Positioning Elders as Leaders

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Created by the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, the Perspectives program brings seniors and design students together in a mutually rewarding way.

A major barrier many Canadians face, regardless of cognitive ability, is the stigma of being old, out-of-touch and possibly past your better days. This is a stigma that the Perspectives program turns on its head.

Based out of Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECU), Perspectives brings groups of third-year design students together with people living in long-term care for a 12-week-long storytelling program, culminating in the production of booklets and other objects featuring stories from the seniors’ lives.

Both groups see a real mutual benefit and there's a real reciprocity in the exchange.

Caylee Raber, project co-lead & director of the Health Design Lab at ECU

 Image courtesy of the Perspectives program.

And what lives they are! From poetry and artwork, to accounts of Saturday night dances and Australian shark attacks, participants open their world to students, whose job it is to bring these stories to life on the page — or to a quilt, as one group recently did.

Students tease out the stories through chat sessions, games and creativity-based conversation starters like painting, collage or listening to music together. All the while, they are learning more and more about the elders in their groups.

“Sometimes, this can be harder than expected,” says Jon Hannan, project co-lead and ECU faculty member.

“A funny observation pre-COVID was that some of the care home participants had very busy schedules. They were meeting friends; they were having their hair done; they had other things going on, which often would surprise the students and maybe change some of the students’ pre-conceived notions of these people as being forever available with nothing going on,” says Hannan. (During COVID, the program switched to videoconferencing.)

 Image courtesy of the Perspectives program.

Perspectives is all about changing perspectives, says Caylee Raber, project co-lead and director of the Health Design Lab at ECU. One of the most significant ways of doing this is by positioning seniors as collaborators, educators and leaders.

“People in long-term care are really keen to share advice, and they see the students as an opportunity to do that. Both groups see a real mutual benefit and there's a real reciprocity in the exchange. It’s not just about young people being there to help older people; the [older people] have a lot to offer and they see themselves as helping the students with their assignment,” says Raber.

We teach the students a lot about the principles of accessibility within visual communication. They have to be responsive; they have to customize.

– Jon Hannan, project co-lead and ECU faculty member.

By telling their stories, the elders (including people living with dementia) who take part in Perspectives get to express themselves on their own terms, creatively and emotionally. They share and relive positive memories and engage with others in a meaningful community activity. And, through their group interactions, they help students navigate real-world design issues.

The students, in turn, respond to creative challenges, just as they must in their future careers. They learn to use verbal and non-verbal communication strategies in response to linguistic, verbal or cognitive challenges within the group, and they explore accessibility.

Recently, one group’s prop-based activity wouldn’t work due to a group member’s low vision. By the next session, they had re-sized the prop to ensure everyone could use it. “The response of that person to the students’ customization for them, and how excited they were that they could now participate, was really meaningful,” says Raber.

These exchanges give students a more enriching design education. “We teach the students a lot about the principles of accessibility within visual communication. They have to be responsive; they have to customize. That is always something we've got at the very front of our minds whenever we're doing any of these activities,” says Hannan.

 Image courtesy of the Perspectives program.

But the seniors provide students with more than just design feedback. “Many [students] are experiencing something of an existential crisis when they're in the middle of school and they're trying to figure it out,” says Hannan. Often, they turn to their group mates, knowing they are people with plenty of lived experience. In return, they get career and relationship advice, even new insights into the city where they live.

“We have a lot of international students or students who are new to Vancouver, and we have people in long-term care who have lived in the city for 70, 80 years who can tell incredible stories about the history of the place. It’s a really amazing way for students to learn,” says Raber.

Perspectives has fostered intergenerational friendships, as well as new friendships within care homes, as when residents who previously didn’t know each other end up in the same group. For some participants, Perspectives is too rewarding to only participate in once.

One former member has joined the project three times, showing up for kick-off sessions armed with publications from the previous series, “very keen to show the new students the good and the bad, and things that she felt were successful and not in terms of activities,” says Hannan, adding: “She’s the expert in the room.


Learn more about the Perspectives program.

Buy The How-To Guide: Perspectives, a guide for engaging art and design students and people living in care homes in co-design through intergenerational storytelling.