Senior Citizens and Material Culture Diary
It was hard to imagine these individuals as having once just learning to crawl and walk, an elementary student just starting school, a middle school student just trying to figure out their place in the world, or a high school student who thinks they already know everything. It is hard because, here,… they are frail and weak in appearance. They can’t sit up straight, they have trouble talking and moving, and they struggle to do the most simple and most basic things such as feed themselves. Things most of us take for granted throughout our lives. If I asked you to list the top 10 things that are important to you, what would be included on your list? Your most updated version of an iPhone, your huge collection of shoes and clothes taking up space in your closet, your computer with the latest technologically advanced programs, your car or house, a piece of jewelry, your 55 inch flat screen TV with LED and great pixel quality, or maybe your latest video game console? Walking into the senior citizen rehab and assisted living building these are the things I notice… the flowery somewhat feminine wall paper, the odd octagonal shaped foyer where three office locations are situated, the mixture of blank and confused faces looking at me as I walk in carrying a box and a tripod, the hallway in front of me that leads to a room with some tables and chairs and the outdoor garden area. There is uncomfortableness in wondering what to say to the people rolling themselves down the hallway in wheelchairs and in figuring out how to talk to elderly individuals in such a variety of conditions. The atmosphere is very casual as is the conversations I had with the activities director and other staff. Yet, maybe that is me feeling that this is a professional assignment on which I will eventually be judged or graded.
I spent time asking the senior citizens about their past. I wanted to know who they were so that the objects they discussed would hold greater context and meaning to me. Some I started out by asking, “ I just want to know about you, anything you want to tell me, your age, where you are from, your family, your career, your hobbies, literally anything.” Others I asked specific questions because they were less talkative or more introverted in terms of volunteering details or responses. Their lives are very different and each story they share has played a part in the creation of who they are today and how they ended up in this place in a room shared by stranger. A space that many define as a large walk-in closet or a master size bathroom is what they call home. They have a small twin size bed, a chest of drawers for storage, maybe a chair or rocker for guests, a TV (if they brought one with them), and a small night stand. The walls were really the only unique things about their spaces as all the furniture in every room was set up the same way (the rooms were too limited in space to arrange any other way). Their walls, however, are filled with memories, mostly photographs, stuffed animals, books on shelves, and gifts they’d received. Their walls said a lot about each of them as individuals. The more I talked to them the less it felt like an interview. It was just two individuals having a conversation. I really just went and talked to them. I asked what life was like in the facility, how often family members came to visit, if they did anything fun today, how they slept, how they spent most of their time, how often they see other patients in the facility, and which staff members they appreciate most and why. Most seem to enjoy my company and just enjoy having company.
“The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.” ~Flora Whittemore
Today was a little frustrating because I looked at my footage from the day before and realized that for whatever reason the microphone had not worked. This was a difficult realization because it worked the first day and I knew that the unrecorded comments would simply not be repeated with the same initial excitement or wording. I struggled today because I felt bad asking the residents to repeat many of the things they had told me the day before. I explained the microphone malfunctioned or maybe it was user error and most of them laughed and were understanding of the situation. However, some did not seem to understand and struggled with the concept that if they didn’t repeat every word of what they told me the day before I would not have it to put in the video. Technology is great when it works…When I look back now on my childhood, which often times doesn’t even, feel completely finished at the age of 27, I realize I didn’t take advantage of the time I had to spend with my grandparents. I spent a lot of time with them, but was it quality time or was I just going through the motions with the head and priorities of a child? When my grandparents talked I rarely actually soaked in much of their stories. As a child my attention span and self-centeredness prevented me from learning from them and from understanding the importance of listening to what they have to say. Looking back now there are many questions I would ask and many stories I would listen to more closely. Even the senior citizens understood this concept because we have all felt this way I think at one point or another about someone in our lives, a parent or grandparent or sibling or aunt or cousin. I think about even my idols, one being Walt Disney. Our society knows so much about him from his movies and the company he built, but now that he’s gone will we eventually run out of information about him as his family members, children, and grandchildren move on and grow old themselves. Will we have forgotten to ask something or wish we had known the answer to something we don’t? It is at the age of 27 that I am just now thinking I should ask my parents about their history, what our family histories are, my dad’s side, my mom’s side, and things about my childhood I may have forgotten. How can you know if you do not ask? And how does not knowing affect your life? It’s the decisions we make, the opportunities we take, and the knowledge we gain throughout life that defines us. When asked what is the most valuable thing to you in life? Most people say family. It is the answer we think or we know is the right answer. What would you grab if I said your house is going to burn down and you can only take one thing with you? What would your concern be if your house burnt down? I hope it would be that everyone was okay including pets. But in the society in which we live are we really valuing our families and pets or do we only value our family and pets when they are in danger, sick, or in the middle of a major life event like a wedding, graduation or death? We say we value what we know we should but in society we are showing and demonstrating that we value other things. Even at the senior citizen home they are stating that people and relationships are the most valuable thing to them and this was often demonstrated or confirmed by the photographs of those individuals framed or tacked up to their walls. Yet, all the stories and discussions had throughout my time their often fell back to material items and objects, such as jewelry, books, puzzles, television, movies, stuffed animals, hats, plants, food, clothing, holiday decorations, money and greed, blankets, bingo games, magazines, hair, dentures, and outward appearance. Are we living hypocritical lives full of fluff? Are we saying one thing but mean another? We are all human and we all make mistakes. Most of us I believe have regret or maybe something that looking back they would have done differently. This doesn’t make us bad people, but this project has made me question what I am demonstrating on a regular basis. There is a saying that actions speak louder than words and at the end of our lives I wonder if maybe the words are what speak loudest because our actions are somewhat finished. Yet, it takes the action of someone asking them to speak that makes those words heard. Senior Citizens still have value and have much that they can teach the world. They lived at a time we can never fully understand because we didn’t live it. Time is constantly changing. My elementary school days were very different from the elementary school student’s lives that I teach today. But the experiences that the senior citizens experienced are worlds apart from our experiences. It is listening to the lives and experiences of these senior citizens that cause one to realize how much history is lost once they die if they are not given the opportunity to share it.
