Face-to-Face with Aging

Funded in part by a University seed grant, FaceAge is making a mark at Penn State and beyond through new course offerings, community engagement opportunities, and workplace development training in industries spanning business and healthcare.

Seated in a dark room, among a few rows of audience members, and surrounded by three large flat screen TVs, viewers of the FaceAge experience are presented with unscripted, filmed interactions between young adults (18–22) and aging individuals (65 and above). The video, which is directed and produced by Andy Belser—2017–18 Penn State Laureate—offers a mix of camera angles, interwoven images of old photographs, and testimonials filmed through a two-way mirror that bring viewers face-to-face with subjects as they explore each other’s physical appearances, confront their vulnerabilities, and talk about getting old.

“Aging is something that everyone does, hopefully. It’s the goal and the fear. We all want to live a long life, but we don’t want what comes at the end of it.” —Andy Belser, director of the Arts and Design Research Incubator and producer of FaceAge

On the surface, FaceAge is an immersive video environment presenting a 56-minute loop of interconnected chapters built around these unscripted cross-generational encounters. Far beneath that surface and beyond the video program itself, FaceAge is an environment where the visual arts and science come together to confront the perceptions surrounding aging.

“Aging is something that everyone does, hopefully,” says Belser. “It’s the goal and the fear. We all want to live a long life, but we don’t want what comes at the end of it.”

Aging and Social Climate Change

The aging paradox is what lies at the heart of societal notions of aging, says Belser. The so-called “graying” of the population is accelerating, and according to the United States Census Bureau, it’s projected that by 2030, 1 in 5 people will be age 65 or older.

Martin Sliwinski, director of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging and partner on the FaceAge project, says that the growth is not just due to the general increase in the population—it is driven by the older segment of the population. Further information from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that there were about four million people 65 or older at the turn of the century. By 2000, the number increased to about 38 million.

The demographic shift in the age of the population is creating a broad range of challenges in the management of chronic health conditions, as well as in the workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 in 4 workers will be 55 or older by 2020.

“If you look at the statistics, it’s really mind-boggling,” says Sliwinski. “This is like social climate change and the fact is, we’re just not prepared. Not only in terms of our economic structure, healthcare, long-term care and disability management, but we’re also not prepared culturally.”

Belser explains that this lack of preparation stems from a society where there is little interaction between older and younger people. Outside of extended family, many young adults don’t interact with older people at all.

“There’s compelling research about the breakdown of the nuclear family that impacts the opportunity for younger and older people to interact,” says Belser. “Also, our communities aren’t set up to allow for this interaction. People are living longer, retiring later, so you have generational differences in the workplace. When people do retire, they then go to live in retirement communities. There isn’t any sort of sustained engagement among generations outside of volunteerism.”

Belser recognizes this as a trend based on the research he’s done for FaceAge, but his own personal experience interacting with those older than himself has added to this perspective.

Growing up on a farm in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Belser recalls being surrounded by extended family members who lived well into old age, including his grandfather whom he spent many days walking and talking with after doctors ordered him to get more exercise following a heart valve replacement. In college, Belser recalls being invited to join a bowling team with members of the rotary club, all of whom happened to be at least seventy-five years or older.

A young man and two older gentleman pose for a photo.

Three Generations

A young Andy Belser (left) poses with his father and grandfather. Growing up on a farm in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Belser recalls being surrounded by extended family who lived well into old age, including his grandfather.

IMAGE: Andy Belser

“It never felt odd to me to be around folks so much older than myself, but in that same way, I don’t see it as missionary work or that I have more empathy than the next person. It was just baked into my childhood.” —Andy Belser

“I have a history of what we’re trying to do with FaceAge,” says Belser. “It never felt odd to me to be around folks so much older than myself, but in that same way, I don’t see it as missionary work or that I have more empathy than the next person. It was just baked into my childhood.”

Belser recognizes not everyone has the same upbringing that he did, so he agrees that volunteering opportunities within elderly communities are important. However, he doesn’t see them as the be all, end all to addressing the generational gap.

“For younger people, FaceAge really tries to prime or instigate a kind of lifelong intergenerational impact,” says Belser. “Young people need mentors that can offer them a perspective that only comes from having lived. And older people can benefit from a feeling of purposefulness by staying engaged in their communities.”

Since its first installation at the HUB Robeson Center on the University Park campus in September 2016, FaceAge has traveled to most Penn State campuses as part of Belser’s Penn State Laureate tour. Other stops include Penn State College of Medicine, University of North Carolina Wilmington—where Belser first conceived of the idea—and retirement communities across the state. The installation was also presented at the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress in San Francisco.

The installation, which benefits from its mobility, will make its way to Leading Age’s National Annual Meeting and Expo in Philadelphia in October. The group, which includes more than 6,000 members and partners—non-profits, state partners, businesses, consumer groups, and research partners—is part of the Global Ageing Network spanning thirty countries across the globe.

“There’s a global interest,” says Belser. “FaceAge is becoming a tool to promote what healthy aging is and why healthy intergenerational connections are important, not only to organizations who work in aging and gerontology, but to businesses, corporations, human resources offices, and healthcare entities.”

