“It’s totally a symbiotic relationship,” said Sarah Benforado. Through an innovative outreach program, the 22-year old finds herself living among neighbors who are decades older than she is, and loving the unique twist on her college life.
Benforado, who is a student at UWM working for her Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in jewelry making and metalsmithing, is an artist-in-residence at Eastcastle Place senior living community on Milwaukee’s Eastside. In exchange for room and board, Benforado said she plans and facilitates artistic workshops for the residents while “integrating myself into the community and building relationships.”
Benforado admits that when she first heard about the community’s artist-in-residence program, she thought it sounded a bit ‘curious,’ albeit in an intriguing kind of way. She talked to past participants at Eastcastle Place and found that they’d really treasured the experience and so she decided to pursue the opportunity.
At the beginning of the school year in preparation for the residency, Benforado attended a three-day conference learning about living within a senior community with a focus on working with residents at different levels of care. “We talked a lot about having activities that are truly meaningful, not just on the surface. It’s important that the activities are accessible both physically and cognitively. It’s also important to make sure that the residents feel engaged and accomplished.”
For Benforado’s first workshop, her eager participants were assigned the task of designing a symbol that represented them. “First we talked about symbols and what they mean. I was surprised at how much discussion there was. We did a Google image search of different types of symbols, and then we drew samples. I etched the symbols into rubber so they could have a stamp of what they’d created. The next session was a sketchbook-making workshop so they could use the stamp,” she said.
The intergenerational component of the artist-in-residence program, Benforado said, is “mutually beneficial” and extends well beyond the workshops. “I’ve had hang-outs and dinners with residents. They like my young energy and hearing about my life, and in turn, I learn about their lives. They’re people with such amazing experiences and histories.”
Beverly Good, a resident of Eastcastle Place, said that she loves having young people at the senior living community. “it’s wonderful and brightens our day. Sarah is full of energy and ideas, and we’re exposed to things we never had the opportunity to try before.”
Benforado said she’s been amazed by the vibrancy of the community. “This has changed my assumptions and views of senior living. The residents have really busy active days. They are tech-savvy and interested in politics and culture and the world,” she said. “They’re more in tune with the world than I am.”
She said she’s also impressed with the building. “Esthetically it’s refreshing that it’s not medical or institutional at all. They have a library, a thrift store, an aquatic center and gym, a restaurant, and beautiful apartments and artwork. This all really surprised me.”
Benforado concluded, “I was so excited to come here and live here for this new, slightly strange opportunity. I was a little bit scared, being literally, the new kid on the block. I worried that people wouldn’t be welcoming. Everyone has been so nice and so reassuring that I’m supposed to be here. I’ve definitely made friends.”