Lehman study breaks stereotypes about age

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Age is nothing but a number. At least that’s what a collaborative study between two Lehman College professors has revealed.

“Through the Lens of Age” is the name of a research project exploring the lives of older adults over the age of 65 involved in some form of art and creative expression. The project features residents from the Riverdale and Kingsbridge area. 

It all started when Justine McGovern, a professor of social work, found out the City University of New York was looking for proposals for interdisciplinary research ideas. With an idea in mind about ageism and how to increase a student’s interest in working with older adults, she teamed up with Dave Schwittek, a professor in the art department, to marry two concepts: art and older adults.

During the 2016 fall semester, McGovern paired 25 undergraduate students with 25 senior citizens to sit down for an interview, spend time together, and take photographs of one another. 

At first, McGovern said many of the students resisted the concept of the project, and even told her they considered dropping the class. 

“This is a huge leap for the students at Lehman College,” she said. 

But by the time the end of the semester rolled around and they were gearing up to present their work, McGovern’s conversations with her students changed. They came up to her to tell her that they were happy with the outcome and didn’t know they were capable of completing this kind of work. One student even said the project made them feel smarter. 

For McGovern, the best part of teaching the course was giving her students the autonomy to learn to do academic research. Many of these students happened to be immigrants or first-generation college students.

“The real discovery was how empowering this project could be for students who are not usually given this kind of opportunity,” she said. “It blew my mind, and I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it. It was really moving.” 

In Schwittek’s eyes, he saw how the students’ relationships with the adults were making progress toward negative perceptions of age.

“I think they learned to value the elderly a little bit more,” he said. “They learned to see age as more of a social construct.” 

With a partnership from The Riverdale Y and CUNY, and inspired by what he saw from the undergraduates, Schwittek set out to extend “Through the Lens of Age” with a portrait series of older adults he observed and spoke to at The Riverdale Y. 

In observing them, Schwittek found that he was covering a spectrum of artists. Some had spent their whole lives building a career around this particular passion, while others had just picked it up recently and were learning how to immerse themselves in their work. 

“Age and aging is really a time-based thing,” he said. “But being an artist, you transcend all that, and it’s incredibly valuable for any human who’s aging, as we all are.

“I think it could benefit everybody to be able to think more creative in regards to aging.”

While doing this, he also learned how being bored or having limited capabilities are two misconceptions as to why older adults pick up new hobbies later in life.

“It’s a lot more complex than that,” Schwittek said. “The reasons for doing it are not so monolithic. They’re doing it to challenge themselves, to be around other people. But not necessarily have to talk, which I find very interesting and very atypical. Definitely very different than what I was thinking.” 

Looking ahead to what’s in store for “Through the Lens of Age,” Schwittek will take part in a virtual presentation during the International Conference on the Arts in Society at The American University of Paris in June and is looking to exhibit his photos in the future.

And when it comes to the pedagogical side of things, McGovern hopes to work with Schwittek again. But in her eyes, nothing will compare to the experience she had this past year.

“No matter what the rest of my career at Lehman holds for me, this will have been a transformative event in terms of how I think about what’s possible in this environment and with these students,” she said. “And you don’t often get that experience. So I’m very grateful for it.” 

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