Students share transitions with elders

Students and seniors.

From left, student Brandon Vuong, Kevin Johnson, student Sofonias Shiferaw and Sue Simpson, Johnson's sister-in-law, at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

Marc Studer photo

By Douglas Esser
First-year college students and older adults who are starting to experience memory loss have something in common. Both are in a transition phase of their lives.

Students from the University of Washington Bothell and people who are receiving care for memory loss shared their different transition experiences in a program at the Edmonds Center for the Arts called Making Art Together.

Students on stage.

Students on stage.

Marc Studer

It was an opportunity for students to find community with people they wouldn’t normally meet, said Deborah Hathaway, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences.

“We’re really old, and the students are really young, but we both feel the same when we’re up on stage,” one woman at the center said.

The program was a series of generation-bridging workshops that culminated in a performance Dec. 2 on the center’s stage before an audience of the elders’ friends and family members.

Discovering life connections

Deborah Hathaway directing students.

Deborah Hathaway gives students some last-minute direction.

Marc Studer

Hathaway teaches a course called Words, Voice, Movement: Reimagining Performance. Part of the interdisciplinary Discovery Core for first quarter, first-year students, the class mixes creative writing and performance.

“The way I teach theater is more about finding the skills and opportunities for growth rather than on how to become an actor,” she said. “It’s more about how this is going to help you in your life, in your career.”

Deborah Hathaway

Deborah Hathaway

Marc Studer

Hathaway has been teaching the course since 2014. This autumn was the first time she has partnered students with elders. In the workshops, the generations listened to each other and found an unexpected commonality, Hathaway said.

“That’s an amazing moment of growth outside of the confines of a class — just to be able to connect with someone in a meaningful way and see beyond stereotypes what it means to be old or have memory loss,” she said.

Making it happen

Edmonds Center for the Arts

Edmonds Center for the Arts

Marc Studer

The idea for some kind of collaboration between UW Bothell and the arts center came from Ann McMahon, who works in the UW Bothell’s Office of Research and also serves on the center’s board of directors. Then, Kara Adams, UW Bothell’s director of community engagement, introduced Hathaway to Gillian Jones, the center’s director of programming.

Hathaway and Jones then partnered with Silver Kite Community Arts, a Seattle company that facilitates intergenerational experiences, to design workshops under the theme “new beginnings.”

The 30 students and 15 elders and caregivers were organized in small groups of about four students and two elders each for simple exercises. In one, the elders talked about collages they made from magazine pictures and what the images meant. In another, they passed around a small car and told a progressive story. The first person says something like, “Today, this little car went to Idaho” and hands it to the next person who adds to the car’s story.

“There was a lot of laughter and good conversation happening,” said Hathaway.

Added Jen Kulik, Silver Kite’s chief executive, it was a “magical experience.”

Having an impact

Seniors on stage.

Seniors on stage.

Marc Studer

At the final workshop, the elders and caregivers gave a reading about the “intimidating but exhilarating” experience, shared a poem and sang the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.” For their part, the students gathered in eight groups to put on 3-minute skits about topics such as the awkwardness of making new friends in college, fear of failure, managing expectations and keeping in touch with family.

Jones, the center’s programming director, said Making Art Together exceeded her expectations.

Gillian Jones

Gillian Jones

Marc Studer

“To have the seniors living with memory loss and caregivers in the program have an opportunity to interact with young people in the way they have — and to really see there are some similarities in what each of the groups is going through, in terms of having a new stage of life — that has been really rewarding,” Jones said. “We’ve gotten great feedback from the participants about the impact.”

One of the participants in the program, Kevin Johnson, who was guided by sister-in-law Sue Simpson, said that he hasn’t done anything like it before but would do it again, calling it a “great” experience.

Changing perspectives

UW Bothell students also said the workshops expanded their perspective.

“The elders told me to be more outgoing and take more risks and do more things,” said Brandon Vuong, who said he tends to be introverted.

Sofonias Shiferaw said the course gave him hope for the future.

“I’m going to enjoy my time when I’m old,” said Shiferaw. “It opened my eyes to try new things. This whole class in general was out of my comfort zone.”

For Hathaway, the best part may have been seeing her students on the center’s stage.

“It was cool to see both parties challenged and sharing something meaningful.”

 


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