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A Penn State project helps young and old people talk — and cry — with each other

What would happen if you asked a young person and an old one to talk — really talk, with an open heart, about their fears, their assumptions, their hopes?

Andy Belser, a professor of movement, voice and acting at Penn State, stands with images from 'FaceAge,' his film project meant to foster communication between older and younger generations.
Andy Belser, a professor of movement, voice and acting at Penn State, stands with images from 'FaceAge,' his film project meant to foster communication between older and younger generations.Read moreCRAIG HOUTZ (custom credit)

What would happen if you asked a young person and an old one to talk — really talk, with open hearts, about their fears, their assumptions, their hopes — while perched nearly knee-to-knee, so physically close that one more inch would feel like an invasion of personal space? What would happen if you asked them to touch each other’s faces?

These are questions that Andy Belser, a Penn State performance professor who reads neuroscience books for fun, asked a few years ago. His curiosity led to an unusual documentary film, called FaceAge, that has been featured at such big meetings of aging experts as the World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics and LeadingAge’s conclave in Philadelphia this fall, at medical-school classrooms, student unions, and senior-housing complexes. It helps that ageism and intergenerational interaction are hot topics in aging circles.

Wherever it was shown, FaceAge viewers were so touched that now tissues are always on hand at screenings. Afterward, viewers often have wanted to talk to one another.

The film's success has spawned new projects. IGenCo, a State College-based company started by Greg Wolf, a Penn State grad who was CEO of Humana and a high-ranking Cigna executive, plans to use it to teach employees of different generations to talk more effectively. Bias against age, Wolf thinks, is the low-hanging fruit of office conflicts and can open the door to wider, more difficult discussions of race, gender and other differences.

Belser recently helmed a Chinese version of FaceAge to help people there navigate the caregiving crisis created by that nation’s one-child policy. Chinese companies are building senior housing, but the country has little history of institutional care for the aged. “You’re not selling real estate,” Belser said. “You’re selling life care. That’s just a hard thing to explain.”

He is also planning a course for undergrads based on the film for next fall, and he’s in talks about creating a new version featuring people with dementia and caregivers.

“Really, what we’re doing is helping people talk to each other,” Belser said. Conversation, he believes, is the best way to learn. “We need that kind of intimacy as a species. That has not changed in the last 50 years.”

Now 58 and on the cusp of older age himself, Belser, who founded and directs the Arts and Design Research Incubator at Penn State, wants to do more than traditional theater. He is drawn toward a multidisciplinary examination of aging, science and communication.

“Maybe this is my life’s work,” he said.

Belser, who grew up on a farm in Hershey, became more aware of aging about a dozen years ago, when his father died relatively young and unfulfilled. “I realized that it was possible to get to the end of your life and not do what you needed to do,” he said.

Documentary work became more interesting to him. While chair of theater at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Belser began thinking about the contrast between young people drawn to the coastal community and the city’s wealthy retirees, who sustained an aggressive plastic-surgery industry. A fellow professor was developing a computer program, meant primarily for forensic work, that predicted how young people would look later in life. Using Wilmington’s rich supply of filmmakers, Belser developed the pilot for FaceAge, a film he hoped would combat ageism and help older people feel more valued. A more polished and diverse version, featuring six pairs of older people (most in their 70s and 80s) and college students, was finished after Belser moved to Penn State. It premiered in fall 2016.

FaceAge is really three films, shown on three screens at once, with one soundtrack. The screens flicker with quick cuts that compete for attention, an effort to keeps viewers involved by forcing them to make choices about what to watch. The cameras focus on people talking, sometimes in extreme close-ups and sometimes from far enough away to see a whole body. Most participants are answering questions the audience hasn’t heard.

These are not your typical getting-to-know-you, small-talk questions, but questions designed to go deep: What do you think this person would say about you? What do you want others to see when they look at you? What do you hope they don’t see? What would you tell your younger or older self?

The pairs talk about youthful pictures of the old participants, and the students respond to digital versions of their older selves (not nearly as old as their partners). Some young folks find those pictures so horrifying that they cry. An old man says his last years have been the happiest of his life. One young man worries that elders judge him for his tattoos. Another fears they see his whole generation as lazy. They touch each other’s faces and describe what they feel. The young ones marvel at the softness of wrinkled skin. The older ones say they don’t experience touch often enough.

Part of what makes the documentary so moving in a screen-bound world is the rare, visceral shock of seeing what trusting, intimate, face-to-face conversation between strangers looks like.

There is no plot. FaceAge is impressionistic and inconclusive, an opportunity to inhabit a vulnerable space in your own way. Whether it combats ageism is open for debate. No one in the film, young or old, seems happy about physical signs of aging. A man in his 80s says he wishes people knew he still feels young inside. What is most striking is that young and old both feel insecure about their physical appearance, that both are kind and supportive in moments of real human connection that transcend age. The beauty of the questions is that they call for mature, emotionally brave answers, and the carefully chosen subjects do their best to deliver. The responses that viewers see are kind and curious, perhaps not 100 percent honest but also not patronizing.

Martin Sliwinski, who is director of the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State and will team-teach the course tied to the film, said it doesn’t have to make aging look good to combat ageism. It’s valuable just to model intergenerational communication and understanding.

“What we have to recognize is that, as we grow older, there are challenges we face and there are some things that aren’t great, but aging is also a universal experience,” Sliwinski said. He called FaceAge the “most impactful” work on aging he’d seen in 25 years.

Belser had assumed that FaceAge would appeal mostly to older people, but learned that young people were also drawn to it. He realized that most of them don’t see themselves as aging.

The young participants in the film said they saw a new humanity in older people. The old ones were surprised by how worried the college students were.

Diane Usher, now 75, was a new widow in North Carolina when she took part in the film as a way to keep busy. The retired government worker found it life-altering to answer Belser’s questions and listen to the others talk. She realized she was sure she didn’t want to marry again. She heard peers talking about their busy lives and thought it was time to do more with hers. The naïveté of the young people surprised her, but it helped her remember her own youthful idealism.

Following the film, Usher moved to Breinigsville, in the Lehigh Valley, to be near her daughter and three young-adult grandchildren. She had bariatric surgery and lost 120 pounds. She started exercising. When she is with her grandchildren now, she doesn’t tell them what to do. She listens. This, she said, is because of the film.

Belser said he would do some things differently now. A FaceAge section on memory uses old film snippets that are not of the participants. He thinks that was a mistake. The exercise in which people were asked to give advice to their younger or older selves through a two-way mirror with a camera on the other side was filmed without sound. No one expected it to be so powerful. It made nearly everyone cry. In the film, we don’t hear what they said.

Having heard all that serious talk changed Belser, too. He finds himself being more compassionate about people he would have judged before.

“Because I’ve asked so many people these questions,” he said, “I see people that maybe before I would have been a little more judgmental about, and I see fear.”