"I don't know who I am anymore. I feel like I've lost my identity." Part of a caption under a photograph taken by a senior profiled by Santa Cruz artist Gina Orlando for the exhibit We're Still Here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (Courtesy of Gina Orlando)
With the holidays behind us, what’s your plan to stay in touch with the seniors in your family? Do you have a plan?
Before you answer, make a plan to visit We're Still Here at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History through January 12. It's not an easy set of stories to confront, but there's no more important set of stories to hear, in terms of confronting the quality of our collective humanity, or lack thereof.
We’re Still Here: Stories of Seniors and Social Isolation is the result of months of collaboration with seniors in Santa Cruz County. The artists who contributed did so after pitching and refining projects with a committee of 186 seniors and advocates. A similar approach worked to moving effect at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in 2017 with the exhibition Lost Childhoods.
As a result, We’re Still Here sets front and center photographs seniors took themselves, as well as stories they told about themselves. The artists essentially served as conduits to deliver a compelling, urgent argument to respond with compassion to the growing number of senior citizens in our midst.
Santa Cruz artist Gina Orlando loaned cameras to seven local seniors, ages 60 to 86, to share their daily experiences with social isolation. "Viewers really get an inside look at the personal life of a senior," Orlando said.
The result in each case was a black and white profile Orlando produced, set alongside a collage of six smaller, color photos produced by the profile subject. Underneath each photo, a short caption describes various causes of isolation.
There is often more than one cause. Maybe expensive medical problems are leading to tight times financially, and it's just too expensive to go out for anything like meals or entertainment with friends. Maybe most or all of their close friends and family have died. Maybe family members are still alive, but too distant geographically (or emotionally) to provide much support.
Think about that as you reflect on the fact that, according to state projections, more than 20 percent of the state’s residents will be seniors within this coming decade. That's right: by 2030, more than nine million Californians will be over the age of 65.
Orlando said she interviewed many more than the individuals she ended up profiling for the exhibition. In particular, she was struck by how many people she talked to who felt abandoned by their children, but afraid to alienate them further by going public with their grief. "It was just heartbreaking to hear these stories about, you know, getting fancy gifts [for holidays or birthdays] and feeling like that was going to be 'enough to keep mom quiet for the year.' That's how they took it. It's really tragic."
Santa Cruz artist Wes Modes had a different experience, in part because local senior support organizations put him in touch with active, well-connected people.
"A lot of the people I talked to were not particularly isolated themselves, but had lots to say about how to stay engaged. And those that found ways to be of service in some way were the people who seemed the happiest, and the most vital," he said.
This reporter can confirm that the most mutually satisfying conversations with elders often involve a request for help. What was that recipe again? How would you resolve this situation I'm facing at work? Could you help me reach out to this mutual friend in need?
In the exhibit, you can pick up a phone on the wall to hear audio recordings of people like Kathy Cowan, an English instructor at Cabrillo College. She told Modes, "I have several students in their 40s and 50s now who have been so kind. They come and visit me or take me to lunch. You know, they still care about me."
Modes said a lot of the people he talked to found solidarity and community with other seniors, as well as family and people they used to work with or for.
"Seniors can be a light for what's coming ahead," Bonnie Brenwhite told him. "We show all these qualities that you don't always have in your youth, like resiliency and a form of leadership that's based on overcoming things."
As you walk out of the exhibition, the last wall offers visitors 45 ideas printed on small business cards, ranging from "Share your home with an older adult," to "Volunteer at an LGBTQ Senior Luncheon." You probably don't need an action card to remind you of more basic strategies, like picking up the phone and calling your mother.
But Modes takes issue with the idea that personal effort alone, whether from friends, family or strangers, will significantly improve the lives of lonely seniors in our society. Not when we're so obsessed with defining people based on their job titles and financial wherewithal, or lack thereof.
"We should absolutely connect with those people in our lives who are elders. But at the same time, we should work to change a system that prioritizes people based on how productive they are. I think that we can start broadening our concept of what's useful, who's useful. Maybe we need to look harder at a system that monetizes human value," he argued.
It's an idea worth spreading. After January 12th, We’re Still Here heads out on tour to Marin, Sonoma, and San Francisco Counties.
We're Still Here: Stories of Seniors and Social Isolation runs through January 12, 2020 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Seniors get in free, of course. For more info, click here.
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