May 16, 2012

Journalism Class Documents Lives & Stories of Hampton Roads Elders

(Newport News, Va.) - Love, loneliness and song all were on the minds of Hampton Roads elders whose stories Christopher Newport University journalism students documented in recent months.

Grow in love. Don’t fall in love, one elder advised.

“I really miss him," a widow said of her late husband. “I would go anywhere and do anything to get him back.”

Another said, “See, I’m 77 years old, so I sing while I got a chance."

Their videos and stories have just been published online in The Wisdom of Age Project / Hampton Roads.

Students fanned out from Hampton to Williamsburg, spending three months regularly visiting elders in their homes, at a daycare center and even along railroad tracks, where one man helps out homeless people. Each student worked with one elder or one couple.

“Our goal is to challenge ageist stereotypes,” says Dr. Terry Lee, the CNU professor who began the project three years ago. “We spend time getting to know elders, hearing their stories. Spending time and listening are the keys. We learn that elders have complicated lives like everyone else, and that they can be happy and eager to learn themselves.”

Stereotypes about elders — that they are simply financial burdens, that they have no zest for life, that they are boring — evaporate once students visit their elder a few times.

One student documenting the stories of a retired mental health worker learned a lot. “Spiritual Existence,” “Life at Its Most Elemental” and “Don’t Fall in Love With Me!” are the titles of three of the eight films she produced.

Stories of Vietnam, Egypt and the seas are documented by another student who spent time with a retired U.S. Navy captain. “You know, a lot of people in my family really do not recognize what I did in the past while I was in the military,” the captain told her.

Several elders expressed their thanks not only for providing family stories to share and pass on, but for the experience of “reaching back into the past to remember all of those good (and bad) times,” as one elder reported. Another elder wrote about his experience, “She caused a wonderful adventure for each of us, for which I will always be grateful.”

Lee has taught the course three times and will teach it again next spring semester. “For me, documentary work of this nature is of a high moral order. Students become part of their elder subject’s life, coming to appreciate both their joys and their struggles. Then the tough work begins, because framing one’s life in a short video or narrative, I assure you, is not easy.”

Lee said students also learn some tough life lessons. Three years ago, the wife of one student team’s elder died early in the project. “The whole class was upset,” Lee says. “Should the students continue their project with the bereaved husband? Were they intruding? There were mixed feelings, and the two students documenting his story were at an impasse. So I said, ‘Why don’t you ask him?’ They did, and he wanted more than ever for them to do the project.”

The students did. They attended his wife’s funeral service, and they still visit him, Lee says. (That film, "Where's Jesse?" is online. View it here.)

Videos and narratives in The Wisdom of Age Project are available online at www.wisdomofageproject.org/hr.

A four-year public university in Newport News, Virginia, Christopher Newport University enrolls 5,000 students in rigorous academic programs in the liberal arts and sciences through the College of Arts and Humanities, the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, and the College of Social Sciences, including the Luter School of Business. CNU offers great teaching and small class sizes with an emphasis on leadership, civic engagement and honor.

Media Contact:
Lori Jacobs
Director of Public Relations
lori.jacobs@cnu.edu

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