Aging Vitalities: An interview with Nadine Changfoot

Nadine Changfoot is Associate Professor of Political Studies, Trent University, a member of the Trent Centre for Aging Studies Executive Committee, and Senior Research Associate with Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice. 

Nadine recently spoke with Kayla Besse about her Aging Vitalities project. Watch an excerpt from the project with/on our Vimeo channel.

Kayla Besse: What drew you to BIT in the first place? 

Nadine Changfoot: What drew me to BIT was the vision and commitment to bring non-normative experiences loudly and proudly into the world through artistic and research creation that is both serious and playful. I’m very excited to be part of BIT’s creative and intellectual wave of artistic creation research and technological innovation and leading one of its projects, “Aging Vitalities.” I had the amazing opportunity to work with Carla Rice and Eliza Chandler and the fabulous team at Re•Vision to bring disability experiences into the world through the project “Mobilizing New Meanings of Disability and Difference” (CIHR funded). The impact of storytelling from lived experience into multimedia and accessible short documentary was incredibly powerful for storytellers, researcher-storytellers, and audiences. Stories that needed and wanted to be seen and/or heard, got to be told, and there were audiences ready and hungry for them. From this project, I learned that marginalized older persons have stories to tell and there are audiences who want to see/hear these stories, but there is a gap between the two and the two need to be connected. The idea for the BIT project “Aging Vitalities” germinated from this idea.

KB: Could you tell me about your Aging Vitalities project, for folks who wouldn’t know anything about it? 

NC: 
Aging Vitalities starts from the premise that diverse older persons have vibrant energies and experiences, however, these are often not welcomed into conversations and public spaces. For the first Aging Vitalities workshop held in Spring 2019, older persons, which unsystematically turned out to be all women, were each invited to share a story of their lived experience of aging, and create their own short 2-4 minute multimedia documentary. With the support of Re•Vision’s artist facilitation team, twelve beautiful stories were created by women ages 55-89, identifying as settler, Indigenous, Holocaust survivor, living with disability, racialized, and queer. From these stories, new meanings of aging are emerging which can be mobilized to support new imaginings and possibilities of growing old. The stories were recently presented and warmly received at ReFrame Film Festival 2020 in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong.

KB: What are some of the key themes or insights that delighted you, or that you learned from working with these storytellers?

NC:
KB: What are some of the key themes or insights that delighted you, or that you learned from working with these storytellers?

NC: 
Key themes emerging from the stories that are a source of delight as well as serious reflection are the multiplicitous ways of aging, the time immemorial Indigenous traditions and ways of aging which are to be respected and honoured, and the wellspring of creativity experienced by storytellers. Within the twelve stories, there is expressed a multiplicity of meanings and experiences of becoming older, something not surprising in light of the diversity within the group. We are socialized and shaped to think of a human life in singular terms, as linear, proceeding forward in time in an able-bodied and minded way, and also in an acquiring way. We acquire this, we acquire that. We get better at this and or that. Then, once a certain time of life has been reached, age-wise, which often becomes linked to a loss or decline in physical, cognitive, financial capacity, boom, and with frequently accompanied ageist and ableist pitiable responses, aging becomes represented or imagined as a downward downhill trajectory which can be understandably quite disheartening, fearful, and anxiety-inducing when they are presented in this way. To buttress against fear and anxiety around this view of aging, there is a huge anti-aging industry to provide so-called “fixes” to fight against aging. In contrast, the stories of Aging Vitalities tell viewers that a person need not fight aging. Instead, of fear and anxiety and “fixes,” aging offers experiences to be welcomed, savoured, and shared! The stories offer welcome alternatives for embracing and proudly aging. They bring into the world experiences of aging that are desirable and rich in reflection of vivid, vivacious lives, relationships, and community.

Aging Vitalities is honoured to have stories told by Anishnaabe Kwey who brought into the world Anishnaabe experiences and traditions whereby becoming older is welcomed and intimately connected with all relations, both human and non-human, and in relationship with the land. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg interdependencies among humans, animals, plants, ancestors and more come alive in these stories. Resistance against colonial dispossession, disappearance, and cultural genocide and the vitalities of Anishnaabe ways of knowing, healing, and living in good ways are beautifully presented with great care. There is much to learn much from these stories for their many gifts.

