Correction: An earlier version of this story said Sky Bergman is the chair of Cal Poly's department of art and design. She finished that position last August and is now a professor. Also, her grandmother traveled from Florida to California four summers in a row; Bergman did not travel to Florida.
What’s the secret to a long, happy, healthy life?
Sky Bergman, a professor at Cal Poly's department of art and design, wants to know the answer. She’s chronicling the stories of seniors who are living life to the fullest in a photography and video project called "Lives Well Lived."
Growing up in Philadelphia and Florida, Bergman and her younger brother enjoyed a close relationship with their Italian-American grandparents — at one point living in their home for six months.
“We reflect back on our childhood, and we reflect how lucky we were to have our grandparents as part of our lives,” Bergman said. “They very much influenced who I am and the person I have become.”
In fact, it was her 101-year-old grandmother, Evelyn Ricciuti, who inspired “Lives Well Lived.”
When Ricciuti traveled from Hollywood, Fla., four summers in a row to California, Bergman shot videos of her grandmother cooking traditional Italian dishes such as biscotti and eggplant Parmesan. Once, while accompanying Ricciuti to the gym, she asked, “‘Grandmother, can you give me some words of wisdom?’” Bergman recalled.
Ricciuti’s response was two inspiring phrases: “Be kind” and “Live life to the limits.”
“I just realized, ‘There’s a project here,’ ” Bergman, 48, said. “What is it (about) these people that … makes them want to keep going?”
So far, Bergman has profiled about 30 men and women over the age of 75 for “Lives Well Lived,” asking them “how to age with dignity, grace, energy and purpose.”
She took a two-quarter sabbatical to work on the project, which combines portrait-style photos and short videos.
Her subjects, a mix of Central Coast residents and folks living outside San Luis Obispo County, include Morro Bay music educator and artist Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli, Los Osos archaeologist and author Georgia Lee, and Linnaea Phillips, former owner of Linnaea's Café in San Luis Obispo.
Bergman, who has traveled as far as Santa Fe, N.M., and San Miguel Allende, Mexico, to conduct interviews, said capturing their stories on screen can be a labor-intensive process. She spends three or four hours talking to her subjects before even turning on the camera, then dedicates two or three hours to each interview. Bergman estimates she spends 60 to 80 hours in total working on each video.
According to Bergman, a few dominant themes have emerged in “Lives Well Lived.”
“All of these people, they’re physically, and more importantly mentally, active,” she said. “I think that’s what keeps them really young at heart.”
The people Bergman has interviewed share other traits as well, including a passion for everyday activities and a strong social network.
“They’ve all had trials and tribulations that they’ve gone through … but they all had a positive (attitude),” she said. “These people are all people who see the glass as full as opposed to half empty.”
Retired San Luis Obispo pediatrician Lou “Lucky Louie” Tedone, who turns 91 in July, agreed that a sunny outlook is essential.
“One of the things that my kids heard me say for many, many years … was, ‘Happiness is a state of mind. You can be happy with what you have or miserable with what you don’t have,’ ” he said. “I wake up in the morning and I decide to be happy, not to go around with a long face.”
Tedone, whose father and grandfather each died at age 50 of heart attacks, also credits healthy living with prolonging his life.
“When I was 47 years old … I weighed 196 pounds. That’s a good weight if you're 6-foot-2, but you can see I'm not 6-foot-2,” Tedone recalled, referring to his slight stature.
“I decided I was going to get in shape, give myself the best odds to last a little bit longer.”
He started a diet and exercise regimen that included running, golf and tennis. Despite a quintuple-bypass heart surgery in 2001, Tedone still works out at Club 24 in San Luis Obispo four days a week, in addition to doing push-ups and sit-ups at home.
For the past 24 years, he’s also kept busy as a cheesemaker, crafting dozens of balls of fresh mozzarella each morning for his daughter and son-in-law’s deli, DePalo & Sons in Shell Beach.
“Fresh mozzarellas should be eaten the day they’re made,” Tedone said, “so I make them every single day.”
Former San Luis Obispo mayor and Cal Poly architecture professor Ken Schwartz attributes his longevity to “good genes,” noting his father lived to age 102 and his mother to 86. But the 89-year-old said curiosity and involvement in the community have also played a part.
“Once you’ve been in local government … you never lose interest in what is happening or why it’s happening,” explained Schwartz, who remains active in the political scene as a community member.
In April, for instance, he presented a petition to the San Luis Obispo City Council asking it to improve its communications with Cal Poly regarding future student housing.
“Being engaged in daily life … that’s hugely important,” said San Luis Obispo printmaker and painter Evy Justesen, who turns 82 this week. An avid gardener and artist, she’s a member of the art collective Central Coast Printmakers and the antinuclear group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace.
Justesen also stressed the importance of fostering relationships with family members and friends of all ages. Her social circle includes fellow interview subject Marion Wolff of San Luis Obispo.
“I have a lot of energy and so does Marion,” Justesen explained. “Some women of 82 don’t have that energy.”
Project brings "new friends"
Although Bergman already has an 18-minute “Lives Well Lived” documentary on Vimeo.com, she and editor Randi Barros are working on a longer version that will premiere this fall.
She’s also planning a photography exhibition at Cal Poly's Kennedy Library for the fall or winter. Toward that end, Bergman is using a crowdfunding campaign to help handle costs. Although she used a $6,000 grant from Cal Poly's College of Library Arts to hire students to help on shoots, but she’s funded most of the project — which she estimates has cost around $20,000 in camera gear, travel and other expenses — herself.
Bergman described “Lives Well Lived” as “the most rewarding project I’ve ever worked on.” “I feel really fortunate that I’ve been introduced to all these people I would not have known otherwise,” said the artist, who invites many of the women she’s interviewed to a monthly “ladies’ dinner.”
“I really feel like I have all these new friends I didn’t have before.”