Resident stories lurk within objects

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

It was the teddy bear that first grabbed my attention.

It's rare for me to respond to a pitch involving a museum, but one from the Illinois Holocaust 

Museum & Education Center in Skokie, IL, caught my eye. Along with the teddy bear, it's intriguing to think about the basic questions the center poses in its new Stories of Survival exhibit. Specifically, for survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides, what objects did they take and hold onto?

For nursing home residents, the question of what to carry with them into a facility is obviously far less dramatic than what these survivors faced. But the core values of certain objects holding significance, and how they unlock memories, are the same.

Of course survivors, much like many of your residents, vary in terms of how much they want to discuss or interact with these objects. Some, such as Ralph Rehbock, left as a child with an electric train set that he has introduced to his children and grandchildren over 80 years. Others, such as Martha Kahn, never discussed or used a beautiful purse that sat on a glass-covered china cabinet.

While the museum has done a masterful job of providing photos and information about the exhibit, there's nothing that can compare with walking through it. Museum Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger was gracious to walk me through the exhibit this week, giving me context for many of the objects and how they were curated. She stressed that of the thousands of objects donated to the museum, she wanted to pick ones that reflected different experiences. For example, a set of keys kept by Edgar Arendt, which belonged to his home in Paris.

“You lock up and keep your keys because you think you're coming back,” she said. Arendt was sent to a concentration camp in France while his wife and daughter were hidden. After Arendt escaped in 1943, he joined his family in walking across the Pyrenees to Spain.

Other artifacts are from the Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq and Syria. That's because the museum is not only focused on the Holocaust, but lessons from the Holocaust. Mirsad Causevic, for example, kept handmade playing cards after being captured by Serbian forces in 1992 and sent to the Omarska concentration camp. Immaculee Mukantaganira loaned a dress of her five-year-old and sweater of her three-year-old daughters. Both were killed, along with her husband, in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Every object in the exhibit has a beautiful, often tragic story, moving many to tears. Even for those unable to see the exhibit in person, it's worth asking what lessons we can take and apply in our own communities and facilities.

One, do not minimize the importance of an item a resident has brought from home. It could be a helpful tool that calms and comforts. It also can lead to a conversation. A nurse, aide or therapist saying, “Could you tell me about the doll/sweater/dominoes?” might help with understanding the resident's background and priorities. These objects may be especially helpful for those with memory challenges, as we know people can often recite a story from their childhood even with limited short-term memory.

Two, encourage families to have their loved ones record or write down the story of the object and why they held onto it. Weininger noted a case where a Holocaust survivor had fled with a suitcase of items, which he never opened but moved with him through transfers to and from five houses. When the widow became ready to donate the items, no one knew the stories behind what the man had kept. Additionally, Weininger noted that some survivors are motivated to donate because an object, specifically documents, may be in a language no descendent speaks.

We're all pressed for time. But someone, perhaps your activities or education staff, should think about whether your facility could display some local historical items owned by residents, along with notes on the items' background. Or develop a relationship with a nearby historical society.

In small towns or big cities, one of the most positive parts of working in senior care is for residents to share their history and stories. But they need someone to ask.

Follow Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.