Growing Older was a collaboration of senior citizens and youngsters ages 10-13, designed to bridge the generation gap. When we first started this project, our workshop schedule consisted of community centers and schools that had Adult Education courses for senior citizens throughout Miami-Dade County. We then expanded to Adult Congregate Living Facilities, and Senior Retirement Villages in other Florida Counties. We selected places with a varied clientele that included all kinds of senior citizens; people from many cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and levels of functioning.
Each group we worked with was different, but we basically did our “Telling Stories Through Visuals” Program with all of them. We asked them questions about themselves, we had them do some writing about their lives if they were able to write, we gave them paper and colored markers, and we showed them how to draw pictures that illustrated what they wrote. And we listened to their stories. We worked, one-on-one, with more than 700 senior citizens.
We attended a big rally that took place in Century Village, a senior retirement development in Deerfield Beach, FL. President Clinton was there to announce a new Medicare Bill he was proposing. We took advantage of that opportunity to talk with more than a hundred seniors about their aging issues.
To spice up the project, we decided to include some well-known elders. We visited the late Broadway Director George Abbott at his home (He was 106 at that time).
The Alliance for Aging was among our funding sponsors. The Alliance implements a variety of programs to help the elderly throughout South Florida. They sponsored a 30 minute documentary on the making of this project. The film was produced by WLRN-TV, PBS. The Alliance also provided us with a trainer to help us sensitize children to the degenerative aging process so that we could bring them together with seniors and have them collaborate on stories and artwork.
When we had enough material, CFCA artists Stewart Stewart and Dena Stewart crafted the mural. They painted wood panels, hinged them in pairs, pasted stories, artwork, and photos on to the panels, wrote in quips, poems, words of wisdom and complaints. The 60 running foot, montage-style mural was awesome.
The mural and the video were debuted at a big event on Miami Beach. School officials, the Mayor of Miami Beach and several Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach commissioners, along with some of the project participants, local activists and friends, and newspaper and television media attended. The next day a feature story about the project appeared on the front page of the Miami Herald.
The Mural was then exhibited at a White House Conference on Aging. Simultaneously, CFCA artists Dena Stewart and Stewart Stewart facilitated a workshop at the National Learning Center’s Capital Children’s Museum with senior citizens and children from the District. A reporter from the Washington Post sat in and wrote a glowing story. After the White House Conference, the Mural was displayed at the Children’s Museum for several weeks, before being moved to the lobby of AARP headquarters, also in D.C. AARP’s Modern Maturity Magazine, which has a larger circulation than Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report, combined, did a feature story about the project.
We then got a call from the head of the Department of Elder Affairs for the City of Chicago. He wanted copies of our film to be used to train professional geriatric nurses.
After some downtime, we got to thinking about the project and our experiences while working on it. We met so many senior citizens, probably over 1,000. Some were crotchety, bitter, and ailing. But so many more were upbeat and inspirational. What did we learn from them?
As a baby boomer, the most valuable information I walked away with was that it is so very important to appreciate what you have, and if you aren’t happy with the way your life is going, then make the changes while you are still healthy, young and able to. And to Stop and Smell the Flowers.
“STOP AND SMELL THE FLOWERS” by Dena Stewart
When I went through my middle age, I thought about my past;
The things I did, and did again. How long would it all last?
I want my future to be bright; healthy and productive.
So I went straight to my grandma, who’s honest and constructive.
I knew she’d have the answers to alleviate my dread
of what it feels like to grow old. And this is what she said:
“We are placed on this earth to experience all;
to reach for the sky, to get up when we fall.
To love and to nurture, and many times, lose.
To know right from wrong and which path to choose.
The “golden years” is the time to reflect
and pass on old values, which youth will reject –
‘cause children have their time to learn and to hope,
and seniors have wisdom to help them to cope.
But you – in the middle – with passions and powers,
Stop now, and enjoy the scent of the flowers.
Exercise, eat right, to yourself, be true.
Commit to each moment and broaden your view.
Make changes where needed, accept what you face.
So when you’re a senior you’ll be one with grace.”
I promised myself I would heed his advice.
I would pace what I do, and to others be nice.
So when in my 90s I’m asked how I feel,
I could smile and say, “aging is no big deal.”