Through A Generational Lens

How photography brings together teens and older adults to share their passions

The older adults gathered in the sunny reception room on a Saturday afternoon, some entering on their own, a few gripping walkers, a handful in wheelchairs. Soon the enthusiastic high school students joined them, bringing homemade corsages and boutonnieres for their new friends.

The two generations came together to celebrate a unique photography exhibition at Woodbury Senior Living in Woodbury, Minn., a continuing care campus offering traditional care, rehabilitation, assisted living and memory care. A myriad of photos of the older adults, taken by the high school students during a previous meeting, adorned the walls of the senior living residence.

“One day last fall, I posed a ‘question of the day’ to the residents: What kind of art do you prefer? The majority mentioned photography,” said Chad Worner, a certified music therapist at Woodbury Senior Living. “So I reached out to AP art teacher Chris Dease at Woodbury Senior High School, which happens to be next door to our residence, about the possibility of having her students display some of their photography for us.”

Stars of the Photography Show    

“When Chad approached me with his idea I thought that was great, but I decided it could be more interesting for the students to take photos of the residents and then have an art show that the older adults were the ‘stars’ of,” said Dease. “The experience would offer the opportunity for the students to get to know the older adults and interact with them, and in return, the older adults would get to know our students.”

Worner made a list of what he saw as passions in each of the older adults. At the high school, the students studied what they found out and then chose their photography model. Not long after, the students paid a visit to the residence.

‘I Made a New Friend’

Senior Kate Johnson jumped on the chance to participate in the intergenerational photography project. “I was excited because I hadn’t really gone out into the public and taken pictures, so I knew it would be a different experience,” Johnson said. “I was also nervous to meet my elder, Ardy.”

Ardy Luconic’s passion is art. She welcomed Johnson with open arms and a big hug, sharing what kind of art she likes to make — pen and ink drawing and watercolor painting.

“Ardy’s art lines her walls and it’s just amazing,” Johnson said. “She wanted to know about the art I do. I told her I like ceramics the best, and she showed me some of her clay and porcelain work, which was also amazing. I sat next to her on her couch and she put her arm around me. It felt good to be there. I made a new friend.”

Luconic enjoyed talking about art with Johnson. “I’ve loved to draw since I was a little girl; I always had a pencil and pad with me,” Luconic said. “We didn’t have art classes in high school, but I was the art editor of the yearbook and did all the drawings. Every Christmas, I’d ask my husband for paints. Then when I was 59 years old, I joined an art club in northern Minnesota; one technique I learned with pen and ink is to go back in and add a watercolor wash.”

The meeting between the generations and the photo sessions has been a positive experience. “Kate looked pretty shy when she walked in, and we sat down together and got along just fine,” said Luconic. “She was very sweet. I hope her world is good to her.”

Credit: Kate Johnson
“A Century of Music”

Keeping Passions Alive

When older adults move into a senior living facility, they must downsize everything, said Margaret Wachholz, campus marketing director at Woodbury Senior Living. “Many residents spend more than half of their lives collecting belongings, building memories, working jobs, growing their families, experiencing travel, and the second half of their lives they spend giving things away, letting go. This can be tough — and also freeing — but it’s a transition.”

Making connections and giving residents that sense of belonging to a community is a priority at Woodbury Senior Living. “We get to know each and every resident intimately,” Wachholz said. “Great care must be given to listening to their stories and their lives, and that includes knowing their passions.”

One of Verna Toso’s passions was her involvement with the VFW Auxiliary. “I picked Verna because I was part of Girls State (sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary), and I wanted to learn about her VFW service,” said senior Mairin Barrett.

During their visit, Toso opened her hope chest and pulled out a large scrapbook from the year she served as president of the VFW Auxiliary. “There were photos from different events that Verna helped run as well as letters from First Lady Barbara Bush and a congressman,” said Barrett. “She also shared albums of her family; it was particularly fun to photograph her as she talked about her sons and her husband.”

Toso enjoyed her time with the young photographer. “Mairin would ask me questions and I would tell her the things that were important to me,” Toso said. “It made me feel good that students are interested in what happened in the past. We got along so beautifully. Our country is in good hands with young people like that.”

Building Relationships

After viewing the students’ photos at the exhibition, each older adult sat side-by-side with their student photographer, enjoying refreshments and engaging in lively conversation. It was obvious that the students were much more comfortable with the older adults this time around, with special friendships formed from the photography experience.

The photos will remain on display until the end of the school year, when the students will return to give the photos to their new friends for keepsakes.

“The students volunteered to take the photos for the project; it wasn’t a scored class assignment,” Dease said. “An evolving surprise is the interaction with the students and the models, and what they have learned about each other. It’s wonderful to see.”

By Debbie Musser
Debbie Musser is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys digging in and researching health topics. She most recently was editor of Woodbury Magazine in Woodbury, Minn., where she resides, following a 25-year career in public relations and corporate communications in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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