“Confronting Entropy”

After graduation, Devin Reese will embark on a global journey to grapple with what it means to grow old

Christy Carley, News Editor

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship provides graduates one year out of college with the opportunity to explore a project of their choosing. Given a stipend of $30,000 for the year, students travel to various countries, exploring a thematic, but not necessarily academic, project. This year, two Whitman seniors received the award. The Wire sat down with each of them to learn about their plans.

Senior Devin Reese first became interested in old age after reading the book Being Mortal by surgeon and author Atul Gawande. Gawande’s work focuses on what he sees as a shift that needs to take place in the health professions — from a focus on survival to a focus on well-being. Reese said what he learned most from the book was related to “the difficulties of aging in the current era.”

“Right now,” Reese said, “people are living longer than they ever have before. The world is becoming globalized and children are moving away. These factors are all combining into this modern phenomenon of elder care institutions which, already, to a lot of people seem as if they’re the norm, but they’re very new.”

Reese’s Watson Fellowship will take him on a journey to visit some of these institutions in Peru, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Japan — through his travels he hopes to glean some ideas for how elder care institutions could be run differently, and perhaps better, in the United States.

A double major in Biology and Film and Media Studies, Reese has spent time shadowing In hospitals, where he first became interested in geriatrics (the branch of health care dealing with old age). But he says it’s the social, not the biological side of aging that interests him most.

As a junior at Whitman, Reese studied abroad in Copenhagen where he took a European documentary film class. The final project for the class required students to make a short autobiographical films, but Reese decided to do something a little different. His short film “Entropy” follows a 93 year old woman as she goes about her daily gardening. Footage of the garden is combined with an interview Reese conducted with the woman, and interspersed with scenes of man hitting a punching bag — which Reese said represents “a fight against entropy that you can’t win.”

“Entropy,” Reese explains, “[is] the concept of disorder … that everything in the universe is always pushing towards an increase in disorder. You can see it in that your room tends to get more messy.”

While no one knows for sure why we age, a number of studies claim that changes due to aging can be characterized as entropy. 

While in Copenhagen, Reese also had the opportunity to see the award-winning film Alive Inside, which follows social worker Dan Cohen as he travels to nursing homes for dementia patients to explore the impact of music on memory. While Reese noted that the film exaggerated at times, he maintains that “it’s very clear that [music] has the potential to make a huge impact in people’s lives … [the film] shows these very visceral scenes of dementia patients listening to music and really waking up.”

Since the release of the film, elder care institutions around the country have experimented with music and memory. According to Reese, Washington Odd Fellows, just across from Whitman’s campus, is among them.

Reese said the popularity of the film has made led him to consider the power of cinema as a tool for change.

“I’ve been wondering a lot about the question of whether film has the potential to cause systemic change and it’s a very complicated question,” he said. “I’m hopeful about it, but I don’t know the answer yet.”

Spending a year abroad will, of course, pose a host of challenges as well. Reese anticipates that overcoming language barriers will be one of the principal ones, but challenges will be more personal as well.

“I’ll have to confront my own mortality. A lot of people my age just don’t want to think about it at all,” he said. “One of my friends who’s very successful here said ‘my biggest fear is growing old,’ and I was like ‘well, that’s probably going to happen — or something else is going to happen.’ That’ll be tough.”  

Asked what he has planned for the future beyond his Watson, Reese said he’s not quite sure.

“I definitely want to explore aging. I think that’s safe to say. But there’s a lot of routes I could use to tackle it. Medical school, social work, physical therapy, gong heavy on the film making. It’s all there.”