How do you define a life well lived? How can we celebrate the incredible wit, wisdom, and experiences of older adults living full, meaningful lives and use them as inspiration for our own lives instead of overlooking older adults?
What happens when a small family project grows into a social movement across the country?
How can schools use intergenerational conversations to teach history, empathy, resilience, and ageless wisdom?
What are ways companies are cultivating intergenerational connections in the workplace to build a more age-resilient and age-intelligent workforce?
In this episode, we talk to Sky Bergman, an accomplished, award-winning photographer, Professor of Photography and Video at California Polytechnic State University, and the director of Lives Well Lived, a film featuring the stories of modern-day elders that show us how growing older can be a journey to be celebrated, and how schools and corporations are using the film as a starting point to rebuild intergenerational learning and connection across America.
PI. Everything started like you were inspired by a conversation with your grandmother who really seemed amazing and extraordinary.
SB. I had a really wonderful relationship with my grandmother, I was very lucky that I had my grandmother, and my life, and actually, three out of my four grandparents lived to be past 90.
I had that connection, not only with my grandparents, but also with their friends that would come over and it just seemed pretty normal to have older adults in my life who I respected, who I listened to the words of wisdom and their stories, I always love listening to their stories, and so I definitely grew up in a very intergenerational household and when I was growing up, there were four generations in our household so that’s pretty remarkable.
PI. What you’re saying is that it’s not just like they’re having them there but seeing them as humans with friends with relationships with challenges, it sort of it humanizes older people, which is, I think one of the very important things about including them and seeing them as important players in the community.
SB. Absolutely, I think that when you know somebody it’s like any other bias or stereotype I think when you know somebody from that other group, and you have them as your friend. You have a very different relationship and then it’s you don’t have that same stereotype because you know somebody from the other group whether it’s a race or religion or age, I think that you know we’re so siloed now, and these different ages that age is just as ageism is just as much of a problem as any of the other isms that are out there and. I think I was lucky that I grew up just without that I mean my world was very intergenerational without me even realizing or knowing that I was growing up in an intergenerational household.
PI.: And when it comes to the groups that you’ve worked with what do you think makes it so difficult to talk about aging?
SB. Well, I think that younger people tend to fear aging a bit you know, and I think that that the media has put into our minds that we should fear aging, and if you look at all the things that are out there in the media. And so I think that that’s been a real problem that we need to overcome, and you know that’s one of the things that I’m trying to do with my work is to show the positive. Images of aging and show that aging can be something to look forward to, and embrace.
And by talking to older adults and to making those connections, all of a sudden your attitude about aging changes and let’s face it we’re aging every day, each of us it’s one thing we all have in common is that we age, every day, so we should be embracing it.
PI. How has making the film changed your interest and your relationship with the people around you How has it changed your life?
SB. It has changed my life completely making the documentary and I think that the biggest thing for me, has been the people that I’ve met along the way, I always like to say that I have 40 new grandparents and that’s the greatest gift that my grandmother left to me is that. I have 40 friends — I had lunch last week with three out of the people in the film and one of them was just on the phone with me earlier and asking how I was doing, I love that I have friends of all different ages.
I think that the biggest takeaway for me from all the people on the common one of the common threads was that they all had a sense of purpose and it didn’t really matter what that sense of purpose was but they all had a sense of purpose and I think that purpose, can change over your life but no matter what age, we all need to have that sense of purpose, whether you’re 20, 30 or 80 it doesn’t matter having that sense of purpose is I think what keeps us vital and keeps us going.
PI. Yeah, it’s really interesting because it’s not just a film. The film has now paved the way to talk about this topic. Tell us more about what this film unlocked.
SB. Well, the film really was just the springboard for making a change in our society, one of the things that we’ve been doing is showing the film to older adults and to students and creating intergenerational projects. We pair them up. The older adult and the student together get to spend a quarter or a semester, depending on the educational institution and they use the same 20 questions in the film and that’s a great starting point. I think it’s easier to have a framework to start a bilateral conversation, so the students are asking questions and the older adults are asking questions. In the end, we have a big wrap party and they get to talk about what they learned. One of the things that I love is that I feel like I’m changing the stereotypes about ageism in both directions — one story and one connection at a time and sometimes you feel like you know the world’s problems are so vast and there is nothing that I can do, but it all it takes is one story and one connection at a time and then that multiplies out and it’s such a wonderful gift.
When I get to sit at these wrap parties and see what everyone has learned and really the common thread is that the students and the older adults realize that they have far more commonalities than differences, and the only differences are age.
PI. Tell us a story about one of those pairs. What are the most unexpected things that these conversations have brought up?
SB. I’m not necessarily in on the conversations — that’s something that they do privately, but what I can tell you is that there was one student who was a football player not doing well in school and happened to be paired with somebody who was a coach and these pairings are somewhat random — and it changed that student in one quarter because he had this role model who was helping him through.
In the middle of the pandemic when we couldn’t go anywhere, we were doing these projects online we pivoted we worked with Senior Planet, which is part of AARP and it was great because we didn’t have to table this project. We were able to pivot and do something different. The older adults and the students were craving connection and craving that interaction. One of the students said, at the wrap party that this was the first new friend that he had made during the pandemic and I thought, how wonderful is that his first new friend is an older adult.
PI. Can you talk more about the framework itself and how you came up with it, I imagine you tested it through the filming of the documentary.
SB. When I was coming up with the questions for the film, since I taught at the university, I decided that it’d be a good idea to take people in the social sciences department out to lunch and ask them, what are some questions I should be asking and what am I missing. So I gave them the questions that I had come up with and they did come up with some really wonderful questions. So it’s a collaborative effort with people in the social sciences department and people that taught the psychology of aging, and so I felt like those 20 questions were not yes or no questions. They were open-ended, which allowed people the space to answer in any way that they wanted to.
