Memory boxes and art engage seniors

By: Shaunna Grandish February, 2014

For several months in late 2013, about 20 senior citizens from the Regina-area have been creating memory boxes and paintings based on their own personal stories and narratives — many of which haven’t been shared with others in many years.

Common Weal’s Artist-in-Resident Chrystene ells initiated the project after she and Gerry Ruecker, artistic director, Common Weal, had a conversation about their personal experiences with elderly family members in care facilities. What struck both of them through their own observations was how terminally bored the seniors were with bingo and TV, which were highlights of their day, even though the seniors still have full capacity and mental abilities.

Occasionally, various groups would come and perform for them; however, what ells and Ruecker noticed was a lack of activities that engaged the seniors beyond someone singing or talking at them. As a result, the idea of the creation of memory boxes was conceived and ready to be fully realized thanks to Common Weal receiving a Creative Partnerships exploration Grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, with funding from SaskCulture/Saskatchewan lotteries, for the project.

Once a week, Ells met with senior groups at the Regina senior Citizens Centre and at the Al Ritchie Health Action Centre. Many of the seniors at the facilities greeted ells with excitement and were eager to start sharing their personal stories.

“There was a lot of laughter, and some tears too,” says ells. “Some people were bringing out some really important stories in their lives. Some were doing boxes about people they’ve lost. Some couldn’t stick with one box. There were several people who were making two or three boxes because there was so much they wanted to say. This was an important opportunity for them to share their stories.”

According to Ells, some residents were a bit intimidated with the project at first, but eventually they jumped right in with the others — using their hands to build their stories.

Ruecker suggests that a component of the project was to give value to the participants’ lives and experiences.

“We tend to underestimate their stories and what they’ve lived through, and I think this project is giving them a shot of self-esteem and value. They are going into things really deeply,” he explains.

Ells adds that since seniors are facing the end of their lives, there was a certain urgency to this project. Since they have no time to waste, they get right to the heart of whatever it is they are dealing with. “It’s a voice soon to be lost,” she explains. “I think there’s a lot of wisdom and understanding that we can gain from sitting with seniors as they want to be heard. Every project is just so touching.”

The seniors’ hard work culminated with an exhibition, titled I remember when …, which was held at the Regina senior Citizens Centre in December 2013. Thirty pieces were displayed along with write-ups from the artists that described the story or memory each piece was based on.

Frieda Beglan was one of the seniors who participated in the project and made three memory boxes, each representing a different phase of her life. She was so inspired by the work that she plans to begin writing her memoir early this year.

“This project took me far back in life and brought back memories I’d forgotten about,” explains Beglan, while attending the exhibition. “It really woke me up. It made me think that I was alive and not gone,” she adds with a small laugh.

Ells adds, “The seniors have said, ‘it’s my second childhood and I’m enjoying it more than my first.'"