Mending the Gap

Cherie Winner
May 15, 2018

It’s such a simple gesture, a hand reaching out to stroke a cheek.

Between friends and loved ones, it conveys caring, trust, tenderness. Between people who met just a few hours ago and who think they don’t have much in common, it can feel scary, threatening, too intimate.

It can also dissolve the emotional and perceptual barriers between the people involved. Andy Belser had that in mind when he brought together pairs of strangers, separated by a gulf of decades, for three days of revelation and reflection that resulted in a video installation called FaceAge.

Belser, professor of theatre and the 2017-18 Penn State Laureate, designed the project to bring together people of different generations in a way that would take them deeper than a typical social exchange.

“In our culture, young people don’t tend to approach old people and older people don’t tend to approach younger people,” he says. “FaceAge is intentionally trying to help communities of people take the time to see one another differently.”

FaceAge partners touch

During the filming of FaceAge, the moment when the partners touched seemed to mark a turning point in their conversation, says director and producer Andy Belser. One young man, touching the deeply-creased face of his 87-year-old partner, expressed surprise at how the skin felt. "Even the scars are soft," he said.

IMAGE: FaceAge Creative Team

What we’ve lost

Belser, now in his mid-50s, says he’s always felt at ease with people much older than himself. He grew up in central Pennsylvania, in a large extended family whose members routinely lived into their 90s. “When I was 16, one of my best friends was 72,” says Belser. “He had an orchard that I worked on, and he took a liking to me and we went out golfing a lot, and I didn’t think anything of it.”

But in the past few decades that kind of familiarity has become much less common, with interactions among generations no longer built into daily life. Now, many kids don’t know any elders they aren’t related to; some don’t even see their own grandparents more than once or twice a year.

The cost to all of us is enormous, says Belser. Seniors become cut off from younger people at the time of life when they have the most experience to contribute but also are most in need of support. Youngsters have lost the example and refuge of elders who could offer a long perspective and a sympathetic ear during difficult times.

“I think seniors were intended to have a lifelong impact on the kids around them,” says Ken Pendleton, director of the Centre County Office of Aging, one of 52 local agencies on aging across the state. “And that would be their legacy: to help move those children forward.”

Over the past several years, Penn State has become a leader in intergenerational work, with researchers in fields ranging from information sciences to sociology exploring relationships between old and young. Matt Kaplan, a professor of agriculture and extension education, is especially interested in getting elders and youngsters together in ways that address local problems, such as how seniors can help at-risk kids in elementary school classrooms, or how seniors and kids together can create an urban garden to provide fresh produce to their community. He designs programs, studies which approaches work in given situations, and shares his findings with colleagues via scientific journals and with the public via extension and the Web.

He even brings generations together in his personal time. A black belt in karate, he runs a family-oriented dojo in State College where most of the students come in intergenerational pairs: parent and child or grandparent and grandchild. He got the idea after seeing parents drop their kids off at youth soccer and then go off to play soccer or softball in an adult league. “Parents are always saying they want more time with their kids,” he says. “Why not learn a martial art together?”

Pendleton welcomes the ideas and energy generated by Kaplan’s efforts. “We’ve become so segregated that the process of coming together naturally has been broken,” he says. “Matt’s work is about putting the pieces back together.”

Intersecting strands

Three years ago, Kaplan launched the Intergenerational Leadership Institute (ILI) to teach senior volunteers how to develop programs for other seniors and younger people. Participants learn how to identify local issues, what’s needed to address them, and some approaches to working with elders and kids. Kaplan encourages the ILI “Fellows” to tap into their own expertise and interests to come up with program ideas.

At the first meeting of one ILI class, three students discovered they shared an interest in woven things. Sandy Lopez was wearing earrings and a bracelet of woven sweetgrass made by Gullah artists from the Low Country of South Carolina, where she had lived for many years. Fran Scalise, who lives in South Carolina part-time and has long been fascinated by sweetgrass basketry, recognized them right away. Grace Hampton, recently retired from her position as senior faculty mentor at Penn State, was familiar with Gullah basketry and also had deep knowledge of kente cloth and other fabrics of West Africa.

The three hit it off, and soon zeroed in on baskets and fabrics as vehicles for their project. It didn’t take long for them to find a larger context.

“When we first started looking at the baskets, we were looking at the objects,” says Lopez. “But we quickly shifted to looking at who made the objects, and where they were made.  It became more an idea of, how can we help transmit culture? How can we transmit a love of culture and history? And do all this in a way that gets seniors and young people to want to share stories and learn new things together?”

In the summer of 2017 they hosted a day of “Weaving Wisdom” workshops at Schlow Library in downtown State College. In the morning, they introduced adult attendees to sweetgrass baskets and kente cloth. In the afternoon, kids joined the group. They learned that the original baskets, wide and shallow, were an essential tool that rice-growers used to separate the grains from the chaff, and that the weaving techniques used to make them were brought here by slaves from West Africa, whose descendants became the Gullah. They learned that the colors and patterns of kente cloth represent life events or qualities of character the wearer aspires to. With the help of an adult partner, each child wove a kente-style bracelet, choosing colors to represent themselves and their family. More than 75 people participated.

