Social isolation and technology trouble are often associated with elders, but both have become common for people of all ages during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That's just one of the insights that came from a new Ypsilanti-based podcast project called "HomeBound," which aims to create intergenerational dialogues between local elders and younger college-aged residents. The podcast leaves in audio feedback, internet service dropouts, and other imperfections in the audio recordings, and that's on purpose.
"When we talked about the aesthetics of this project, we talked about how some of the sounds and mistakes and poor [audio] quality defines the connection between people. Intergenerational communication is sometimes broken or imperfect," says creative director Eric Minni. "That's a shared point of connectivity. It becomes an opportunity to find solidarity between generations, because we're all confined to similar spaces, more similar than in the past, and there's a lot of value in that."Eric Minni.
Jessica "Decky" Alexander kicked the project off this summer through her theater consulting company, Limelight, in partnership with national nonprofit Generations United and the Ypsilanti Intergenerational Partnership, a pilot program led by the Ypsilanti Senior Center. Generations United provided a $3,200 grant for the project in partnership with the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, and the Limelight team funded the rest of the project's cost out of pocket.
However, the project wasn't originally conceived as a podcast. Alexander had worked with Generations United before, and staff there requested that she do some intergenerational programming through Limelight. Alexander, who is also a drama professor at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), reached out to Minni, who had been her student many years ago. They discussed the possibility of staging some kind of performance piece via Zoom, but eventually settled on the idea of a podcast.
"We wanted to give voice both to young, college-aged students and older people in this time," Alexander says.
Through Alexander's personal connections and tips from the Ypsilanti Senior Center, EMU's Family Empowerment Program, and assisted living facility The Gilbert Residence, the podcast team identified six Ypsilanti elders who were interested in being interviewed.
Interviewing residents at The Gilbert Residence was especially challenging, since the podcast team wasn't allowed to enter the building due to COVID-19-related restrictions. The team had to train a staff member at the assisted living facility to set up equipment for Zoom-based recordings.
"For both of the interviews we did there, I had to go wait in the parking lot, and the activities director, Phil, and I would mask up and meet," says Catherine Coffey-Burns, who helped with the interviews and runs social media for the project. "I'd give him the equipment and he'd go inside and get on a Zoom call and I'd talk him through setting up the equipment. It took a lot of choreography."Catherine Coffey-Burns.
One of the participants from The Gilbert Residence was Betty Paullette, 82. She says the interview process was a welcome break from her usual routine.
"I really enjoyed the conversation with them," she says. "It felt like they were really interested, and I wasn't just somebody they had to talk to to get credits as students. It's lovely when you're bedridden to have someone to talk to, someone who cares."
She says one message she hopes listeners take away from listening to the podcast is that pandemic restrictions "aren't punishing us. They're saving us."
"It's so important for us to be really diligent about doing what we're asked to do, not because it's a rule, but because we're doing it for ourselves, our friends, and our family," she says.
Alexander says the fact that most of the "HomeBound" team had a background in theater was helpful because of the general feeling in theater circles that the show must go on, despite any obstacles.
"It was more challenging than anticipated, but we're all ... attuned to that attitude about how we can make anything work," Alexander says.
Once the team had completed the raw recordings, they had to decide how to combine and group the interviews.
Tyler Calhoun, who recently completed a master's degree at EMU and is working in the theater industry in Chicago, was one of the younger interviewers. He also contributed to the project by transcribing the interviews to help the production team identify key quotes so they could be grouped by subject and spliced together.Tyler Calhoun.
The team has produced one season consisting of three podcasts, released at two-week intervals. The topic of the first podcast, "The New Normal," was a bit of a no-brainer for the podcast team. Coffey-Burns says she's worked with elderly clients experiencing social isolation on a regular basis, but social distancing is new for most younger people.
"We finally have a place where we can empathize and find some common ground," she says. "What intrigued me about this project was exploring how this whole collective national experience is bringing us together, and helping us understand what [older] people experience."
The second installment is simply titled "Time."
"That episode is about how we experience time differently as we age: the idea of time slowing down, more spare time, and people's reactions to that," Coffey-Burns says. "We talked about when time is cut short, the experience of loss, less time with loved ones. It's an unfortunate common experience among our dialogue partners."
The third podcast, not yet released, is titled "Catch and Release," inspired by an interview Calhoun did with local elder Sid Lawrence. Lawrence talked about what he'd like to be doing, namely fishing with his two grandsons.
"Sometimes he keeps the fish, but he generally just lets them go back," Calhoun says. "That was an inspiration to talk about the things we have been able to take with us and the things we've had to let go of, especially with seniors who have moved from a situation where they were living on their own and had to transition to assisted living."
All the podcast team members say they gained more from the experience than they expected. Coffey-Burns calls the project "a joy to work on." She notes that the intergenerational aspect extended to almost every participant talking about their own parents as well, perhaps prompted by the fact that they were passing down knowledge from their own parents to a younger generation.
"When someone is going into an intergenerational dialogue, there's this sense of ceremony," she says. "That ceremony, that reflection, is beautiful to witness. There's an interview I still think about almost every day where Margaret [Best] was talking about how her parents did these things for her and she didn't realize how important they were at the time, but she is looking back on them now from a different perspective. It was beautiful."
The project especially touched Calhoun, who says he has "big respect for our senior population" and calls his grandma every weekend.
"I think we take [elders] for granted," he says. "I don't think there's enough opportunity for connection between older and younger generations. Our country is so divided, and those divides exist along many lines, one of which is age. If we can offer more opportunities for exchange, we'll be able to see those differences aren't so vast."
Alexander says she recently received word that Generations United would like to continue to financially support the project for a second season in partnership with the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. All "HomeBound" podcast segments will be available here.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jessica "Decky" Alexander and Catherine Coffey-Burns photos by Doug Coombe. Tyler Calhoun photo by Leisa Thompson. Eric Minni photo courtesy of Eric Minni.