Fred, a 92-year-old in assisted living at Glacier Hills Retirement Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, recounted with detail and enthusiasm his days playing jazz piano in a Detroit speakeasy at age 14. His audience to hear the story was a 16-year-old high school student. Fred recounted how during Prohibition he would sneak to what looked like an abandoned building. He would be “cleared” with a series of secret code words, travel under the street through a tunnel to another supposedly abandoned, boarded-up building, take an elevator to a bricked-in internal room with no windows, to play piano for five hours for mobsters and the flotsam and jetsam of the Detroit underworld in the 1920s. Fred also remembers he was very well paid.
This is just one of the remarkable stories in the lives of elders that Nice Work Public Media, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based nonprofit, is trying to immortalize in The Legacies Project. In its fledgling stages, the goal of the project is to document the lives of elders living in long-term care facilities, and to eventually have a searchable, navigable database for gerontologists, researchers, historians, and the general public for generations to come. “Aging in America is viewed as a disease, hence collagen injections and Botox to stay forever-young. We hope to flip the definition of nursing homes as God's waiting rooms and warehouses for older people to treasure troves of cultural wisdom and history,” says Jimmy Rhoades, one of the partners at Nice Work. The project has also been embraced by the elders who have participated as an outlet to have their life histories valued and to have people interested in hearing it.
Rhoades, business partner Jay Nelson, and project partner Dr. Heather Seipke from the University of Michigan, Flint, are pursuing funding from foundations to data tag the videos of the seniors telling their life stories. “If the information is just sitting there and there is no way to navigate it, it's useless,” Rhoades says. “If we could have an easily navigable, online archive, we could add value to this repository of unique information for generations to come.” And that's what makes The Legacies Project unique from other programs chronicling the lives of the Greatest Generation.
How it all started
In 1993, Rhoades's father was diagnosed with cancer and was given six months to live. In those last six months of his father's life, Rhoades says he began to talk to his dad “as a person with a life, rather than as my dad. I learned more about my father in those six months than I had in 26 years. He talked about his service in New Guinea during World War II, and it dawned on me that if I could get five or six other people who witnessed these same events and interview them, you could really shake out something close to the historical truth.” However, it wasn't until 1996 when Rhoades's favorite aunt was living in a nursing home, that the idea for the Legacies Project began to form. “I remember the halls lined with women in wheelchairs who would reach out to me and want to talk as I tried to make my way to my aunt's room. It would sometimes take me 40 minutes to reach my aunt!” Rhoades recognized the therapeutic benefit to these women of having someone to talk to. “A light bulb went off in my head. ‘This is where elders and their stories are communicated,’ I thought. ‘Wouldn't it be powerful to chronicle all this information and wisdom?’”
Nine years would go by before Rhoades took “a leap of faith” and founded Nice Work Productions and its nonprofit arm, Nice Work Public Media, with Nelson, his business partner, who had extensive experience in public television and in running large community outreach programs. Nelson's connections to the College for Creative Studies, a high-end private arts school in midtown Detroit, opened the door to introducing an educational component to The Legacies Project. Nelson took an interim job at the college running the Department of Digital Media and Animation. One of the responsibilities of his position was to teach a senior-level practicum which required the students to create something tangible by the end of the semester. The Legacies Project was born.
Lahser Hills Care Center, Southfield, Michigan, agreed to host the project. Many students had never been in a long-term care facility and were scared, according to Rhoades. Before students met with residents, Wendi Middleton at the State of Michigan's Office of Services to the Aging, suggested Henry Boutros, a long-term care consultant in the area, to give a lecture on what to expect in a nursing home, the stereotypes to overcome, what is important to residents, what not to do with residents, and how to empathize and talk to people four times their age or older. Rhoades recalls, “He had the students rub Vaseline® on safety glasses, put cotton in their ears, and tape their knuckles (arthritis) to simulate some of the physical challenges elders face.” Dr. Dennis Zembala, who had recently left his position as Director of the Detroit Historical Museum, was also brought in to help the students understand what was happening in the country and world during the time the seniors were recounting.