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COVID and our elders: a conversation with historian Megan Davies

  • Esyllt Jones

In January 2022, historian Megan Davies (author of Into the House of Old: a history of residential care in British Columbia) launched “COVID in the House of Old” — a travelling and online exhibit, in which six chairs tell stories of individuals who died of COVID, or lived or worked in long-term care (LTC) in the pandemic. A seventh chair held by Wikwemikong Nursing Home was added in summer 2022, illustrating the pandemic experiences of Indigenous elders and Indigenous ways of being. This conversion with Prof. Davies explores what led her to undertake the project, and her commitment to highlighting past and present shortcomings of elder care in Canada.

Megan, where did the idea for the Covid in the House of Old (CIHO) exhibit come from? Can you tell me a little bit about its origins, and how the project came together?

I wrote my dissertation in the 1990s, on the history of residential care for the elderly. That scholarly interest in the subject stayed with me, bolstered by a close childhood connection with my paternal grandfather and some profound experiences as home support worker in the early 1980s.

My book on the history of institutions for the aged in British Columbia came out in the early 2000s – and my delusion that every history department in Canada would think they just had to have a historian of aging proved to be just that. Ageism thrives in the academy. Instead, I got a job in York University’s Health & Society Program. This proved to be fortuitous because I got to integrate aging all over the place in my teaching and I learned a tremendous amount from how other cultures care for their elders; about care work; and, about race and marginality generally from our diverse and largely female students many of whom, of course, worked in the sector. And I was a small part of Pat Armstrong’s international Re-Imagining Long-Term Residential Care project which was such an opportunity.

The other thing about being a historian at a distance from a history department is that I got a little relaxed about product and opened myself up in a big way to working with community. And of course, my work with the Madness Canada website helped with that as well. I will always be that introvert nerd who loves working alone in archives and writing projects. But I see much of my practice as about bringing the history of healthcare into communities and making a public impact.

So COVID hit and Canadians in LTC began dying in such vast numbers – 82% of our nation’s deaths in the first wave were in residential care – no other country comes close. I wasn’t surprised because I knew these were second class institutions staffed by poorly paid health care workers, housing people we would prefer to forget. But I was enraged and so, so sad. And I asked myself, “What can I do?” I wanted to do something that combined storytelling and display, that would make people think, feel, then act! And then I remembered the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Fellowship at Simon Fraser which mapped perfectly onto this project – and I was lucky enough to be awarded the Fellowship for Fall 2021, allowing me to create “COVID in the House of Old.”

How does creative and artistic expression intersect with historical practice in this exhibit?

Good question, because on the face of it this is not an historical project. However, the audio pieces for CIHO are very rooted in my work doing oral histories with home birthing mums, community midwives, people with mental health differences, and Peace River settlers. Historians love stories and we have a feel for a good one. I think the same thing might be true about displaying a story, perhaps more for historians with a design sensibility, but what I have learned over the last decade is how flexible and useful our craft is, and how well history works outside the bounds of the discipline.

A lot of this project takes methods that public activist historians employ and uses them in a creative fashion. Not only did I get a lot of absolutely great ideas from artists, but as I was beginning the project, a graphic artist I had worked with told me that I should hire her to brand the project. I was initially resistant, but her work is sensitive and elegant and all the elements of colour, font, line and look are there for me to deploy anytime. That was a great decision.

I also followed my practice from community history work in acknowledging the place in storytelling for the teller of the story to be empowered, and to have an experience that is healing. I don’t I call this “The Kleenex Project” for nothing. After doing an interview, I gave participants the option of making what I call “Valentines” – paper mementos that expressed their regard for the person holding the chair, to be placed on the seat of the chair to which they were contributing. My daughter looked at the prototype we had created and told me to go out and buy exquisite expensive paper from The Paper Place on Queen Street. So, imagine this: you have just shared your intimate, tragic, life-bending story – and now you get to work with beautiful materials and make a missive to honour your special person. I think that is wonderful practice and something that historians who do oral histories on difficult topics might consider.

And of course, I had to add an historical element to the display. There are three sets of rather dense textual panels – which my graphic designer made beautiful – on the topics of “COVID Comes to the House of Old,” “Past is Present in Long Term Care,” and “Radical Futures in Eldercare.” There is theory, analysis, and research in the texts and the middle one is all history. I used a slightly journalistic style and worked with an editor to make sure every word counted and was accessible to a lay audience. And, amazingly, exhibit visitors love the panels and specifically comment on them. Who knew?

Several of the stories in your exhibit involve the families of elders who died in care homes (and staff who cared for them). The exhibit has the quality of remembrance. Why are these stories so important for you? What did you learn by approaching pandemics/epidemics as familial experiences?

Three of the seven chairs represent residents who died in care homes, one is held by a support worker who was a nurse in Uganda, another by a resident who left the institution, and the sixth belongs to a woman from the Squamish First Nation in BC who endured a long isolation. The seventh chair represents an entire facility – the Wikwemikong Nursing Home on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario – and here there are voices of staff and residents. In a way I went in thinking these would be family narratives. And they were, but they also include community and personal narratives. I didn’t really comprehend the trauma caused by the long isolation in care homes until I started listening to the stories. And now I hear from people visiting the exhibit or listening to our podcast. There are a lot of broken people out there. That’s why my plan for the next phase of the project is to give exhibit visitors a chance to share their stories through words or art.

Karen’s Chair & Connie’s Drum

Stories are very powerful. Across all cultures and societies storytellers are acknowledged as important people. So as an activist historian interested in issues of social justice, I wanted to collect these stories because I knew they could be an engine for change. In 2015, I heard singer Bob Bossin describe how a five-minute music video from the epic logging protest at Clayoquot Sound convinced a corporate media board in New York City to boycott newsprint made from Vancouver Island’s old growth forests. That story stuck in my mind.

You’ve written powerful and sensitive histories of elder care in Canada. Knowing that past as you do, how does the COVID-19 pandemic fit into (or not) your knowledge about elder care? If the exhibit is a form of advocacy, how do you see the historian’s place in that conversation?

Sadly, the pandemic just confirmed everything I knew about the history of this institutional sector. And it also underscored what I see as a devaluing of care in Canadian society, which is of course the devaluing of “the female.” How on earth are we going to get to a place of taking better care of our planet if we can’t take care of our elders? This is so fundamental and the topic spills over into the mental health system (I honestly think that Canada doesn’t have mental health care anymore), into our prison system, even into our educational system. All of these systems are rooted in colonialism, and part of what we white settlers (who still hold way too many positions of power) need to do is take a long look around and do some learning. Was listening to the two Hong Kong granddaughters talk about the cultural violations around their grandmother’s COVID death in a Vancouver facility instructive? You bet. And I learned so much from Wikwemikong Nursing Home. We have much better models of eldercare here in Canada, but we are ignoring their potential.

There is a huge place for historians in shifting the culture of Canadian eldercare for sure, but nobody is going to be inviting us to the table. We need to take our place there, actively integrate this stuff in our teaching, and work creatively and with purpose beyond our professional boundaries if we want to be effective partners for change.

Thanks so much for sharing your goals and aspirations for this beautiful project. I have a feeling it is going to continue to grow.

Professor Megan J. Davies (York University) brings the history of healthcare into communities with innovative collaborative projects that use websites, film, art, and storytelling to make an impact. Her scholarly research focuses on eldercare, everyday health, and mental health.