Report: ‘Everything else is gone’: Art project helps Sask. seniors preserve stories through memory boxes

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A Saskatchewan art project aims to help seniors preserve their life experiences by putting them in a box.

Common Weal Community Arts, a Saskatchewan arts organization that focuses on linking artists and the broader community, is partnering with different seniors’ residences for the project, called “Hello In There.”

Through the project, people create a three-dimensional representation of a memory important to the senior.

It starts with residents telling artists stories from their life. The artist and senior then work together to pick one special memory and create a keepsake box, with the representation of the memory inside.

This week, Common Weal is working with Extendicare Parkside, a 228-bed continuing care facility in Regina.

To help, the artists have buckets of stickers featuring every car imaginable and cats in many different stances, many shades of wallpaper and little toys, from baby bottles to garden watering pails, all of which can be used in creating the art.

Artist Shaunna Dunn, left, works with resident Agnes Weisgerber. Dunn said art can help with the seniors’ confidence, self-worth and improve their mood and brain stimulation. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Parkside resident Agnes Weisgerber is 78. She said her family lived on a farm without modern appliances. She played with wooden toys or with the animals on the farm, she recalls. The highlight of her year was Ukrainian Christmas, she said.

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“All year long, this is what we looked forward to,” Weisgerber said. Ukrainian Christmas, she remembers, brought the same “hustle and bustle of Dec. 25.”

Common Weal brings a number of items with them to the homes so the residents can depict their memories as accurately as possible. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“Those that knew Ukrainian Christmas carols would sing for hours and hours in Ukrainian,” she said. “And they were beautiful songs.”

Weisgerber said her children didn’t have Ukrainian Christmases, and she’s looking forward to sharing the box with them and her grandchildren.

She’s paired with Common Weal artistic director Shaunna Dunn for the project.

A lot of this generation, their stories are disappearing.… It’s somewhat imperative to get those narratives right now.– Artist Berny Hi 

Dunn said art can help with the seniors’ confidence and self-worth, and improve their mood and brain stimulation.

As well, she said the project helps them recognize how valuable their memories are.

“It helps bring awareness to just what the lives and the history of these participants are, and how much they’ve contributed to our community in the past,” Dunn said.

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“That’s really important for us to look back at.”

“At this time of our lives, we really rely on memories,” said Weisgerber. “Everything else is gone, but you have your memories.”

An important connection

Hello in There started in 2013 and has built up since.

Berny Hi has been an artist with the project for a few years now. He said it started because an artist and the artistic director of Common Weal at the time wanted to engage more with senior citizens and on a deeper level.

“When you sit down with someone and ask them questions about their life, I think that means a lot to people,” he said.

“And I think it’s something that sometimes we’re missing in society — connecting with … the inner soul, rather than the outer mask that we often see,” said Hi.

Crystal Massier, left, works with Clara Fiage on a memory box depicting her childhood home. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“A lot of this generation, their stories are disappearing. It’s a generation that has had quite a different life than kids nowadays and even myself,” he said. “It’s somewhat imperative to get those narratives right now.”

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The activities co-ordinator at Extendicare Parkside, Penney Sanson, said when she saw the project she knew she wanted to bring it to her home.

“Not only do they get to share their lives with each other and their families but it also helps to increase their self-esteem and their sense of well-being,” Sanson said.

‘A happy home’

“It’s so many years ago, you forget,” said Clara Fiage. She’s 98 years old and recently became a resident at Parkside. Fiage decided to turn her memory box into her childhood home with the help of artist Crystal Massier.

“[Clara’s] father had a very large house. They had a very large family,” Massier said.

Fiage also recalls her father gave land to the local Lutheran church and would board teachers and their families in his home if they needed it, just to see the school remain open. 

“We’re just sort of talking about those memories of growing up in that beautiful house and right now we’re just adding some nice features to it,” said Massier.

“We’d always help mother in the garden. You know, plant cabbage plants,” Fiage said. “It’s always a happy home.”

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