When college kids and old people live together, it may solve challenges that plague both of them

Posted October 6, 2016

Several programs internationally, including at least one in the U.S., have college students rooming with or at least living among elderly in retirement homes. It tackles two issues that plague segments of American society. Maybe it does a lot more. (Deseret Photo)

My children grew up largely without grandparents. Both their grandfathers were dead before their father and I married. My mom had dementia, while cancer claimed his mom when the girls were toddlers.

They longed for grandparents, and it was obvious at family gatherings and school events where multiple generations would affectionately throng their friends and cousins. So I wasn't really surprised that when I befriended a centenarian years ago while writing a story and we started to visit quite regularly, my girls adored her.

Just as someone who doesn't get enough of a mineral seems to crave it, so they craved seeing Maggie. I don't think it's unrelated that my oldest now waitresses at an independent senior living place. What keeps her there is the camaraderie and relationships with people who are of a vastly different generation, some of them nearly five times her age.

Her elderly friends often ask her about school and offer bits of advice. Jen is a college sophomore who, despite a heavy workload at school, works weekends and evenings to pay tuition, or at least keep the amount she must borrow somewhat in check.

She keeps an eye out for even a hint of loneliness, a near-invisible but dangerous challenge some elderly people endure. If she sees someone alone, she's apt to chat them up to make sure they're doing OK — and because she likes them.

Internationally, a few senior living programs have keyed into the importance of that generational interaction, formalizing the connections between young adults and old people in ways that provide something basic and yet wonderful to both.

Six students live rent-free among 160 elderly people at the Humanitas retirement home in Deventer, Netherlands. They have agreed to spend 30 hours a month interacting but, in reality, the connections forged go much deeper than that and they willingly put in more time. The students have become friends to their senior neighbors, as well as helpers. And the older residents have become mentors, substitute grandparents and pals.

According to PBS, a similar program that started in Barcelona, Spain, more than 25 years ago has spread to 20 cities throughout the country and is going strong. Lyons, France, has a program that is very much like the Humanitas program in Deventer.

At a retirement home in Cleveland, Ohio, the idea is the same but the approach is a little different: A handful of student musicians from the Cleveland Institute of Music live rent-free in exchange for entertaining the residents several times a month. They hold both formal recitals and impromptu music events. Smithsonian magazine reported that next year the Ohio program will include a few students from the Cleveland Institute of Art who will live rent-free in exchange for helping with art therapy and other students will be welcomed from Case Western Reserve University sometime in the future.

There's nothing mysterious about the gravitational pull between young children and the elderly. Nationwide, schools have benefited for decades from foster-grandparent programs that put older people into classrooms working with grade-school students on reading and writing and other tasks. The seniors have skills to work more individually with students in sometimes-crowded classrooms that would otherwise be short on individualized attention. They also have time, making them a formidable resource for schools.

Taking the hearts of young adults and older folks and tying them together creates a different bond. No matter how rich a young adult's social or family life, it's a time of transition and change; new eyes and mature mentors offer great benefit. Seniors and young adults can enjoy meaningful conversations, mature interactions and enduring friendships.

Who wouldn't want that?

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco


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