“Only a few things are really important.” ~Marie Dressler
Are we doomed to a life of repeating the mistakes made by our ancestors? Ask anyone in the senior citizen home and they will all say they didn’t take advantage of the knowledge possess by their parents and grandparents. Are we just going to be added to the same statistic of those individuals too childish and self-involved to take time to listen to and learn from our elders? Many of us were told as children to respect our elders but did we ever really know why. Maybe what is important is that we learn to appreciate and learn from people of all shapes, sizes, ages, races, sexes, and walks of life.
The most difficult part of my research so far has been the challenges I have faced but did not foresee because I did not and could not know they would be issues having never done this type of research. An example of the challenges faced is that senior citizens sleep more and at times that would be considered odd to most individuals. I originally planned to interview and video record all five subjects each day. Yet, more often than not I was only able to actually interview 2-3 at a time because by the time I was able to go to the senior citizen center and finish interviewing two or three of them the other two or three of them were already asleep or eating. Some of them do not sleep well at night because other residents scream or make noise. I also did not anticipate the staff having to go into the rooms so often. Every day I have been up there a staff member has had to interrupt my interview or stop me before I got started. The interruption only takes about 10 minutes at most but it definitely slowed down the process. I also assumed when I started this project that most of the senior citizens would be sitting up, even potentially at a table in a small room or in the large activities room I saw when I first visited the center. Instead, what I discovered was that most of the senior citizens were in bed either lying down or propped up by pillows. This meant that rather than having the senior citizens come to me in a room where I could leave my camera equipment set up, I had to take down my camera equipment and microphone and set it up again between every interview. This has been a very educational experience so far and just going to the senior citizen center and becoming comfortable with the atmosphere and how they look and act is a tremendously educational and rewarding experience.
Today was mostly about taking pictures. I took pictures of everything and anything I thought I might want to utilize in my video or in my presentation. As I took pictures I talked to the residents about the various objects and images I was taking and although I did not capture much if any of those conversations on camera, I still gained lots of information about them and their surroundings. I struggled a bit with some of the lighting when taking the pictures because most of the images and objects I was photographing are in huge multi image frames or are pinned to the wall or window. I often got reflections on the glass of photographs I was trying to record because of the lighting or time of day. I went up to the center multiple times today so that I was able to get images from each resident’s room. I had to work around naps, family visitors, lunch, staff member interruptions, dinner, and bingo games. It was a long day but a fun day and in some ways an easier day because I did not have to lug around my tripod and microphone. I just walked around with my camera and photographed whatever I felt was valuable or whatever the senior citizens said that they wanted in the research video. I was much more relaxed because I wasn’t stressed about whether or not the video was focused or the microphone was working. I had these stressors down to a science by day 4 but it’s still nerve wracking and worrisome when you know you have a deadline and that your research and interviews have to come out because you do not have time to repeat or go back. I have definitely created a relationship with the residents so that my walking in and talking to them feels very natural and comfortable like a friendly visit rather than a research related agenda.
