Elder Documentaries: Student Initiative Means Community Connection at a Visceral and Emotional Level



Terry Lee is an Associate Professor of English, with a specialization in journalism, at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. With a background in journalism, as well as a Ph.D. in British literature, Terry developed a documentary studies class in which students spend the semester working with an elder throughout the semester, documenting his or her stories and life in video, photography or narrative prose. He has lately become quite interested in aging, publishing recently in The Journal of Aging, Humanities and Arts and in Gerontology and Geriatrics Education. Turning 60 this year may have had something to do with it.

Jessica* just can’t muster the courage to visit the adult daycare center she has chosen to work in. At the midterm, her documentary studies professor warns her, as well as a few others, that more than half of the course grade is based on a project in which students visit elders throughout the semester, documenting their stories and lives in prose and video. This means visiting in homes, churches, and joining in any activity that a student documentarian may be welcome. The assignment requires students to venture into the community and to get to know an elder and his or her life story as well as they can in fourteen weeks and produce a documentary story that will be published online. By the midterm, Jessica should have already made several visits.

Jessica is my student, and I am the one leaving it to her to figure out how she is going to successfully complete the project. I lecture and discuss readings on aging and doing documentary work early in the semester. By midterm, the class is largely a workshop driven by my students’ experiences in the community, as well as a variety of in-class writing and a mini-video documentary projects. Their final documentary project could be a series of vignettes in video or prose, a photo essay or, if the material is there, a story with a strong narrative arc. The goal is to get into the community, to cross that invisible boundary between the campus and the community — as well as that boundary between youth and age — and to come back with stories.

There is always the risk in this class that a student will fail to produce a successful documentary project, and, by about week eleven, Jessica has yet to get started. She still has not found an elder in the community to work with, and she not too excited about the two options that I made available for any student at the outset — elders at an adult daycare center or an assisted living residence who are willing to talk with students. In high school, Jessica visited elders in nursing homes, and she recalls that she felt great about “brightening” their days. But those high school experiences were, of course, carefully staged and managed. In my college class, she is responsible herself for making and sustaining a community connection. I facilitate the community connection, developing many contacts as a matter of course in my own research, and the class workshop is a forum for working out worries, developing on-going projects and reporting successes. Weeks go by with Jessica having nothing to report in class workshop. •

I know from many years of experience teaching news reporting and “immersion” narrative journalism (think New Yorker magazine style) that student interest, initiative and responsibility is essential to developing a meaningful, felt connection to the community beyond the campus. They need to test and explore the community on their own. Jessica risks foundering now, but odds are high that she won’t go into a nose dive and will make a successful landing. I always have a safety-net assignment at the ready, though no student has ever opted for it. (In this course, there is an option to write a research paper on aging in America.) Jessica, like many of my students, has some reservations about working with elders, so she procrastinates. But I have learned that, once a student makes that first foray into what one might call the elder community, successive visits come easily and stereotypes quickly evaporate. Elders, as Thomas Cole tells us in The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging, are sadly often perceived as the “the fearfully alien old person“ (243). Of course, elders, especially in a retirement community or adult daycare center, are feared only because they are marginalized and unknown.

Before I developed and first taught this course four years ago, I had learned from elders whose stories I documented that they realize themselves that they are feared. The fear factor for my students, however, is short lived and the connection to the elder community often turns out to be life-changing. The initial hurdle to connect, however, is very real. One student in my first documentary class wrote in a reflective statement that elders “hate our generation.” Her sentiment was, surprisingly, typical of many in the class. So Jessica’s “fear” is real, but not insurmountable. •

Like, Jessica, Brittany gets a late start finding and working with an elder. Eventually, she says in class workshop that she might approach a retired man who is auditing her Spanish class. When she asks, he agrees. And he is interesting, if not a bit strange: He showed up in class one day in costume as a campesino (farmer), wielding a machete. He wanted to give the students a sense of what one Spanish-speaking culture was like. After he agrees to talk with her, she begins to worry. What is this guy going to be like?

Jennifer and Sam work together to document Mrs. Farnham’s life stories. Though she lives in a cheerful assisted living residence, and though her sons phone every day, she talks of a serious ennui and loneliness. Guilt overwhelms Jennifer and Sam every time they tell Mrs. Farnham they need to leave. The guilt makes starting and ending their many visits rough going.