I was new to this — I’d never done anything like this before. I’d never done a film, I never really interviewed anyone and so I learned the mistakes along the way, and I was able to teach the students.
I’m very happy that we’re working with PBS learning media right now. In the next month, they’re putting up a couple of clips from the film and our whole discussion guide so that educators K-12 can access that resource. It’s totally free to bring this into their classroom as well.
PI. I’m curious if you’ve thought about applying this say in different countries or regions because different cultures have different relationships with older adults as younger people.
SB. Absolutely yes, my brother lives in Japan, and I have two nephews who are Japanese American but living in Japan, they live with their grandparents, so they have an intergenerational home as well and there are definitely, different cultures that look at age in very different ways. The film is now making its way outside the US into the UK, Australia, and some other countries, and so I hope that we can broaden this by doing things online. It flattens things quite a bit, and so the film is translated into six different languages, it also got audio descriptions for anyone that’s visually impaired, so we tried to make it as inclusive as possible so as many people could watch it to hopefully foster more of these intergenerational connections.
PI. Tell us more stories about when you started. How did it go? What went well, and what was unexpected?
SB. It took me four years to interview the 40 people that are in the film. Part of that was, I had a day job I was still teaching also, I think I was learning I didn’t know, I was going to make a film when I first started this whole project, I thought I was just going to do it as a web series, and maybe just record a few people and I really didn’t know where I was going. I just knew how to do it. At a certain point when I realized, I was going to make a film I really wanted to tell a diversity of stories of a diverse group of people. I really sought out some of the people in the film like Susie who was interned during World War II because she was a Japanese American and talked about what happened in our country and not just what happened in Europe. But I had no idea what people’s stories were going to be, I sat down with them without any cameras or anything. Before, I would bring camera gear or recording gear and just have a conversation with them to get to know them. I think that was so vitally important because I felt like then we had a relationship, and then we could really have this wonderful interview. But there were surprises, and there were things along the way.
I think the other thing that really surprised me happened after the filming was when I was on a panel, with five or six of the people that were in the film and I was thanking them for their stories because they were so open. It just was amazing that some of the stories they had never told anyone and they were so open about it. I think, a part of it was because they knew I was purely doing it out of a love of my grandmother, and that that I think that that authenticity really showed through, and so they felt very comfortable opening up to me and so I was thanking them for that – and Paul Wolfe who’s in the film stood up and said it’s us that need to thank you because you cared enough to collect our stories. It really reframed for me what that meant, that I was validating who they were and cared enough to collect their stories and keep that as a legacy of who they were and to share that with generations to come. That’s something that I hadn’t really thought about when I was doing this interview process.
PI. Tell us about your grandmother. How was she involved throughout the 4 years of filming the documentary? What kind of feedback did she have?
SB. Yes, my grandmother always had something to say. She was Italian, so she always had something to say. I think she got a kick out of being the inspiration for the film and I don’t think she quite understood. She would always say: “Well, I didn’t do anything special, why are you making a film?”. I said: “Grandma, you are special just because of who you are, and I always think that everyone has an amazing story to tell if we just take the time to listen.”
She gave me the greatest gift of wanting to listen to people for 4 years and listening to all those wonderful 40 people’s stories she made me inquisitive because of that. She loved it when I would tell her “I just interviewed this or that person, and it was lovely”. She actually came out for a sneak preview of the film and got to meet 29 out of the 40 people that I interviewed for the film.
That was the best night of my life — to be able to share that with her and all those people in the film and their families. It was a nice culmination when I was able to share that with them and for them to be able to see themselves on the big screen. It was amazing.
PI. Where have you been starting to see this shift in perspective starting to unlock? Where do you think we can start heading? Where can companies go now?
SB. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there are more corporations that are doing programming around ageism which is lovely. I worked with Land O’Lakes, and they have a young professionals network and aging successfully network within their group. They do reverse mentoring. I love how can we bridge those divides and how can we break down those stereotypical age divisions in terms of who we should be hanging out with. Once we do that, the world becomes an infinitely better place, because you just didn’t know the possibilities are limitless.
PI. I was wondering what feedback, have you gotten from the older adults that participated in the intergenerational program. I imagine that it has been transformative for them. Do you have more anecdotes on their side?
SB. There’s a number of older adults that don’t have kids, so this gives them an insight into a younger generation that they may not have otherwise. I think everyone wants to be able to share their story and feel like they’re giving back in some way. Some of the participants in the project feel like this is their way to give back by sharing their wisdom with the next generation. That’s a really lovely feeling: it gives them that sense of purpose that we all need. Everyone has an amazing story. Everybody has something to give and to share at any age.
PI. What are some words that you’d like to leave with our listeners when it comes to putting age and generational inclusion in action?
SB. The biggest thing is just to have that conversation and listen to each other; connect with each other. I always found connections for me came over food because I used to cook with my grandmother and that’s where the best stories and the connection came out.
PI. What’s next for you?
SB. So what’s next for me? I really want to work on doing more intergenerational projects and getting it into schools, communities, and corporations. I do believe in the power of connecting generations. That’s really become my passion and my focus at this point. I would love to get this program out in a much broader way than just in the US. And I’m currently writing a book that talks about my experiences with the film, the wisdom that I learned, how you can incorporate that in your life, but also how can you bring these intergenerational connections to your community, corporation, or educational institution.
PI. Thank you for joining Fanny and I, in this conversation with Sky Bergman, about the power of making space for intergenerational conversations – in families, communities, and workplaces. You can watch “Lives Well Lived” on PBS, DVD, or your favorite streaming platform, and find out how you or your organization can be a part of the movement on www.lives-well-lived.com, link in our show notes.
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