" toward the investigator when a question is asked or to offer an inappropriate response to a question that was asked when the subject was not facing the investigator. When sight or hearing is important to the subject's testimony, it is important to establish whether or not the subject was wearing glasses or hearing aids at the time an event occurred.

As one ages, often more light is required for the eyes to focus and discern particular features. When an elderly subject is offering eye witness evidence, the investigator should carefully document the amount of light present at the time of the initial event. For the same reason, if an elderly subject is asked to identify a photograph or the signature on a canceled check, for example, the document or object should be well lighted.

When interviewing an elderly person with affected hearing there is a tendency to make two errors. The first is for the investigator to significantly increase his volume when asking a question, and second, to treat the subject as if a hearing impairment also decreases the subject's IQ. If a subject has impaired hearing, the investigator should maintain a normal volume when asking questions but slow down the rate of speaking words -- under this circumstance carefully enunciating each word is often sufficient to allow the subject to understand the investigator. It is also important for the investigator to maintain direct eye contact when asking questions as many hearing impaired individuals will rely on visual cues to interpret verbal communication. Finally, the investigator's vocabulary or sentence structure should not be affected merely because a subject has impaired hearing.

While sight and hearing may be diminished with an elderly subject, the person's olfactory senses may be heightened. In this regard, it is especially important for the investigator to make certain that his or her breath is fresh and also be aware of possibly offensive odors on clothing such as tobacco or strong cooking odors. Finally, an investigator should not be shy in asking an elderly subject about failing sight, hearing or other relevant medical issues. It is not at all unprofessional or insulting for an investigator to sincerely ask an elderly subject, "Andy are you able to understand me all right?" or, "Julie is there enough light for you to see these pictures?"

Affected Memory

All memories eventually decay to the point of being irretrievable, or perhaps, even erased. A person at age ten who is asked to recall memories of their first day of kindergarten will be able to provide many more specific recollections than when given the same task at age 30. This gradual inability to recall long-term events occurs, more or less, on an even continuum throughout our lives, provided the individual is not suffering from a disease that abnormally impairs memory, e.g., Alzheimer's disease. Similarly, as a person ages short-term memory also decreases. Since most daily tasks require short-term memory ("Where did I park the car?" "Did I buy milk yesterday?"), this type of memory loss is most apparent and bothersome. Because distortions or omissions in long-term memory are typically unverifiable and have no immediate consequence, the perception is that long-term memory remains intact in the elderly, when in fact, it may also be affected. 1

During an interview, both a subject's long and short-term memory can significantly affect the quantity and accuracy of information learned. The accuracy of long-term memory would certainly be important for an investigator who is working a "cold case" and wants to interview a 70-year-old man who witnessed a bank robbery 25 years ago. With respect to short-term memory, consider a 70-year-old woman who was the victim of a strong armed robbery that occurred 30 minutes ago. In both scenarios the subject's age will almost certainly affect the person's memory, at least to some extent. To address affected memories, there are two procedures an investigator should use when interviewing an elderly subject. The first is to gauge the subject's accuracy for long-term recall and second is to use techniques to enhance the subject's memory.

When an interview involves long-term memory, the investigator should ask corroborative questions to help assess the trustworthiness of the subject's memory. Corroborative questions request information that can be independently verified. For example, when discussing a robbery that occurred 25 years ago, the subject may be asked what his home address was, who his immediate supervisor was or what the weather conditions were on the day of the robbery. It is not significant if the subject is unable to recall these details. However, if the subject claims to recall this type of information and subsequent checking indicates that their recall was faulty, this finding suggests possible other errors in the subject's recollections. Including corroborative questions during an interview of an elderly subject may also be beneficial during court testimony in that the investigator will be able to describe to the court why he found the subject's memory trustworthy.

In addition to aging neuro-pathways and diminished blood supply to parts of the brain, other factors contribute to an elderly person's inability to immediately recall information. Some of these include intense emotional states such as anxiety, distrust or fear. Environmental distractions (sounds, movement) can also inhibit the ability to recall information. While some memory loss is unavoidable, an investigator can increase the amount of information recalled by an elderly subject during an interview by following these guidelines:

1. Most people can relate to the high school experience of sitting down for a final examination and initially being unable to recall anything that was studied. Anxiety, apprehension and fear all greatly reduce a person's ability to recall information. Thus, at the outset of the interview the investigator should take time to establish rapport. Especially with an elderly subject it is important to establish a level of trust and emotional comfort before discussing the issue under investigation. To do this the investigator could exhibit a sincere interest in some aspect of the subject's life. The conversation may center around the subject's career, family, neighborhood, house or yard.

2. Diminish outside distractions. Any subject's cognitive functioning will be higher in an environment that is quiet and free from visual stimulation such as moving people or multiple investigators asking questions. This guideline operates ten-fold for the elderly.

3. Just as it takes elderly subjects longer to move from one place to another or to finish a meal, it also takes them longer to retrieve memories. Investigators must literally allow elderly subjects more time to recall information asked during an interview. If an investigator asks questions rapidly or exhibits nonverbal symptoms of being inpatient, this will enhance the subject's level of anxiety, and consequently, decrease his or her ability to recall information. A slow, methodical questioning technique is much more appropriate for an elderly subject.

4. Do not suggest possible answers. A cooperative subject often wants to please the investigator by providing requested information. However, if the subject cannot recall the requested information, he or she may be very willing to agree with an answer suggested by the investigator. When a cooperative subject states that he or she cannot recall specific information, consider these options:

a. Skip over the incident and return to it later. The topic may be too sensitive for the subject to discuss at the present time or simply be too trivial for the subject to recall. Frequently, by returning to the topic later during the interview, the subject will provide the requested information.

b. If appropriate, explore prior memory connections to stimulate recall. Examples of this would be: "Did the person remind you of anyone you know?" "Did the person talk like anyone you know?" "Were you aware of any familiar smells that reminded you of someone or somewhere else?" If the subject answers "yes" to this type of question, obviously the investigator would first pursue the prior memory and then tie it in to the current event, e.g., "Why did this man remind you of your nephew in California?"

c. At the conclusion of the interview ask the subject to think about the requested information and to call the investigator if anything else comes to mind. This procedure is also beneficial when the subject is reluctant to reveal information in front of another person present during the interview, e.g., a spouse or relative.

In summary, there are unique issues relating to the interview of elderly subjects investigators need to be aware of and, if possible, compensate for. When showing an elderly person a photograph or other document, make certain there is sufficient light in the room. When speaking to a subject with impaired hearing, the investigator should slow down the rate of speaking and maintain eye contact. The investigator should not talk to the subject as though the person is mentally deficient.

Diminished memory function is a natural part of the aging process. The investigator should test the elderly subject's memory by asking corroborative questions during an interview. In addition, certain interview procedures should be followed to increase the subject's ability to recall information. In this regard, the investigator should make an effort to reduce anxiety by establishing a rapport with the subject, allow sufficient time for the subject to remember and not force or suggest answers when the subject initially claims not to be able to remember something.

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