Retirement village residents share tales with school students in digital storytelling project

Neville Brown grew up in an era when children were seen and not heard.

So, when the call went out to residents of the Westhaven Retirement Village to be a part of a digital storytelling project with students at Plainland’s Faith Lutheran College, the 88-year-old thought it was a wonderful idea.

“I understood that gap between the oldies and the youngies, so I said yes, I’d really like to be in that — whatever it’s going to take,” Mr Brown said.

The project, run by the Bolton Clarke Research Institute, stems from an intergenerational care project similar to the one made famous by the ABC TV show Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds.

The premise works by matching residents from the care facility with students who share similar interests and passions.

Mr Brown said his conversations with his five new “buddies” had a profound impact on him.

“I was blown away by their maturity at 13, their self-esteem, and self-motivation too.”

Meanwhile, his year 7 students were left both horrified and confused when it came to tales of his own school life — from being “tapped” on his fingers with a piece of bamboo for misbehaviour and how he learnt to write.

“They do their school work on a computer, so when I told them I did mine on a slate and a blackboard, they couldn’t quite get it.”

It wasn’t long, though, before Mr Brown managed to impress his new-found audience when he began sharing the swag of skills he had acquired at an age when many others were starting to slow down.

“I was 47 when I learnt ice skating, I had a skating partner, and after four years, there were 10 dances we could do on ice.”

Not limiting himself to fancy footwork Mr Brown has also hit a high note with students with his artistic abilities.

“I’m doing mostly acrylic [paintings] but a little bit of watercolour as well,” he explained.

Bridging the gap
The success of the project has been evident from the impact Mr Brown’s stories have had on his young audience.

Year 7 student Jacob Sippell said spending time with Mr Brown provided insightful tips on how to live life.

“You take your time and do what you love, and you don’t rush your time here because you don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s always a surprise around the bend.”

For Darcy Keys, Mr Brown’s memories of the changing decades imparted the importance of having resilience.

“Somehow, he still managed to get through it. He went through lots of hard times, but he didn’t give up, and he encouraged me to not give up.”

Fellow classmate Claire Hopper said her takeaway from the experience was learning there was real value in earning your own living.

“I think it would have been rewarding because everything wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter, and he had to work hard to achieve what he has become today.”

But perhaps most importantly, the whole point of the project can be summed up by 11-year-old Alice De May, who, despite a considerable age gap with her mentor, now knows there is no age barrier when it comes to doing the things you love.

“I learned that no matter how old you are, you’ve got to give it a shot. Neville was 40 when he started ice skating and about 50 when he started horse riding.”

Bringing the ages together
The value of bringing young people and older people together to share stories was cemented about halfway through the first meeting between 25 Westhaven residents and 160 Faith Lutheran College students.

Bolton Clarke Research Institute research fellow Xanthe Golenko said the project had never been done on that scale before, and the project leaders had feared there were too many people for it to work.

“But they came together. It was really magical,” Ms Golenko recalled.

Ms Golenko said even though intergenerational projects have been her focus for a long time, she was still amazed at the magic that happened when you brought different generations together.

“I think the power of storytelling is just so incredible. It’s not just dates and events. You’re face to face with somebody telling you what it was like to actually live through that period. It brings that story to life,” she said.

The project has produced 29 digital stories on a plethora of different topics.

Some of them focus mainly on the older person with a reflection and reaction from one or two students, while others compare aspects of life now to what they were like in the older person’s youth.

While the process was designed to benefit both the younger and older people taking part, it also had unexpected benefits for those who see and hear the stories.

“When we were starting on this project, some of the older adults said even watching other people’s stories had helped them deal with things in their own lives that had burdened them for years,” Ms Golenko said.

Looking ahead
Her vision now is for Bolton Clarke to form partnerships between other aged care homes and retirement villages across its network and schools in their respective regions.

“It’s something I would love to see embedded in school curriculums and become part of the way care is delivered,” she said.

For Neville Brown, the end of the project taught him the realisation the way young people are portrayed in the media isn’t the whole story, and their voices have as much right to be heard as everyone else.

“With a school like this bringing up these children, they’re kind, they’re humble, and they have creativity and courage. If there’s more of these types of schools and children around, our little Australia is in good hands,” she said.