'FaceAge' multimedia installation gives researchers chance to address ageism

Caroline McDermott, Ph.D. candidate in nursing, conducts an interview with a student after she viewed the FaceAge multimedia installation. Credit: Penn State College of Nursing / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It’s virtually impossible today to find a magazine photo that has not been altered in some way, to make the person in the photo look younger, smaller … better. When confronted with these “perfect” images, we feel pressure not to age, or to at least age without acquiring too many wrinkles or crow’s feet. The FaceAge multimedia installation, on display at the HUB-Robeson Center through Dec. 9, is trying to change those negative attitudes about aging by revealing interactions between young and old in an honest, un-altered fashion.

Geriatric nursing expert Donna Fick, the Elouise Ross Eberly Professor College of Nursing and director of the Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence at Penn State, said the installation — which features continuous video of interactions between younger and older generations — offers a “real” look at our attitudes regarding aging, without filters or biases.

“I think social media fuels at least some of the barriers to communication between generations, and this installation uses different types of media to help communicate some of our emotions and attitudes about aging,” she explained. “Young and old can watch the installation and see generations interacting and hopefully better understand each other in a way that is honest, real, and not ‘Photoshopped.’”

Penn State’s College of Nursing is the lead research partner in FaceAge, using the project to further research on perceptions of aging across generations. According to Fick, FaceAge is synergistic with the goals of the college and Hartford Center. “We are interested in ageism and changing attitudes related to aging, and FaceAge has the potential to change attitudes,” she said.

Caroline McDermott, Ph.D. candidate in nursing, has helped to lead the College of Nursing’s involvement in FaceAge and recently completed a series of interviews with students after they viewed the installation.

“As a research team, our goals are to 1) comprehensively evaluate the FaceAge experience; 2) gain a deeper understanding of younger adults’ attitudes toward aging and older adults; and 3) determine if the installation experience has an impact on younger adults’ perceptions of aging and older adults,” explained McDermott, a registered nurse and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar.

According to Fick, the College of Nursing’s involvement in the project will allow scholars in the field of gerontology to reach new audiences. “I think together we bring added value to the project and to research. The project engages the senses and the mind to think critically about aging on a very personal level for both the young and the old,” she explained. “FaceAge has the potential to help individuals and groups understand how they think about aging and ultimately reframe our attitudes and understanding of getting older from an intergenerational perspective.”

McDermott agrees, noting the installation contributes to people’s perceptions of aging simply by starting a dialogue about an often-taboo topic.

FaceAge breaks down this barrier and gets at the heart of shared human experience and how relating to others despite age barriers can deepen our understanding of aging and promote a more positive view of not only aging, but older adults," she said.

Andrew Belser, professor of theatre and director of the Arts & Design Research Incubator (ADRI) in the College of Arts and Architecture, is the director of FaceAge. He started the project while a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and, when he came to Penn State in 2013, enlisted the help of both the College of Nursing and the Center for Healthy Aging in the College of Health and Human Development. In addition to the individual interviews conducted by the College of Nursing, outreach events have provided opportunities for viewers to reflect on and share their FaceAge experience during “story circles.”

According to Belser, FaceAge is a model for transdisciplinary arts research, offering a timely case study for examining and exploring innovative ways in which third-space collaborations — particularly in arts and health — can be extended into the sphere of public engagement, with measurable outcomes and impacts.

“In addition to being ready to tour to museums, universities and other first-rate arts venues, FaceAge is a platform around which community engagement and research have grown the project’s reach immeasurably," said Belser. "Penn State and the Arts & Design Research Incubator are now gaining national attention as an innovative and highly visible model for how the arts can be the leading partner in a large research institution.”

McDermott said she and her fellow researchers will look in-depth at their data to not only determine the installation’s impact, but also gain a better understanding of participants’ subjective experience with the installation.

“We will also address how FaceAge can be utilized as an intervention to impact people’s attitudes and beliefs [about aging], along with how this might affect their daily lives — the way they view aging and older adults, and how they interact with older adults," said McDermott.

FaceAge is open 11 a.m.–6 p.m. weekdays, through Dec. 9, in the HUB-Robeson Center’s Art Alley. For more information, visit

Last Updated July 28, 2017