Maybe the culture change movement is over, or maybe it has yet to begin; what is certain is that how we see and act about aging is changing. If we want to move forward into a world where nursing homes are abolished, generations interact and benefit from each other and all people are granted opportunities for community, purpose and meaning, then we cannot merely add moments of life back into a broken system. We cannot simulate purpose and engagement with one size fits all activities devoid of meaning.
For real change to occur we must make sure the solutions we create are not dependent on the very problem they purport to alleviate. We must find projects that work within the system while at the same time not reinforcing its brokenness or becoming dependent on it for their existence.
The Penelope Project is just such an example of a project that is leading the way to changing the systems of long term care and generational segregation from the inside.
The Penelope Project was an attempt to undo entrenched social disregard of the old, to transform routine institutional elder care, and to break through the fear of advanced age often experienced by the young. – Elinor Fuchs, The Penelope Project
The Penelope Project began as a multi-year collaboration between a senior living community, a professional theater company and a college theater department. The seeming culminating of the collaboration was a play that took the audience through a journey within the senior living community. However, The Penelope Project lives on in continued collaborations, educational opportunities, a film and most recently a book.
In a sea of self-help books and self-promoting how-to’s, The Penelope Project: An Arts-Based Odyssey to Change Elder Care is a breath of fresh air. The book is woven together out of stories collected from the project’s diverse group of collaborators including elders, directors, students, a variety of staff and researchers. These stories are shared honestly and openly. The book elegantly details the process of staging this collaboration in a way that transcends the project it references and provides an accessible guide to other would-be world changers.
While the book is about one project, the information provided is broad and sweeping enough to be applied to any dream that may be brewing in your mind. The book introduces us to the three main collaborators, namely Luther Manor Retirement Community, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and Sojourn Theatre Company, with a look at the resources and challenges that each collaborator brings to the table. Then the process for making these collaborations happen and finding funding are detailed. Finally, we get to watch the project unfold through sincere and heartwarming first person accounts. We also get a glimpse into what remains after the culminating performance is over: the impact of the project and how it lives on in each of the collaborators. All of this is shared through captivating story and with references to resources and tools (timelines, team descriptions, partnership agreements, prompts, syllabi, research tools etc.) we may use to follow in Penelope’s footsteps with our own projects and dreams.
The Penelope Project: An Arts-Based Odyssey to Change Elder Care serves as a mentor and guide in how to compassionately and effectively infuse life and change into entrenched systems (namely long term care and higher education) through the arts. The impact of The Penelope Project shines in these words from Angela Fingard, one of the students who participated, “The most important thing I learned was the importance of feeling a part of a community, the importance of being a part of something bigger than yourself, to have a title or role separate from that of staff, caregiver, patient or disease label.” The book is full of heart-opening gems like this one that challenge the reader to reconceptualize their own views and give confidence that projects like this are how we create lasting change.
As Michael Rohd, founder and artistic director of Sojourn Theatre said “The most meaningful work will take place when you learn the system. That’s not to say you can’t confront it, challenge it, subvert it, whisper to it and all those things – but you do have to find a way to work with the system, dramaturgically.”
The Penelope Project: An Arts-Based Odyssey to Change Elder Care stays true to this call to action, it is a comprehensive guide, showing us how to work within systems and change them for the better from the inside. Get ready to be inspired, The Penelope Project hits book shelves this month!