Building Bridges in a Virtual World

November 12, 2015
Laura Beck, The Eden Alternative



This article originally ran in the July / August 2014 edition of PS Magazine: The Era of New Technology on p.22.

It’s 8:00 a.m. I pop open my laptop and begin my morning ritual of checking my email inbox. Here I am again, communing with the virtual world, instead of the real world. As I’m thinking that there’s just no heart in all of this technology, something, well, cracks open my heart. Buried amidst thirty unopened messages is a little gem, something “sweet” that the sender thinks I “will enjoy.” I click on the embedded link, and a video begins to play. The opening shot takes me to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Students learning English are sitting down to enjoy the company of elders living at a Chicago-based retirement community – via video conferencing. Within 3 1/2 minutes, I am a weepy wreck, in a good way – so much for my theory about the heartless nature of technology. These interactions are genuine, heartfelt, and deeply connected. As this little vignette unfolds, it’s clear that everyone is winning here. There is giving and receiving for all involved alive in every moment. People from two very different worlds, generations apart, could not seem closer.

The concept is strikingly simple. A branch of the Brazilian based language school CNA wanted to make the process of learning a second language “more real” for their students by helping them to build meaningful, online relationships with American elders. Through Speaking Exchange, students are able to log into the program, connect visually with an elder online, and begin to chat in real time. The process is initially guided by suggestions for topics to discuss, but space is made for the conversation to evolve more freely. After the virtual visit ends, a video of the conversation is uploaded to a private YouTube channel for review by the instructors.

As I watch, clearly, language isn’t the only thing being exchanged here – so is the gift of wisdom. While the elders provide insight in the form of a life lived, the youth offer the gift of promise, hope, and dreams of a better future. This precious balance of giving and receiving across generations is essential to shifting paradigms about aging. Technology – only moments earlier my nemesis – has now transformed into a powerful tool for dissolving ageism.

No matter how old we are, we all need to know we have something to offer, that we are valued and appreciated, that our voices count. The Eden Alternative philosophy teaches that the three plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom exist, in part, due to ageism. When people resort to snap judgments, don’t take the time to know us well as individuals, and write us off as either “too young” or “too old,” we never have the opportunity to share our talents, our gifts, or our generosity. Pigeon-holed by our age, we become ripe for boredom. Technology, often dismissed as impersonal, can actually offer some very personal solutions to this dilemma. By creating opportunities for connection where none previously existed, it can build bridges of understanding between the young and old.

Nathan York discovered this at the age of 7, when he met his 108 year-old friend, Mamie. Sensitive to Mamie’s blindness, Nathan sought clever ways to stay in constant contact with her. Using the adaptive technology system developed by his father through It’s Never 2 Late, Nathan sent daily audio emails to Mamie between visits. With a little support, she was able to send audio emails in response. Nathan credits Mamie with painting him a picture of life in the early 1900s, teaching him to “love his little sister when she wasn’t easy to love,” and just making him feel like a better person. In a tender video message, Mamie captures the impact that Nathan’s friendship has had on her life. “He’s a wonderful little boy,” she shares, “and if I’ve been any influence of the better for him, it’s worth all of the years that the Lord has given me.”

Mamie’s words remind me that every effort made to weave Elders back into the social fabric of our communities – even a relationship at a time – is another step toward creating a vision of elderhood as a valued phase of human development. This is equally vital for Elders who live with different abilities.

Art to Life, an art therapy/life story preservation initiative sponsored by Cognitive Dynamics, focuses on building relationships between University of Alabama students and elders who live with Alzheimer’s disease. Through creative self-expression, elder participants reveal who they are and stories of where they’ve been. Art to Life recently partnered with LifeBio, a virtual life story platform, to support the natural unfolding of these intergenerational relationships. Using LifeBio Studio, a video recording app, the students can now document sessions with their elder partners in a manner that allows them to be fully in the moment with them. The unstructured nature of the interactions taps modes of communication and expression that may not typically arise. The students then upload the videos directly from their smartphones into an online story template that seamlessly produces a 20-plus page personal biography of the elder. Working in teams, the students draw on their interactions with the Elders to refine and enrich the life stories. Ironically, through the speed and ease of technology, the students are able to slow down and simply “be.” Blending the technological savvy of youth with the timeless presence of an older person, the project’s sum is greater than its parts.

I sit here with my laptop open, humbled. Yes, technology can be cold, disengaging, soulless, and isolating. But it can also warm, enlighten, move, and unite us. Such is our paradoxical world, where anything is possible.

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