Documentary Filmmaker Sky Bergman Talks about Lives Well Lived
Updated: May 3
Nancy Griffin interviews Sky about her film, how senior living communities use Lives Well Lived to engage residents and staff, and why intergenerational connection is the antidote to ageism.
NG: Tell us about your background.
SB: I was a business major undergrad and took a photo class for fun. I fell in love with it and that changed my life. I decided I wanted to teach photography in a university setting, so I went on for my master's degree. I taught for 30 years— 27 of which were at CalPoly State University. Amid all of this. I started making films and created Lives Well Lived.
NG: How did you get the idea for the film?
SB: I was approaching 50 and looking around for positive role models on aging and just not seeing them. But my Italian grandmother who was approaching 100 was still active and vita. I went to Florida to visit her for her 100th birthday and filmed her working out at the gym. As a throwaway comment I said, Grandma, can you give me some words of wisdom? And she said, among other things like “Live life to the limits and be kind.” I thought there is something here and I need to find other people who are as much an inspiration as my grandmother is to me. I need to find those positive role models.
So I spent four years interviewing 40 people with a cumulative life experience of 3,000 years and put together this film. It is my first film. I'd never done anything like that before, but I became passionate about it. It became the thing that I just had to do.
NG: How did the film roll out? How can people access it? Give us some details.
SB: We were fortunate to get into a lot of film festivals then picked up by a distributor and had a theatrical release, which doesn't happen to all films—especially independent films. It's also available on Amazon, and iTunes, and on PBS. Throughout May, in honor of Older Americans Month, Lives Well Lived is streaming on PBS stations across the country, with a total reach of over 800 airdates on 450 PBS stations covering over 90% of the US with a potential to reach over 275 million viewers! Every time I see the image of my grandmother on PBS, it makes my heart sing.
NG: You recently resigned as a professor to explore some of your passions, one of which is the intergenerational work you're doing around the film. Talk to us about that.
SB: One of the interviewees in the film said, “You could be a boring dull person in a rut or you could jump off a cliff.” And that was what I chose to do. I had been teaching for 27 years at CalPoly and it just seemed like a right time to make a change. With the momentum of Lives Well Lived, I just didn't have enough time to do everything. At some point, you realize you have to prioritize. So I retired and am now a professor emeritus.
For the past four or five years, I've been doing this intergenerational work where we show the film to high school students, college students and older adults, do a Q&A, and then team up the students with an older adult. Everyone uses the same 20 questions from the film as a starting point to get to know each other, and then we do a big wrap party at the end of the quarter or semester. One of the things I realized is that three of my four grandparents lived to be in their 90's or above, and my grandmother lived to be 103. So I was fortunate to have had that connection. Not everyone does.
It is so amazing to bring these projects to students and see the depth of their connection with an older adult. Many of participants didn't have an older adult in their lives, and one of the things I learned from doing research for my film, is that only in the last 100 years have we listened to anyone other than our elders for advice. Personally, I feel the world is suffering as a result. The more I can do to connect generations, the better the world will be, and we're making that happen, one story and one connection at a time. It's very difficult to have a stereotype or an “ism” about another person when you have a friend in that other group. We're breaking down those barriers in both directions because there's certainly ageism that happens on both sides.
NG: That's so true. You've been very verbal that intergenerational interaction is an antidote to ageism. Talk to us a little bit about this and what you're doing to combat ageism.
SB: That's a good question. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and energy to get these intergenerational projects out there in the world. I'm working with PBS Learning Media to add a learning module on their website that K through 12 teachers can use for free. It includes clips from the film and a guide for bringing an intergenerational project into their classroom.
The other thing I'm doing is promoting some of the terrific work around combating ageism. Every Monday on LinkedIn I feature somebody in the field that's doing great work. Somebody once said to me, ageism is something that no one talks about. I said, let's change that and say ageism is something we all need to talk about because, let's face it, it’s the one thing we all have in common. I love Ashton Applewhite’s quote, “Ageism is a prejudice against our future selves.”
NG: Ageism goes both ways, but so does the rich experience of intergenerational connection. We have discussed how hard loneliness has hit the younger generation during the pandemic. How has connecting the generations made a difference in younger people's lives?
SB: We had a virtual wrap party in the middle of the pandemic for a program we have been offering virtually for the last two years—Senior Planet, which is part of AARP. At the wrap party, one student said that this was the first new friend he had made during the pandemic. And I thought, how wonderful that this first new friend is an older adult. It made the work we are doing even more poignant and important.
NG: The senior living industry has rallied around the film. Lives Well Lived has made its way into some of these communities. Talk to us about that.
SB: It’s been wonderful to work with several senior living communities in many ways. One is obviously to show the film to residents; the other is showing it to people who work within these communities. The film resonates with the staff. They begin to think about residents in in a different way and makes them wonder about their stories. Also people living in the communities think about recording or writing down their own stories.
A few communities have done their own Lives Well Lived project following the instructions on the discussion guide on my website. In the “take action” section, people can download the guide to see the questions I asked. That's a great starting point because the website has a place where people can share their stories. I realized that I couldn't keep interviewing people or I would never finish the film!
Some of the questions I ask within the senior living communities are: “What's a lesson you took away from the film and what do you think?” “What advice do you think you'll use?” “Does the film either confirm or dispel any stereotypes you might have about age, aging and older adults?” “What accomplishment are you most proud of and what cultural events or technological changes have been the most significant in your lifetime?” “What's something you wish you had known when you were younger?” “What do you most regret?” “What do you think about your own mortality?” You don't want to ask yes or no questions, you want an open-ended question that allows the person to really expand and offers the space for people can continue the story.
NG: Tell us something personal about yourself?
SB: I love bringing people together. My partner Jeff calls me, the “kibbutznik kid."