Listen: Elders save and share wisdom in Vanderbilt interdisciplinary study

One-day exhibit at Sarratt to showcase results

Painting by Wisdom of the Elder participant Rosie Solomon (image provided)

African American seniors will display their life stories, photographs, art and more from a Vanderbilt University interdisciplinary project developed in collaboration with community groups Sept. 26 at the Sarratt Student Center.

“The Wisdom of the Elders: Life Lessons from and for African American Seniors” can be viewed in the Sarratt Center Promenade from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The exhibit, a retrospective from the program’s first three years, is free and open to the public.

Ifeoma Nwankwo, associate professor of English (Vanderbilt)

The Wisdom of the Elders program has been serving African American seniors at the Murfreesboro (Tennessee) Parks and Recreation’s Patterson Park Community Center since 2012, according to Ifeoma Nwankwo, associate professor of English. She created Wisdom of the Elders, a combination public humanities program and health study, in academic partnership with William Turner, professor of human and organizational development, and James Powers, associate professor of medicine.

“We began by asking how literary studies can have a positive impact on health,” Nwankwo said. “Our participants have explored their family histories and then reflected on their ancestry through writing, clay sculpting, painting and other creative forms of expression. Now they have the pleasure of sharing their experiences and knowledge with individuals from other generations and communities.”

Wisdom of the Elders was funded through a mini grant from the Meharry-Vanderbilt Community Engaged Research Core to gather data on the impact of a mental health intervention engaging African American seniors aged 65 and older. Key components have included the production of an autobiography in print and/or visual media and intergenerational exchanges.

Nwankwo said that participants feel appreciated and valued as individuals with unique stories and perspectives on life. In addition, the program is preserving Tennessee history that is not likely documented anywhere else.

Seniors making clap sculpture masks in the Wisdom of the Elders program. (image provided)

Wisdom of the Elders workshops are conducted by Murfreesboro experts in ancestry preservation, art and intergenerational history. “Participants come together to explore, document and preserve family history,” said Mary Watkins, one of the artists and workshop leaders. “They have formed a lasting relationship with their peers that goes beyond Wisdom of the Elders.”

Nwanko noted that participants have formed the African American Heritage Society of Rutherford County, which will work in partnership with Wisdom of the Elders to encourage people to research, value and convey their family history to younger generations. In addition, work is underway on a “how to” manual to share with communities across the country.

“All communities have people who are growing older and have the wisdom and knowledge that we treasure and want to pass along,” Nwankwo said. “However, we don’t want to turn people into only ‘founts of knowledge.’ Seniors need to be nourished intellectually, spiritually and emotionally while they are documenting their wisdom and helping put it into action for other generations and communities.”

Tom Sage, superintendent of the Patterson Park Community Center, said the program has brought new energy to the organization’s senior programming. “Our seniors from the surrounding historic neighborhood here in the inner city have a wealth of knowledge to share with others and this program has made that happen, to the benefit of the entire community.” Wisdom of the Elders won the Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association 2013 Four Star Award for Best Community Center Program in the youth, families, seniors or intergenerational category.

In an interview conducted for Wisdom of the Elders, senior Linda Vickers said she had the following message for younger people: “I want to communicate the importance of living a life of love, peace, wisdom. Stay in good health and think about what you can do to help others so they can have a better life. That would be the significant message that I would want to pass along to the next generation.”