The Way We Were – Where grandparents give the history lesson

Think of The Way We Were like walking into a vintage shop and discovering a collection of once-loved, now forgotten artefacts that were once the centre of people’s every day life. These things might look alien to today’s children but they have the power to bring a sparkle to the eyes of those who are brought back to their childhood when holding them in their hands.

The Way We Were is an exhibition of artefacts and a history lesson that brings times gone by to life again through personal stories. It also brings generations together. It can be used in a school or a nursing home. The idea behind it: Children will understand the history of daily life much better if they can see and feel what it looked like and if they get the stories first-hand from people who have experienced it.

The Way We Were is now part of ChangeX and is looking for more communities to bring the living history lessons to their schools and nursing homes. Mary Nally is the founder ofThird Age Ireland, an organisation that is dedicated to providing opportunities for older people to contribute to their communities and engage actively in society. She started The Way We Were in 2009 and has since collected over 200 artefacts and together with their owners built a mobile exhibition. We talked to Mary about the impact of The Way We Were in local communities and about ageing in Ireland.

Mary Nally with Mick Kelly from GIY and Carmen Bryce from MyMind at the ChangeX100 launch event

Which artefact do you remember from your own childhood that you would show to kids on a ‘The Way We Were’ day?

Some of the artefacts in the exhibition are actually from my grandmother and mother. I remember lots of things. Like the bellows we used to use to light a fire. Or the bedwarmer, it was a pan with a lid. You needed to light a fire inside of it and walk around the bed moving it up and down before getting in. A lot of the artefacts in the exhibition we’ve had show these kind of things. A life before electricity and running water. We’re very proud of the exhibition we have. Even in the museum of country life they don’t have some of the pieces we have.

You started The Way We Were 5 years ago, so you’ve seen many kids and older people take part. What kind of reactions do you get from people attending, older people and children.

Both sides really love it. We learned with the first exhibition that the youngest kids don’t really understand it so the children we do this for now are older than 9, and they have lots of questions. You would often start the “lesson” by asking:
“What do you think that is”?
– A fruit ball.
Then you tell them what it actually is and they are giggling and laughing, running up to friends to show it to them. It’s amazing.

In nursing homes we do it all a bit differently. We just bring in the exhibition and the reactions are always great to see. The residents really open up when they see the items. It triggers something in their minds that they used to do, they remember the stories.

What makes “The Way We Were” unique?

Reading theses stories from a text book or seeing the artefacts in a museum is just not the same for the children. Someone who remembers their own childhood with these things like fountain pen and ink or wooden washboards being a part of the daily life explain it totally differently from their own experience and perspective. You wouldn’t get that kind of emotion in any other way. The kids can smell, touch and feel it.

We show a lot of lovely pieces. It’s nice to remember and appreciate them and there’s no better way than having the things that prompt the stories in your hand. That keeps it alive. We’re also doing recordings to make sure the stories don’t get lost. We have some of them on one CD.

What would be your advice for someone who is just thinking about bringing a living history exhibition like this one to his or her own community. Where do they start?

Just get out there and start asking people what they can find in their attics, ask your neighbours for their stories. That’s where it starts. There are real gems out there, but you have to go looking for them.

Then you will of course need a large place to exhibit. Normally an assembly hall, gym, large meeting room they have in a school or a nursing home and you need tables to display it all. It’s actually easily done. And we can help with all the experience we’ve collected over the years of doing this. We know what works and what doesn’t. We can even get our exhibitions and the storytellers on a bus and come out to your town or village.

At Third Age you’re focused on making life for older people more inclusive and providing ways for them to contribute to society after retirement. What other ideas are you working on right now?

With Third Age we want to change the attitudes towards older people and towards getting old. It’s all about older people remaining active and we believe that participation in the community is the key to that. We recognise the value and expertise that older people have and tap into that. We now have over 1000 volunteers in various programmes.

Our last project was “Rap Around the Clock” with Transition Year students. The students taught the older generation how to rap and the older people showed other dances they’ve learned like Quickstep. Everyone loved it. There was a lot of laughter but a lot of respect as well. This way you break down the barriers and build up understanding, it’s amazing to see.

One of our most successful programmes is Fàilte Isteach where we bring migrants and older people together for converstional English classes.

With all the work you’ve done in this area, tell us: Is Ireland a good place to be old?

Yes it is. But we still have a long way to go. The reason I set up Third Age was because there was nothing for older people to do in our village except play bingo. My own mother didn’t like bingo, so what could she do to get out of the house, to meet others. That’s why I set up a social group to get people together. It all developed from there. Older people are very creative and have so much to give. We’ve made huge progress.

One topic I’m still very concerned about is the nursing home system. If you ask people where they want to live when they get old and where they want to die everyone will give you the same answer: At home. We have to try to make that possible. But we need additional help for that, more charities in the communities. This would be very beneficial.

Have you come accross ideas in this field from around the world that you find particularly inspiring?

Third Age is part of a European voluntary network for old people so I see a lot of amazing examples of what organisations are doing in other countries like France or Spain. I came across one great programme recently from an organisation in Italy called “Auser” (Note from the author: The Association for Active Aging in Italy)

It’s a kind of helpline for older people. They had that one very hot summer where many older people died and weren’t able to go out to do their shopping etc. Now you can make a call and a volunteer collects your prescription from the pharmacy or does your shopping. They have vans with refrigerators to drive around the city, it’s a huge help.

What’s your hope for “The Way We Were” by working together with ChangeX?

It’s an exciting project. Why not share what works, a model of best practice. Why not try and have it implemented right around the country. We can’t achieve that alone. It would be my wish that other communities come on board and develop this idea as well, start the exhibitions and collect the stories to keep them alive.

What do you love about your own community?

I’m from Summerhill. That’s where my idea of setting up Third Age was born and where I started most of my ideas. When I walk down the street in my little village it’s a very special feeling. People here always supported me in what I was trying to do. Every project started here without a single penny. That was only possible because of the support of this community. I’m so proud of this little village.

And I can honestly say that I’m as passionate today about Third Age as I was 27 years ago. I haven’t lost that fire in my belly.

If you’d like to find out more about The Way We Were and about how to bring it to your Community, ChangeX gives you all the support you need to get started.

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