Using everyday objects to see people's needs

Material culture expert creates films for caregivers based on how people relate to their environments

Cait Wills - 23 July 2018

Reader's Hoard is one of five short films illustrating the value of everyday objects to the well-being of people who need supportive living.

Think about it: if you had to assign your identity to an object you hold dear, what would it be? A cap you wore as a child? A favourite mix tape, or perhaps a cookbook you inherited and plan to pass down to your child when the time comes?

Within the concept of material culture, an interdisciplinary field of study that combines the social sciences and humanities, the object is key: we define ourselves by the objects and architecture surrounding us. For Megan Strickfaden, a design anthropologist and material culture expert in the Department of Human Ecology, the loss of their objects for people who enter assisted living facilities can have a profoundly negative impact on their mental and physical health.

Drawing on her own expertise, Strickfaden has pulled together an intergenerational team of students and community members to create a series of illustrated short films that focus on specific issues and solutions for those who are in need of supportive living due to permanent or temporary disability and aging-related illness.

"We wanted to create something that resonated for participants as contributors, something that said 'I see myself in this story,'" says Strickfaden. "Art making affords people a transformative experience and the opportunity to talk about their lives in different ways that are personal and unique."

The films' themes are based on the concept of the object and how it is used in everyday lives, the tenet of material culture. The objects in each film are analogous to the issue of each person at the centre of the narrative. Reader's Hoard, a story that is a composite of the research Strickfaden has done over the last 15 years, depicts the object through the character's love of books. As the mother loses her ability to live independently, the need for access to her beloved books remains and is key in selecting a new home.

The five films are geared toward caregivers including family members and professionals, and are created from the perspective of the older adult. This fulfils two objectives, says Strickfaden: caregivers are often task-oriented and do not see their clients in a holistic way, and there may be cultural barriers between the client and the caregiver.

Mari Bergen, who received her master's degree in material culture from the Department of Human Ecology in 1998, is an editor who helped Strickfaden identify the stories that would be shared in the five illustrated films, and the "objects" to create the narrative arc in the films.

"I don't think of myself as an elderly person," says Bergen, who will celebrate her 73rd birthday this year. "How old you feel is about one's vitality."

Bergen, who has mobility challenges and walks with a cane, uses her own experience to discuss the imperative nature of material culture-the physical objects, resources and spaces people use to define their environments. In her case, it's kitchen cupboards and shelves. It's difficult to reach the top shelves in her kitchen, so the installation of pull-down shelving helps Bergen retain her independence by decreasing her reliance on others in her home.

"The study of material culture, of which Megan is a sheer genius, gives people choices and freedom. Collaborating on this project was hugely important," she says.

From January through April, 13 workshops were held in the facilities of two community partners. "Involvement with our community partners in the co-creation of the films extended beyond the art workshops," says Anne Thomas, one of the lead artists on the project who worked with the contributing artists in the residences, and a former student of Strickfaden's. "Collaborative reviews were held with panels of residents, paid carers, recreation co-ordinators and facility directors.

"During the review, guided discussions were held to evaluate and make recommendations about audiovisual coherence, pacing, cohesion, message and whether the films held their interest. What was particularly interesting were the consistent comments relating how the films told their story, and how they saw themselves (or other community residents) in the films, and their pride in participating as artists."

Thomas found the idea of the "object" inspiring in her work in Reader's Hoard.

"I wanted to communicate layers and layers of stuff, and through that medium, I created layers of newspapers, as well as cats as the representation of anxiety. You can note that the lead characters in the film have the same eyes, but that by the end of the film, the cat is sleeping.

"This is emancipatory research--giving voice to the experience of the phenomenon-in this instance, the anxiety the character felt about moving."

Now that the films are completed and ready to share, Strickfaden is creating free, open-source curriculum that supports each film, focusing on the importance of objects in people's lives as identifiers. She says this will remind caregivers that individuals often relate themselves back to an object, especially when in a care environment like an assisted living facility.

"How people use objects and the roles they play in their lives are signifiers of who they are," she says. "We need to remember and respect that in our interactions with others."

The project was funded by AGE-WELL.