Holy Cross Students Join Worcester Nursing Home Residents in Unique Storytelling Project

The Program Partners with the College's Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning and Arts Transcending Borders initiative.

Silence fell on the fifth floor of St. Mary Health Care Center in Worcester earlier this year. Kit Meszaros '24 sat through similar stillness three previous weeks, as the room full of residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease waited for a man to participate in a weekly exercise.

During this week's session, though, the man's reaction pierced the silence, creating a moment Meszaros will never forget and one that has since inspired her. 

“Well, it's beautiful,” the man said in response to being asked his reaction to a picture. 

The three words, while simple, ended the man's weeks of silence during the activities. 

"It was such a beautiful moment," Meszaros said. "It was added to the story. When they add those moments into the story, you can see their faces light up because they're engaged."

The activity is part of a program called TimeSlips, which aims to change the way society views aging. As part of it, students from the College of the Holy Cross meet with St. Mary Health Care Center residents and Arts Transcending Borders’ (ATB) visiting artist Ian Bannon from Figures of Speech Theatre. During the visits, the students and residents form small groups in which a random photo is shown. Through broad questions posed by Bannon and the students, the group creates a backstory from the image. 

"You get really fascinating answers," Meszaros said. "It really brought you closer to them."

This year, influenced by their Montserrat class that focused on topics related to birth and death taught by Renée Beard, professor of sociology and anthropology, Meszaros and Lindsay Riordan '25 participated in the program through a partnership with the College's Donelan Office of Community-Based Learning and ATB initiative. The TimeSlips Creative Storytelling project at Holy Cross was funded through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation.

The pair also presented at this year's Academic Conference, sharing the relationships they developed with the participants. 

"This is a really special experience," Riordan said. "This work that we're doing and how meaningful it is to what we’re learning, and the idea behind how much you can learn from observing and being in a place that's a little uncomfortable and unfamiliar for two hours a week, it's something you’d never do if you didn’t take a seminar on life and death."

While Alzheimer's and dementia often rob individuals of their memories, random images can provide an alternate entrance to those stories, build relationships, and for students, sometimes unearth advice. 

"Asking questions about their lives, they can’t really give you much," Meszaros said. "But they have all these life lessons and things that they've gathered. It's in their brains, but it's not something they have to remember."

While the activities bring smiles to the faces of residents, Meszaros and Riordan said the experience changed their lives for the better. 

What started as a once-a-week visit during a semester evolved into something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. "I’ve found a passion in it," Riordan said. "I have no idea what I want to major in. I'm not someone who loves sitting in a math or science class. But I do love the human interaction and being able to help in the smallest ways."