“Life is a series of family photos in which you keep moving to the rear until finally you’re a portrait in the background.” ~Robert Brault
Looking back now my time spent there became less about the assignment and the original objective of my project and more about the people. Originally, the goal was to find out what these individuals at the end of their life value and why and what could younger and older generations learn from their knowledge. Yet, the more I talked to them and got to know them the more I realized that what’s really important isn’t the objects or things they value most but the stories they have to tell and their memories. Day 8 Having completed all the video footage and knowing I have to return my camera rental equipment tomorrow leaves me feeling both refreshed and anxious. I know at this point there is no turning back and there isn’t any time to re-shoot even if I had the equipment longer. I have over 2 hours of footage which is more than I thought I would have based on my time frame, poor assumptions and lack of knowledge related to how talkative or willing senior citizens are to participate in answering questions. I know that going through all of this footage will be tedious but it will also be exciting to see all of my work and all of the conversations and answers come together. Now comes the fun part. iMovie here I come!
Today I spent the day picking out the acceptable usable footage. My process began by picking out any and all parts that had understandable audio and were in focus. This was a long process because I had to cut parts here and clips there from every video I recorded. The next step was to begin narrowing down what is relevant footage for my project vs. what is not. After a few hours of this tedious task I decided to call it a night.
This has been the most exhausting and tedious part of creating my video footage so far. I am hoping for a 15-20 minute video. There is nothing special about this time limit other than I feel most people’s attention spans will not last longer than about 20 minutes. The problem is that after my second editing session, I have 1 hour and 38 minutes worth of video, substantially over my 20-minute max. I am taking a break to write this diary reflection, but also to switch gears for an hour or two and focus on the music that I will use. I originally intended on using a song that I loved the lyrics of and thought was perfect for the video, but I did some research once it was brought to my attention that I could not use without attaining permission. This was something I already knew but it had completely slipped my mind as a major issue when I was creating the video and bringing all the elements together. I have started looking at websites that offer “free for public use” music. Some of the sites have not been easy to navigate and others are not very helpful…. I just came across audionautix.com, a website that is easy to navigate and offers a wide variety of songs that you can find through a variety of searches (Genre, mood, tempo, etc.) I have found three songs that I think will work that seem to be a good fit. Now it’s off to iMovie land and more editing.
“Human life is purely a matter of deciding what’s important to you.” ~Anonymous
I have spent the day editing down the video substantially. The video that started at 2 hours in length is now 38 minutes and I feel very proud of this accomplishment. That being said I also know that even as short as that seems compared to the 2 hours it was before 3 editing sessions, it has to be edited once again because it is still entirely too long. Watching clips and fast forwarding and rewinding is more exhausting then I ever envisioned.
Finally, the video is down to 27 minutes. This, while still not ideal, is much more acceptable in my mind and more reasonable to expect the average person to sit and watch. I struggled deciding what details and stories to leave in vs. take out because I am so emotionally attached to all the video clips and the information recorded. Details as simple as how long to show the residents laughing before fading them out or moving to the next story were agonizing decisions because each clip represents a sweet, beautiful moment with the residents that I will never forget. Although videos like this can probably always be improved and adjusted, I feel that I am almost to the point of calling this video finished.
“Out of a hundred years a few minutes were made that stayed with me, not a hundred years.” ~Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin
Looking back at this experience I think the most valuable part is that I now have a video I can share with the world in hopes of encouraging individuals to truly respect our elders to the fullest and acknowledge that our senior citizens do have valuable information to share with the world. The most rewarding part of this experience has been creating the relationships with the residents at the senior citizen nursing home and being able to connect with them in a way that I should have done with my grandparents on a more regular basis.
“Today marks a profound and bittersweet milestone for all of us, as we bear witness to both an end and a beginning. And while we must continue on, we must also be grateful to have been blessed with someone who has so ably guided us to where we are today. When there has been so much love and happiness for someone, it is natural to be reluctant to close such a wonderful chapter in our lives, for moving forward is rarely accomplished without considerable grief and sadness. And while our sorrow may be profound, the clouds will clear, and the sun will shine on us again. And in that warm, bright light we will find ourselves facing a glorious future. A future of exciting challenges and infinite possibilities, in which the horizon will stretch out before us, trimmed in the heavenly glow of the sunrise of our tomorrow.” – Prince Edward from the movie The Prince and Me
“No, it’s a perfect time. It is at the end of a man’s life when he realizes how important his decisions were at the beginning.” – King Harold from the movie The Prince and Me.
The above quotes sum up what I feel moving forward. Although my project is nearly finished, my research and what I take away from this end is simply a beginning. It is hard for me to think that someday perhaps unfortunately even someday soon the residents that I interviewed and provided me with fond memories that I will cherish for a lifetime will inevitably die. The sorrow and grief that comes along with this elderly population is one that is difficult to accept, but it is easier knowing that I now have a small part of their lives and their story on camera. I am fortunate that I can look into the future knowing that I am wiser and have gained memories that will last a lifetime because of this project. My hope is that others follow in my footsteps and get out to senior citizen centers and take the time to fully respect and have conversations with the elderly within our communities. They have lived through things and have a plethora of knowledge that they are more than willing to share if we are willing to listen. This knowledge will benefit us all and help many generations yet to come.