When you put a decorator in a space with long hallways and blank walls, things are bound to happen — especially at Christmas.

It doesn't matter that there is no budget. A piece of paper becomes a poinsettia; a cardboard tube transforms into a star-burst; a tree ornament is fabricated from a coffee pod. They all add colour and cheer.

And at the Kipnes Centre for Veterans, the combination of homemade and heartfelt is in some ways even better than brand new.

"Most of the families here, when they were young, they made Christmas ornaments," said Mary Nash-MacKay, a decorator by trade who has taken her talents to the long-term care facility in north Edmonton where her 97-year-old mother, Marie Nash, resides.

"They didn't buy them, they were poor. They made paper things. This is very familiar to a lot of people who are here, the people here who are in their 90s. It's sort of reminiscent of times gone by. Simple but beautiful."

Mary Nash-MacKay

Mary Nash-MacKay transforms the main floor of the Kipnes Centre's secure living area with decorations for every season. (CBC)

There are almost 140 paper poinsettias brightening the main floor living quarters of the Kipnes Centre. Garlands frame virtually every communal window, and a feature wall with star-bursts and snowy trees has become a photo backdrop for visiting families.

Nash-MacKay's efforts to brighten the space started almost by accident. But the decorations have evolved into an on-going family project that has transformed the feeling of the home for everyone.

Love and flowers

Two years ago, Nash-MacKay's parents both moved into the Kipnes Centre. While her dad was assigned to a room upstairs, her mother was given a room on the main floor, which is home to about 60 residents with cognitive impairments such as dementia.

But that didn't stop the couple, together for 65 years, from trying to be together there, too. They were so insistent, they were eventually moved into rooms across the hall from each other.

"As (my dad) got sicker, the Kipnes broke rules over the place to get a bed in with mom, so there were two beds next to each other. When dad was dying, we had them together, they were lying in their bed together," said Nash-MacKay.

"It was a family experience. I slept here five nights when dad was dying and all of that was possible here. It was a beautiful experience."

"It's an opportunity for families to chat about something positive, instead of illness and sadness." - Mary Nash-MacKay

The loss was intense for her mother. It was almost three months later that Marie Nash started working on an art project, cutting paper petals.

Nash-MacKay jumped in, too, helping to paste them together.

And that weekend, the mother and daughter got to work, assembling almost 40 flowers and arranging them throughout the main floor.

Families and staff were overjoyed.

"Then as fall came, we thought, 'Those are summer flowers, we can't leave them up.' So we decided to do fall. Then as fall went, we did Halloween. Then as Halloween went, we did Remembrance. Then as Remembrance went, we did Christmas. And it just goes and goes," she said.

"And it's gotten bigger and better from every season…. It's an opportunity for families to chat about something positive, instead of illness and sadness."

Star burst at the Kipnes

Painted toilet paper rolls turn into star-bursts on the feature wall at the Kipnes Centre. (CBC)

It's also a chance for residents whose medical needs require them to remain on the centre's main floor, to experience the seasons.

"If you can't get out of these four walls, having something come in that's different, it makes you feel so much warmer, like it's home," said Nash-MacKay.

"No matter where you're at cognitively, you can enjoy a seasonal difference."

'Give me nothing and see what I can do'

For staff, the decoration project complemented a philosophy that says the long-term care houses at the Kipnes must be true homes for people, complete with knick-knacks, decor and plants.

But those are things that can get bumped, or crash to the floor. For a long time, there's been an aversion to anything that might compromise resident safety.

"We were in a little bit of a safe mode," said Randy Biever, a recently retired recreation assistant at the Kipnes. "There's a balance and a struggle with that."

But Biever knew that families need to make the centre their own space, by contributing their own talents. 

"Them being here ...  makes it more pleasurable for their families to be in their new home," Biever said. "And then the extended family is more relaxed as well."

Mary and Marie

Mary Nash-MacKay and her mother, Marie Nash, at the Kipnes Centre for Veterans. (CBC)

For Nash-MacKay, contributing meant decorating it with beautiful things.

This Christmas, she got a small budget to spruce up the Christmas trees on the main floor, but she's not backing down from a focus on homemade and from-the-heart.

"I'm from a poor family, because we had nine kids! So whenever a box came into the house when I was a kid, I'd make it into something," she said.

"So this is slightly familiar from my young years and I kind of enjoy the challenge. Give me nothing and see what I can do."