Narrative and Design: Remembrance as Memory Fades

CDL member Rebecca Rahimi meditates on a new art project in which she curates objects for elders with memory loss

-Rebecca Rahimi-

Upon joining the Critical Design Lab, I knew I had wanted to focus on the elderly population, specifically those with memory care needs, and was hard-pressed on choosing a final output. Originally, I had wanted to create a book of photos and interviews of the ways that patients in nursing homes interact with their spaces. I found it important to show how stark, sanitized medical spaces could be decorated and lived in in a way that created a type of "home." I committed to volunteering at the memory care units of local nursing homes, not only to see the ways in which these institutions are operated and maintained, but to also interact with and form relationships with the individuals who live there.

What I had initially envisioned – lengthy conversations, linear interviews and memories of the past – had to be quickly adapted to accommodate for the individuals' needs and abilities. What I continued to notice, however, was that their spaces varied from being bare of additional decorations to being completely customized to the individual's likes and desires. And when they had these items that reminded them of times in the past, or of hobbies or interests, they were more likely to brighten up and become more engaged with the conversation. By altering my process, I realized that material objects play a large role in maintaining the patients' individuality, autonomy, and cognitive skills. Rather than taking a photographic approach, I turned towards industrial design as a way of bringing this notion of "home" to individuals who may feel isolated from the things and places they once found solace and happiness in.

I take inspiration from Caitrin Lynch and Sara Hendren who created Engineering at Home, a project that centers on Cindy, a woman who underwent amputations of both arms and legs following a heart attack and organ failures. Lynch and Hendren focus on Cindy's adaptations to her altered way of life, and the ways she engineers objects to accommodate her needs.

 [Image description: Placed side by side are objects and tools modified and adapted for Cindy's ability and use. The top row, from left to right, has a red metal car assistance tool, an open ended carabineer attached to a black strap, a black rectangular card holder with playing cards, and a range of multicolored coin purses with clasps. On the bottom row from left to right are a pair of hyper realistic light-colored cosmetic hands, round cosmetic sponges, a fork attached to a leather loop for eating purposes, and 3-D printed fingers attached to a light-colored stretchy fabric.]

[Image description: Placed side by side are objects and tools modified and adapted for Cindy's ability and use. The top row, from left to right, has a red metal car assistance tool, an open ended carabineer attached to a black strap, a black rectangular card holder with playing cards, and a range of multicolored coin purses with clasps. On the bottom row from left to right are a pair of hyper realistic light-colored cosmetic hands, round cosmetic sponges, a fork attached to a leather loop for eating purposes, and 3-D printed fingers attached to a light-colored stretchy fabric.]

The Engineering at Home project strikes me because of the way in which it uses one individual's story to show the realities of others who may require the same types of access. I realized that like Lynch and Hendren, I could focus on one individual's story and memories in order to shed light on people in similar situations with similar needs. Lastly, by melding narrative with tangible representations of lived experiences, the objects take on a multi-sensory quality that allows for further conversation and comfort.