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COVID in the House of Old

Exhibition review and interview with Antea Živanović

“Canadians have failed our vulnerable elders.” This cutting reminder greets visitors to the home page of the COVID in the House of Old website. COVID in the House of Old is a project created by Megan J. Davies with Hiroki Tanaka and Kohen Hammond. It consists of a travelling exhibit, an audio-visual elegy, a podcast, and a set of educational materials designed to commemorate the lives lost to COVID in long-term care homes and generate discussion around the future of long-term care in Canada.

The nine storytelling chairs that make up this exhibit were installed at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) – the last stop on a two-year national tour – between November 14 and 24. Each chair was decorated to reflect the person or people it represented (one of the chairs was dedicated to the Wikwemikong Nursing Home on Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory in northern Ontario), and attached to each chair was a pair of headphones through  which visitors could listen to the testimonies of said person or people. In a Story Space adjacent to the main exhibition room, visitors could also take the opportunity to share their own story of COVID in Canada’s long-term care homes.

COVID in the House of Old is a heavy but heartfelt exhibit that reminds us not to forget about the toll COVID took on Canada’s elderly population. It is a testament to the collaborative nature of storytelling, of recording and preserving memories, and of making public history “public.” After my tour of the exhibit, I sat down with Antea Živanović, an undergraduate student and an intern at COHDS, to discuss the importance of COVID in the House of Old.


Catey Fifield for The McGill Daily (MD): What is your role at COHDS, and how are you involved with this project?  

Antea Živanović (AŽ): I’m interning at COHDS as part of my Public History degree at Concordia. As soon as I joined the team, we started planning for the exhibit. That involved a lot of logistics and email correspondence as well as organizing a circle of volunteers. Now that the exhibit has started, my main jobs have been welcoming visitors and helping to facilitate conversation around the exhibit.

(MD): How has the public reacted to COVID in the House of Old? What are people saying?

(AŽ): For the most part, people have had really thoughtful responses to the exhibit. I think a lot of them have the sense that stories from long-term care homes – and COVID stories generally – are already being forgotten. Because unless you knew somebody who was living in a long-term care home or working in a long-term care home, you didn’t really get to hear those stories. I think it’s easy for people to feel connected to this because COVID is something we all experienced, but I also think the exhibit has encouraged people to think outside of and beyond their own experiences of the pandemic. It’s left some feeling sorrowful and others hopeful.

(MD): Why do you think we’ve neglected stories from long-term care homes?

(AŽ): One of the main points that Megan, the lead curator, made in her opening talk and has made throughout the project is that we live in a very ageist society. Canada prides itself on being a multiethnic, multicultural society – the word “mosaic” is often used – but while we understand the need to address and eliminate discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, and such categories, we forget to talk about age. I think it all comes down to this assumption that if people are old, they contribute less to society, and so they are given very little space to thrive. Unless an older person has wealth and people who are able to take care of them, it’s almost impossible to thrive under the current system. We can’t forget that this is a system that’s been broken for a long time – COVID simply showed us the cracks. The problems surrounding long-term care were there before the pandemic and are still here today.

(MD): What have you learned from your interactions with seniors, caregivers, friends and family members, and others who have shared their stories of long-term care?

(AŽ): Being at the exhibit and interacting with visitors in the last few days, I’ve noticed that a lot of what they come to talk to me about has very little to do with COVID. I’m thinking specifically about some older volunteers who came in from the Filipino Heritage Society of Montreal – they were very eager to get to know me and also to share what’s happening in their community today, but they had little to say about COVID. I got the impression that they, like younger people, just wanted to move on.

With young people, I’ve tried to centre our conversations not only around COVID but around the fact that we are all aging and that it’s important for us to think about the future of eldercare. I’ve really enjoyed my conversations with young people at this exhibit because, otherwise, I don’t find myself in spaces where we’re talking about this. It’s especially interesting to hear what people have to say about the future of eldercare in the context of the climate crisis – I think a lot of us have the sense that there’s no point in even planning for that future.

(MD): How can a project like this reflect, and perhaps shape, our collective memory of the pandemic? Has it made you think differently about the pandemic?

(AŽ): The idea of collective memory has interested me for a while. With COVID, we’ve got this situation where we’re all familiar with certain words – words like “mask,” “lockdown,” “isolation” – but we all attach different meanings to those words. Different memories and images. I think this project really speaks to the dual aspect of collective memory because there are certain experiences we don’t expect to encounter walking into it. One example, for me, was Kayley’s story – Kayley being a young person who lived in a long-term care home during the pandemic. Again, there’s this assumption that only elders live in long-term care homes, but disabled people of all ages also live in these homes and also faced the challenges that existed in long-term care homes during COVID.

(MD): Why are oral histories so important? What can they offer that written histories cannot?

(AŽ): When I think about oral histories, I think a lot about the process of telling stories that doesn’t get translated onto paper. I think about the body and all the things the body stores – there are things we can see, feel, and sense when we’re sharing stories with one another that can’t be captured in writing. We might use our hands a lot when we’re telling a story, or we might change the way that we speak or sit or interact with the space around us. Plus, for most people, writing is a very solitary act. Historians, especially, are often working with archives, computers, databases – things that don’t require them to go out in the world and talk to people. Oral histories provide us a very different, very special mode of interacting with the past.