Arthur and Sophie tackle a tough subject, elder homelessness, and, after making all the right contacts in town, spend a day with Robert, who often wiles away a day by riding the city bus. Robert is articulate, a good storyteller, but after that first day, Robert was no where to be found. It takes several weeks of visits to shelters around town for them to give up on Robert and find another subject, a roommate’s older parents, a middle-class couple who seem to be quite happy.

A sustained encounter with an elder’s daily life, my students report, dramatically changes their understanding of life’s vicissitudes, as well as the joys and sorrows of aging. And the elders benefit, too. Alice’s documentary subjects, Sophie and Linda, decided to share a household about five years ago. They tell her at the semester’s end that her attending to them, her listening and video-documenting their lives and stories, makes them think about their relationship in complex ways that they never had before.

What makes a community connection successful in my documentary class is the level of engagement that students have with their elder subjects, the sustained visiting, interviewing and, most importantly, listening that documenting elders’ stories demands. It is a profound connection to community in just a semester. Natalie accompanied Mrs. Andersen, a vibrant elder, to one of her poetry readings and to one of her piano performances at a luncheon, as well as visiting many times in Mrs. Andersen’s home. She even interviewed her on camera as Mrs. Andersen drove her old, cherished Cadillac around town. Natalie knew that she had a wonderful subject in Mrs. Andersen, but she had to put in many visits before she had any idea what her documentary video on Natalie would be about. When it came time to edit her footage into a video of no more than eight minutes, Natalie had to made important choices about how she would portray Mrs. Andersen’s life and stories. This is community engagement at visceral, emotional level — gathering, sorting and editing stories from an elder’s life.

There is a bit of a jump-in-and-learn-to-swim strategy in my pedagogy in this particular course. But I do prepare them well with work on how to interview and edit video (many know the basics already). We read research on aging and Robert Coles’s outstanding collection of documentary narrative stories about elders, Old and On Their Own. And about half of each three-hour class is devoted to workshopping, in which each student checks in with the class, and we collectively help one another look and listen for threads of story in each student’s reports from the field. From the outset, it is clear that there will be an abundance of support, but it is also clear that the initial contact and sustained community connection will be up to each student. I don’t require them to do a certain number of visits by a certain deadline, but they know that they need to put in many visits.

Jennifer and Sam didn’t let their guilt stop them from producing a compelling documentary about Mrs. Farnham. They carry with them the tough knowledge that elders can suffer an incurable kind of loneliness, even in a middle-class assisted living residence and even with adult children living nearby. Arthur and Sophie found that the lives of their couple, which was certainly rosy compared to their homeless man, were becoming increasingly isolated in their adult children, whose own busy lives meant their parents were more and more likely to receive perfunctory phone calls and fewer visits. A bittersweet realization creeps into the video Arthur and Sophie produce: The video shows a friends-and-family get-together, with the daughter having an impromptu dance in the dining room with her older father, but it also shows the father joking that the adult children do call once in a while — for money. As for Jessica: She finally got herself to the adult daycare center and met Mr. Pearson, who broke out into a full-voiced gospel song in the dayroom when he told her how much he likes to sing. Jessica learned, she writes, that his “days were filled with good things.” He wasn’t as she imagined the elders were in her high school visits. Yes, her visits then had “brightened” their day, but they were otherwise woebegone, she felt, and sad. As she wrote in her documentary project, she was puzzled herself as to why she would enroll in my course, knowing what it involved. I can only guess that something in her valued elders and wanted to try reconnecting. In the end, her work with Mr. Pearson taught her that his “days were filled with good things, and [that] he may not look back on my visit as the only good part of that day, which comforts me to no end.”

In reflective statements written at the end of the course, some students thought that a few readings were too difficult and that they would like more workshops focused on video editing skills. All were otherwise enthusiastic:

“At first I was discouraged about finding people and documenting their life…. I met with them throughout the semester and every time I felt more connected to them. Just listening to their stories and spending time with them brought happiness not only to me, but to both of them as well. This project was so much fun and really taught me a lot as a person.”

“Looking back on it, I think that the most rewarding aspect was the relationship that I made with my subject, and knowing how excited she was about the whole process.”

“I felt blessed to have such an interesting person to document.”

“[W]e definitely developed a relationship while working with them. They insist we don’t forget about them. We won’t.”

Works Cited

Coles, Robert. Old and On Their Own. W.W. Norton: New York, 1997.

Cole, Thomas. The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1992.

  • All names have been changed.


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Community Works Journal: Digital Magazine for Educators

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