It’s not always easy getting such programs off the ground, says Kaplan. He cites a project created by two other ILI Fellows, Christine Tyler and Dorothy Christensen. Their project, SAVOR (Sharing and Valuing Our Relationships), brings college students together with elders who have been isolated for a long time, to share a meal and an activity such as a sing-along or drum circle. “What I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it is to get these older people there,” says Kaplan. “Some don’t answer the door even if you call them and tell them who will be coming to pick them up.” The solution, he says, is patience, building trust, and gentle persistence. “You have to work with them over time. You can’t just put out flyers announcing the dinner, because those won’t appeal to the people who are most vulnerable and probably need the program the most.”

The Weaving Wisdom team is planning new workshops, this time featuring Early American and Amish quilts. Like sweetgrass baskets and kente cloth, such quilts often carry cultural meaning, not least in the way they were made. Traditionally, young girls sat alongside their mothers, grandmothers, and other adult women for hours, learning needlework skills and absorbing lessons about how to work hard, how to deal with setbacks, where they fit in the community. Adults would do well to keep this in mind when they’re with youngsters, says Hampton. “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re transmitting.”

A new kind of volunteer

Like many ILI Fellows, Hampton, Lopez, and Scalise came into the program with professional experience they could draw on. That was part of the appeal for them. After spending decades teaching or managing others, says Hampton, “it’s hard to just stop when you reach retirement. It was beneficial to us to have a meaningful outlet for our skills, knowledge, and creative energy.”

Pendleton, whose agency oversees about 850 active senior volunteers working with 70 local organizations, says the ILI goes beyond traditional forms of volunteering where you show up and are told what to do. It demands thought and creativity — and it benefits the volunteers almost as much as it benefits the people the volunteers are helping.

“It’s easy to buy into the myth that what you’ve learned is suddenly out of date and no longer relevant,” he says. “The fact is, the overwhelming majority of your life’s experiences are applicable to today — and this program harnesses that wealth of information in a way that is useful.”

Kaplan agrees. “Some older adults report feeling under-utilized,” he says. “It’s not painful in an explicit way, but it’s regretful, to not have pathways to be relevant and powerful. The ILI creates a little bit of a bridge and a home.”

It also offers a partial solution to problems many communities face as their citizens age. The loss of traditional family structures leaves many seniors reliant on community resources. As Baby Boomers retire — 10,000 a day for the next 20 years, nationwide, says Pendleton — local agencies will struggle to keep up with their needs for health care, transportation, and general support. “We’re happy to try to help anybody who has need,” he says. “It’s just that, can we help everybody?”

Through ILI, senior volunteers help local agencies by reaching more people who need support, making their communities more cohesive and livable for everyone. People who see elders in general as a burden on local budgets and services are missing the point, says Pendleton; given the opportunity, seniors can be a tremendous resource. 

Facing assumptions

Much of intergenerational work involves dealing with preconceptions. It’s easy to make assumptions about people and groups we don’t know well, and in most cases the groups will remain different in key respects: men and women, black and white, native-born and foreign-born. In the case of generations, though, younger people will become elders themselves one day; their beliefs about aging necessarily involve assumptions about how their own lives will change as they age.

Confronting those assumptions was the impetus behind FaceAge, says Belser. The idea for the project came to him while visiting the Face Aging Institute at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he worked before coming to Penn State in 2013. The Institute develops software to map and predict the changes in people’s faces as they age, primarily for use in criminal forensics. “I saw it, and was just so moved by this question of, how do our faces change, and how do we change, as we age?”

In FaceAge, Belser put the participants in situations where they almost had to consider the prospect of their own aging. In one setting, they were filmed through a two-way mirror as they responded to their own reflection and to computer-generated images of how they are likely to look when older. That provoked feelings some of the younger participants seemed reluctant to face. Belser thinks their reluctance stems, in part, from an oddity of human psychology. “A researcher at Princeton found that when we imagine ourselves as ten years older, we imagine a stranger,” he says. “We don’t imagine ourselves. People of these students’ ages, they think 50 is ‘the frontier.’ So they don’t plan for it. And they certainly don’t have a way to consider how aging will unfold slowly and maybe even beautifully.”

FaceAge partners face each other

FaceAge provides a model for encouraging people of different generations to converse with each other in a direct, personal way, and to encounter their feelings and assumptions about their own aging. Volunteers for the original FaceAge production were chosen for their willingness to be open to the process and each other.

IMAGE: FaceAge Creative Team

One of the film’s most profound revelations — to its young participants as well as to viewers — is that all the elders in it share one thing: they are contented and at ease with their lives. They’re happy.

It’s called the aging paradox, says Belser. While popular culture tells us we’re happiest in our 20s and early 30s and pleasure in life goes steadily downhill after that, research shows that most people get happier as they get older. Despite the loss of loved ones, their physical ailments and limitations, and inevitable regrets, those 65 and over are happier than young adults and more generous in their views of others.

