On a shelf in the Reading Room of the Wellcome Collection in London, sits a set of glass jars stuffed with stitched drawings on fabric, representations of older people who are in struggle with the experience of aging, dementia and other health dilemmas. The artist is Georgie Meadows.
As Meadows says on her website, she was “an Occupational Therapist specialising in mental health and …working with elderly people coping with mental and physical difficulties as well as a diminished role in our society.” She transformed that part of her career into an artist’s way in life and created a series of portraits of older adults, stitched onto textiles. This is her visual form of encouraging us to look for the unknown stories behind the older faces we passively see.
“At first I showed the stitched work pinned on the wall… however when I experimented with putting them into jars in a row on a shelf, everything changed. These people no longer had a story, they no longer had any privacy… they were safely preserved on a shelf going nowhere. So the work in jars poses a question: is this what we are doing to the elderly, to the infirm?” Reading Room Companion
Yet, this also got me thinking of older people who are not infirmed, about those without cognitive issues who have the support systems to keep reasonably active. They may have made the move to semi-resort style residences, and have the means to share their stories and contribute to conversation in the wider community, but they never really leave the sweet confines of their contained communities. Are they not in some way in their own jars?
Wherever the jar may be, long-term care, assisted living or independent retirement residences, these are older lives stitched in time. In some way, like Georgie Meadows, how can we help to remove assumptions or perceptions that an older life serves a diminished role in our society? That includes unstitching the undervalued self-perceptions that older people tell themselves over time and unwittingly project this onto others, as well as those perceptions others sometimes ignorantly carry around.