Survivors tell their own stories — through photography

Photo by AIRP Program

They say a photo is a thousand words; but are there enough words out there to truly depict the hardships and trauma associated with being a survivor of elder abuse?

The Kerby Centre runs a shelter for those fleeing elder abuse: whether it be physical, emotional or financial, it’s a place where individuals can find refuge when they need it most.

Kerby Centre, in partnership with the University of Calgary, hosted an exhibit of photography from May 16 to May 20 in recognition of Victims and Survivors of Crime week. This photography was done by those who have experienced this refuge first hand, taken by current and past residents of the Kerby Shelter. It’s part of a joint project called “Aging in the Right Place” or AIRP

“Generally, in society, we talk about aging in place and how that’s important for folks to be able to age in their homes for as long as possible,” said Amber Dukart, the masters of social work student and graduate researcher who conducted interviews for this project. “But what happens when you’re experiencing housing insecurity or you’re experiencing homeless and you don’t have a home to age in place?”

Dukart said that, currently, there is not a breadth of research into homelessness in older adults. Moreover, she said the concepts of homelessness in older adults and elder abuse are closely intertwined.

“We wanted to bring these stories forward so that folks can understand how these two issues go hand in hand,” Dukart said.

In order to tell these stories, Amber and AIRP used a technique called photovoice, which is a research method that promotes the use of narrative photography to better understand the experiences of the individual. Participants shared these pictures with researchers and discussed the meanings behind them.

This created not only data that will help current research into the aging process in relation to housing, but also helps survivors tell their stories in their own voices and with their own methods.

“If we’re going to be doing research with people who have these experiences of elder abuse and of homelessness, and if this research is going to inform future policy and practice … they are the experts,” Dukart said. “They know what works for them and what doesn’t. As a researcher, I think it’s really important to let people share their experiences in ways that are meaningful to them.”

The photos are stark. They don’t reveal identifying information about individuals who found solace at the Kerby Shelter, but they track their day-to-day going through circumstances many of us could never imagine. Small moments: a shared cigarette outside, the mural on a nearby building, the nightstand next to where someone sleeps.

“I have the honour and privilege to do many of the interviews with the participants,” Dukart said. “It was really impactful for me to be able to hear those stories and I’m just so grateful that we’re able to share these stories with the community.”

Each photo is accompanied by a placard going more in-depth about what the photo represents to the person who took the picture, with the statements taken directly from the interviews Dukart conducted.

“This is my room,” one of the placards reads. “it’s my favourite place in all of the Kerby Shelter, because it’s the most beautiful room.”

“I know it’s been said a million times, but they truly are my shelter from the storm.”

Each photograph is a window into these small moments; moments which make up a lived experience which is difficult for others to truly comprehend.

Most people have a surprised look when you mention elder abuse. It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around. It’s almost inconceivable. Being involved with this shelter, we think it’s important to shed light and create awareness,” said Kerby Centre CEO Larry Mathieson. “This is a great project to create awareness in a way that people can wrap their heads around.”

This exhibit at Kerby Centre survivors of elder abuse to tell their own stories about their lived experiences, giving a voice to the voiceless when it comes to directing policy according to Dukart.

“It’s so we can take their stories and their voices and advocate for change when needed or to bolster up services and programs being offered that are working,” Dukart said. “It’s important for us to share these experiences because … these people are invisible. They are not often given a platform to share their experiences.”