Which puts a whole new slant on intergenerational programs, says Belser. “We should get younger people and older people together, so the younger people can begin to understand that growing older isn’t just a process of loss,” he says. “It’s a process of gaining joy, happiness, wisdom.”

Into the classroom

Watching FaceAge is an active, almost inter-active, experience. It shows on three large screens, and the visual story you see depends on which screen you’re watching at any given moment. In the fall of 2016, Belser gave University Park a preview of the film. He set up a tented theater space in the HUB where visitors could immerse themselves in the 56-minute film, which ran in a continuous loop. Belser noticed that many viewers sat through it more than once, or left after one viewing but returned later to see it again. “We had no idea they would do that,” he says. “People come back to it. It gives you infinite opportunities to change the narrative for yourself.”

Amy Lorek, an assistant research professor in the Center for Healthy Aging, set up a dialog wall just outside the tent, where viewers could post sticky notes to comment on FaceAge, aging issues in general, or comments from other viewers. Seeing how deeply people were affected by the film, she hatched an idea for a class based on the FaceAge model of pairing seniors with young adults. With a small grant from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, she offered the course for the first time in 2017, with 15 undergraduates from various majors and 15 seniors recruited through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

The partners created a video together and kept journals about their experiences in the class. A big part of the course was confronting the assumptions they came in with. That applied to both groups of students, says Lorek. “Undergraduates come with these very narrow experiences of older adults. But often times, older adults have narrowed their interactions to just their peer group.”

Many of the younger students said they don’t know any older adults that they’re not related to. Some came in expecting all elders to be like their grandparents — which was not always a good thing. Lorek recalls a female student who was moved by a passage in FaceAge where a young gay man worried about what his older partner, a straight woman, would think of him.

Lorek’s student said she had recently told her grandmother she’s gay, and the grandmother said she just hadn’t met the right man yet. “That closed the door to the conversation,” says Lorek. But sharing that in class opened a different door, one Lorek didn’t even know was there.

“The student’s partner said, ‘I worked at the first gay bar here in State College.’ So then they had this conversation about how things are different, how they’re the same, and they had this connection that I would never have predicted. And the student came to understand that not all older adults are going to close the door and stop the conversation. Which may or may not counterbalance the weight of a grandparent, but it still is a positive experience.”

It was important to Lorek that throughout their discussions, every person in the class be both a learner and a teacher. “I wanted the undergraduate students to believe that they had something to offer and then give them the chance to do that, and I wanted the older adults to not just be the ‘wise sage.’ That’s one of the things we know from recent research: Learning new things contributes to healthy aging.”

All the same, sometimes the elders were “wise sages.” The simple fact that they had been through a lot, had made it to old age, and were happy with life in general made a big impression on their young partners. Late in the course, one of the elders said to her, “These students are so worried. About everything.” The students hadn’t talked about their worries with Lorek, “but at the end, they were writing things like, ‘I just feel so much better. I realize that it’s all going to be OK. Whatever happens.’ I’ve come to appreciate that the students have anxiety about all the things that are coming up for them and that they’re getting pressure about, and that the senior community members offer them a soothing voice that the students can come to hear: We went through this. We survived. We did fine. You will too.”

Next steps

Amy Lorek offered the course again this spring. So many undergraduates wanted to take it that she had to cap enrollment. Participants ranged in age from 19 to 96. Among the elders in her first class were Sandy Lopez and Fran Scalise of the Weaving Wisdom group, who were inspired by their experience in the class to come up with an ambitious new project: to work with OLLI to take elders and undergraduates to the Low Country to interview Gullah basket-makers. They hope to partner with an academic department whose students could use the trip as part of a research project.

The lead partner for FaceAge is ADRI, the Arts and Design Research Incubator in the College of Arts and Architecture, which provides seed money for projects with the goal of moving them off campus and into the wider world. By that measure, FaceAge is a spectacular success. What started as an artistic exploration of the fears and realities of aging has found audiences Belser never anticipated. He has been showing it at Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses, and it is now part of the first-year curriculum at Penn State College of Medicine. It’s in demand by museums around the world that want to use it as a jumping-off point for community-engagement events. He’s been invited to help develop versions of FaceAge in other countries or focusing on specific contexts, such as workplace issues. This October, it will be shown in Philadelphia at the national conference of Leading Age, a group of more than 6,000 agencies, nonprofits, retirement communities, and health-care providers.

Matt Kaplan is working with groups in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. to develop ILI chapters in other cities, and demand is just as high for his other intergenerational projects. “When I started this kind of work in the late ‘80s, it was more like trying to convince people to take a chance and try something,” he says. Now it’s more an issue of, how can he work with everyone who has an interest in mending the rift between generations?

“It’s more than any single program,” he says. “It’s a movement, and we’re riding the wave, together.”

The Center for Healthy Aging in the College of Health and Human Development is the lead community engagement partner for FaceAge and a sponsor of the Intergenerational Leadership Institute. The lead research partner for FaceAge is the Penn State College of Nursing. Information on Penn State Extension’s intergenerational program resources can be found at Information on FaceAge can be found at    

This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Research/Penn State magazine.

Last Updated May 18, 2018