The stories, Anishnaabe and settler, do not shy away from pain and loss experienced during a lifetime. What they do is share the profound depth of life changes and their visceral, affective, multiple layers, as well as the transformative becoming they usher into the fullness and wholeness of aging, a fullness and wholeness experienced importantly in relationship, in community. Thus, these relationships and communities need very much to be well supported. This support includes robust funding for institutions of healthcare, long-term care, and community care accessed by older persons, including and especially in Indigenous communities. Just as important as the support, is the needed leadership from diverse older persons: Indigenous, those living with disability, on lower incomes, racialized, and queer. Their leadership is crucial for the very design, interactions, technologies, and programming that these institutions will deliver.

Storytellers also shared that they thoroughly enjoyed the discovery of their own creativity during the workshop process and continue to seek and bring more creativity in/to their lives. They also really enjoyed having access to the cutting-edge Re•Vision computer and software technology used to make their documentaries. The workshop was a pivot point for storytellers in that it provided a place to stop and reflect upon their lives. The community created by the storytellers remains a lasting important memory, and a wellspring from which their growing creativity continues and flows. That we can come together to mobilize the stories at venues such as ReFrame Film Festival or the Canadian Indigenous and Native Studies Association (CINSA) resurges and extends the energy of the community created by the workshop into diverse audiences.

KB:What does aging (and/or disability) have to teach us in the time of self-isolation and COVID-19? 

NC: 
Aging Vitalities Storytellers were invited to reflect upon the following question: “What does aging (and/or disability) have to teach us in the time of self-isolation and COVID-19?” Their answers and stories are provided below.

Alice Olsen Williams: Is inadequately addressing Indigenous people’s vulnerability to a disease like COVID-19, yet another settler way of getting rid of us?”

I am Indigenous, an Anishinaabe-Kwe from Namegosibiing (Trout Lake in Treaty 3 territory), but now living in Oshkiigmaang (Curve Lake First Nation) in the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabe territory.

Self-isolating in this time of working to stop the spread of COVID-19, has given me lots of time to think about what is going on. I wonder, “How is this COVID-19 serving the ruling class?” Throughout settler history, Indigenous peoples have been deemed expendable by our governments to infectious diseases introduced by Europeans, and more recently from the H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009. Even while there is recognition from the Minister of Indigenous Services Canada of the increased vulnerability of Indigenous communities to COVID-19, I wonder how much will really change for Indigenous peoples. The recovery of the economy from this pandemic will also involve the continued view that Indigenous peoples’ lives can be shortened and expendable to do the “dirty work” or work “no settler will do” of extractive industries. Meanwhile, broken treaties result in inadequate housing, education, healthcare, income supports, unsafe drinking water and repeat settler history that Indigenous peoples are treated less than human. Is inadequately addressing Indigenous people’s vulnerability to a disease like COVID-19, yet another settler way of getting rid of us?

Joanne Pritchard: I am vulnerable as I tick boxes of being a senior, living with lifetime bronchial weakness, heart and kidney disease, and living alone.

I am a senior alone in my home. I am fortunate that I have learned how to acquire my bread, dairy, and vegetables through the support of my local small businesses and farmers. I am thrilled by all I am learning and how local businesses are adapting. There are losses: my adult children have lost their income, two having to have closed their small businesses. As a parent, their worries have become mine.

I am missing volunteering, social contacts, and a full calendar. I am aware of my vulnerability, living alone, and living with lifetime bronchial weakness, heart and kidney disease. I am also fortunate to be able to receive healthcare by telephone and continue my lab testing with all precautions. Finding self-balance is important. My arts practice gives me a sense of accomplishment and joy.

Ann Barrett

A lot of improvements to the system of long term care are needed, including proper staffing levels, improved salaries so workers can earn a living wage without having to go to several work places to make ends meet, benefits including paid sick days, and improved regulation of the industry.”

Before Covid-19 turned up in our lives I was a woman who had gone through the stages of being a partner then a caregiver then a supporter to my husband of 55 years. Now I can add the label of distant observer to that list.