“There’s a global interest. FaceAge is becoming a tool to promote what healthy aging is and why healthy intergenerational connections are important, not only to organizations who work in aging and gerontology, but to businesses, corporations, human resources offices, and healthcare entities.” —Andy Belser

A Penn State Project

Getting others to recognize the importance of FaceAge was a critical factor for Belser when he first brought the idea to Penn State after arriving in 2013. Belser, who is also a professor of movement, voice and acting in Penn State’s School of Theatre, had spent years reading and researching topics in contemporary neuroscience. When he filmed the FaceAge pilot while in his previous role at University of North Carolina Wilmington, his intention was for the video to have legs far beyond an installation at a museum or gallery space. When he got to Penn State, he knew he would need the support of varying fields of expertise in order for FaceAge to reach its full potential and scope.

“Penn State is about trying to mobilize different constituents and sets of expertise around universal problems,” he says. “It’s encoded in our strategic plan. Our leadership gets that it requires people who think across disciplines to truly address complex problem-solving. And aging is just one of those issues that naturally crosses the boundary lines.”

Sliwinski and the Center for Healthy Aging became an important partner for Belser as he began to consider ways in which to bring FaceAge to other parts of the University.

“I remember grabbing coffee with Andy at the suggestion of one of my department heads,” recalls Sliwinski, who is also a professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. “Over the course of conversations and just the way he was able to bring it to life, I could tell something was there; not just because I do research in aging, but because I could see the potential for the experience to have a significant impact. One chapter of FaceAge covers in a few minutes what I might spend an entire semester teaching.”

A strategic partnership grew from there. The project and first working prototype grew out of the ADRI with help from the College of Arts and Architecture, the College of Health and Human Development, and the College of Nursing.

As a core partner of FaceAge, the Center for Healthy Aging enlisted the expertise of assistant research professor Amy Lorek to spur FaceAge’s connection to the community. Lorek, who began her career as a museum educator and interpreter, works to create opportunities for undergraduate students at Penn State and older community members to learn from one another.

One such opportunity was the development of a new undergraduate course offering that launched this past spring. HDFS 497, Perspectives on Aging is an eight-week course in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies that brings together students and adults aged 50 and older through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) to interact through facilitated conversation. Course participants work together to explore childhood memories, well-being, and intergenerational topics like what defines “millennials” and “baby boomers.”

“The older adults were surprised by the students’ ability to be vulnerable, which in turn, left them feeling like they had something to offer. To be a reassurance or a guide, to speak from their lived experience.” —Amy Lorek, assistant research professor, Penn State Center for Healthy Aging 

“We use a lot of techniques that Andy introduced in the FaceAge video installation,” says Lorek, “like sitting next to each other. Sharing things at a progressively deeper level and asking to engage at a level in which they’re comfortable. We’re giving them an opportunity to dive deeper.”

While Lorek wasn’t surprised to find that her undergraduate students and older participants were enthusiastic and engaged in the course material, she didn’t expect anecdotal feedback found in course evaluations from the older adults about the vulnerability expressed by the students.

“They said that the students expressed anxiety over the future,” says Lorek. “The older adults were surprised by the students’ ability to be vulnerable, which in turn, left them feeling like they had something to offer. To be a reassurance or a guide, to speak from their lived experience.”

The FaceAge Experience

Andy Belser, director of Penn State’s Arts and Design Research Incubator, describes the impact of the FaceAge experience through the perspective of David, one of the film’s participants who despite being near the end of his life at the time of filming, was happy.

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“We’re not trying to tell people the content of aging. We’re trying to get them to experience vulnerability in an embodied way. That’s why FaceAge has made an impact." —Andy Belser

For Belser, this finding speaks to FaceAge’s format and the advantage of using film to address scientific topics.

“FaceAge is not content delivery, it’s experience delivery,” says Belser. “We’re not trying to tell people the content of aging. We’re trying to get them to experience vulnerability in an embodied way. That’s why FaceAge has made an impact."

Taking FaceAge Beyond Penn State

This learning environment is one that the FaceAge team is finding can be extended to additional course offerings at Penn State and beyond. A recent University seed grant will fund curriculum development and the establishment of the FaceAge Studio to allow for further integration across disciplines and through Penn State’s campuses.

“We’re looking to offer a variety of disciplines the chance to dabble in the FaceAge experience,” says Lorek. “We know FaceAge is relevant at this moment in time because it embraces the idea of connecting with others, not only about aging but about difference—life experience, perspective, race, gender, economic status. It’s about giving students, and really anyone who engages with it, the chance to understand more about themselves and about others using aging as a way to get there.”

Belser and the FaceAge team have also begun work in distributing the experience beyond campus. A recent partnership with Penn State alumnus and former Humana CEO Gregory Wolf has opened doorways for distribution at a national and global level.

“Through the support of partners like Greg and the continued support of the University, we truly have the chance to change our culture with FaceAge,” says Sliwinski, who acknowledges that although the best ideas often happen by chance, having a university culture that is willing and ready to support good ideas makes a difference.

For more information about FaceAge, including upcoming events, programming, and hosting the installation, visit adri.psu.edu/project/faceage.