This pandemic turned up 7 months after my husband moved into a long term care home. He has what is sometimes described as Parkinson’s dementia which affects both his physical and cognitive abilities.  He had reached a point where I was no longer able to support him at home even with lots of help from health care people. He settled into his new home and was well looked after by good staff. I would visit 3 – 4 times a week to tell him about family and friends, push him around the home and gardens, attend social activities, sit with him, hold his hand and hug him.  I was the link to who he was and the person who knew him best . 

It has been 5 weeks now since I saw or connected directly with him. Before that it was clear that sometimes he knew who I was and other times I wasn’t sure he made the connection.  He was able to feed himself and the staff, who are trained to move and lift him, looked after personal care needs. I never had to provide the essential services that some family members do for their loved ones but spending time with him was important to both of us as well as staff.

Now of course I can’t visit him. So I am reduced to sending cards and treats which are put in quarantine for a few days and then given to him by staff. Because of his challenges he hasn’t used a phone or iPad on his own for years and it is very hard to understand what he says.  I have phoned occasionally to see if I can find out how he is doing but seldom get a reply. I know people are tired and doing their best and feel guilty about pulling them away to answer my call.  Am I adding one more thing to their work if I ask if they can help him with a phone? Would hearing my voice help or confuse him? Would it help him or them if they had to tell me he is declining? Would it help me? These are just a few of the things that run through my mind at those times when I don’t have distractions. 

So once again I have been reminded what many of us who are aging already know.  We don’t have total control of our lives. Things won’t always go the way we planned. There are some things we can control and other things we have to let go of. Staying connected with family and friends can make a difference. Don’t be afraid to share real feelings. Take care of yourself.  Don’t shy away from making end of life plans.

What changes might help in a future situation? A lot of improvements to the system including proper staffing levels, improved salaries so workers can earn a living wage without having to go to several work places to make ends meet, benefits including paid sick days, and improved regulation of the industry. Perhaps it is time to question whether there is a place for private homes in the long term care industry. 

And expanding the ways that new technologies can be used to enhance communication and connections between families, their loved one and staff on a regular basis.  As an older person I am aware of the limitation of my skills in this area but see the potential for increasing connection even when distance or viruses keep us apart. 

Mary Gordon: “We can use this period of isolation to prepare for the future, to live more simply.”

I’ve been working with a small, dedicated group in my city for several years, with a philosophy called Bridges Out of Poverty.  It’s not your usual do-gooder charity. In fact it turns the conversation about poverty upside-down, and gets people talking to each other across the lines of economic class that we’ve drawn in our western world. 

Our Bridges teams aren’t trying to lure poor people into the middle class. In fact, we’re learning about the resources that other economic classes have to offer us. They become the leaders in our workshops and weekly gatherings. The theme that has underpinned this community movement since its pilot group is “food, fun, and story-telling.” Nothing happens without it. 

We bureaucrats, teachers, farmers, hospitality workers, and tradespeople learned quickly to shut up and learn.

As we redesign our community processes around a pandemic and isolation, the lower-income prophets in our group told us they felt like the rest of the world is just “catching up” to them in terms of world view. We are learning to live without some of the things we’re accustomed to. We don’t go out to bars or restaurants. We can’t go watch a hockey game. We’re not allowed to go to the cottage. Can’t even get to church! We are learning to live with ourselves, without “losing it”. 

They tell us that friends and family are what’s important. Our relationships. Having friends who can lend us soup till the next paycheque; who can fix our flat tire; who can pick up our meds and drop them off; people who care about how we’re feeling.

We have a lot to learn from these citizens, the true “experts” in poverty. After a lifetime of puzzling over the myriad schemes for reducing poverty, I am learning to look at it from the inside out. We use zoom technology to capture the food, fun, and storytelling of our Bridges experiment, to solidify the relationships we’re building, and to rely on our friends with long experience in “living with less”. 

We can use this period of isolation to prepare for the future, to live more simply.


Aging Vitalities at ReFrame Film Festival 2020: left to right, Mary Gordon, Melodie McCullough, Sally Chivers (co-researcher), Nadine Changfoot, Ann Barrett, Joanne Pritchard. Photo credit: Tristan Peirce.
Aging Vitalities Panel Discussion: left to right, Alice Olsen Williams, Ann Barrett, Mary Gordon, Paulette Lackenbauer, Gisele Lalonde, Charmaine Magumbe, Joanne Pritchard. Photo credit: Tristan Peirce.