WMU students moved to retirement home as part of intergenerational study

contact: Paula M. Davis
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—For more than a year, three graduate students have made their home in a special communal setting off campus.

It’s similar to a college dorm—single rooms, common areas for socializing and a dining center under one roof. 

But, in this case, the students are sharing their meals, their time and their personal lives in an assisted-living facility with residents who are in their 80s and 90s, an unusual arrangement anywhere in the country. 

“It’s not like being on campus, and it’s not like being at home,” says Colette Chapp, a 23-year-old from St. Clair, who moved in having had many past experiences as a volunteer or visitor in assisted-living and nursing homes. 

“But this was very unique,” she says. “I wasn’t volunteering and leaving. This was my home. I was here to stay. There was no out if things got weird.”

Not at all weird, she and the other students have found, but enlightening and heartening.

Being a good neighbor

As part of a study examining intergenerational interaction and relationship building, the students are cohabitating with about 40 elders to live and engage as side-by-side residents. 

“The students are essentially trying to be good neighbors,” explains Nancy Hock, one of two occupational therapy faculty members leading the study set at Clark on Keller Lake, a retirement community in suburban Grand Rapids.

After learning from a previous Clark administrator that the facility had unused rooms, she pitched the idea for this project inspired by a similar intergenerational community in the Netherlands.

Hock, coordinator of WMU’s occupational therapy program in Grand Rapids, says the arrangement has been a win-win for students and for Clark’s traditional denizens. 

“The residents have the opportunity to interact with younger people. They hear about their lives. They hear about what’s happening with them on a daily basis. And it’s also a win for the students because they have a decrease in the expenses that a typical graduate student would have” because they’re not paying for housing. 

After going through a rigorous interview process, the students chosen for the project moved into Clark in August 2016 and move out in April 2018. Throughout that period, researchers have conducted interviews and collected data from both the seniors and the students. They will present their study findings at the World Federation of Occupational Therapists’ World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, in May 2018.

By living in close quarters with seniors, the students—all studying to be occupational therapists—say they have gained insights they might not have gotten easily any other way, insights proving to be beneficial for their personal knowledge and for their development as aspiring professionals.

This collegiate trio—Chapp, Corey Youngs and Lori Johnson—have observed, for instance, resiliency in the face of persisting frailty, the comfort that comes with long-lived relationships, but also individuals dealing with social isolation toward the end of life.

“They’ve learned the people in this facility are facing loss, loss of function, loss of independence,” Hock says. “So, that’s difficult for them to witness.” 

Making connections

The graduate students live in the home full time and are encouraged to spend at least 30 hours a month with their neighbors. So, between going to class and other aspects of their personal lives, students make time to eat meals, play games, watch television and movies, or simply hang out talking with their older neighbors.

 The arrangement is so unusual, however, some of the seniors, though they knew students would be among them, didn’t quite know what to make of their new cohorts. Were they at the facility to work? Volunteer? Be occupational therapists? It took time for students to fit in as simply friends.

“When the students first came here, I felt perhaps it would be loud and busy,” says Jean Hoover, a retired teacher who has lived at Clark for more than seven years. 

“You never know what young people are going to do at night. But it’s been wonderful,” she says. 

“For me, mostly it’s been the students popping into my room and talking to me, and we just relax and enjoy. Then the other part is the students will sit with us at mealtime and that’s enjoyable.”

Senior resident Charlie Lundstrom bonded with Johnson.

“I’m computer illiterate,” confides the retired attorney. “Lori was my teacher for probably 10 or 12 weeks. Once a week, we’d have a meeting where she taught me how to use a computer. I enjoyed that. That was helpful.”

But, from what students have experienced, getting some of the older residents to open up and talk with them—and even with one another—has been no small thing. And the difficulty has been one of their take-home lessons from the project. 

“It might be partly the culture of a retirement home; it can be very isolating,” says Youngs, a 26-year-old from Trenton. 

“The people who were really thriving are the ones who have family who are consistently showing up, and that is giving them a sense of belonging and purpose.” 

For people who did not have that consistent family connection, “that’s where we as students have a lot of utility. A lot of the times, I have felt like I was a surrogate family member,” he says.

Engendering empathy 

Empathy across difference is one of major hoped-for outcomes of this project. At age 23, Chapp hadn’t known the pain and disorientation of losing multiple friends and family members due to infirmity or age. But that’s often a consequence of living into your 80s and 90s. 

Since the students moved in, 15 of the assisted-living center’s residents have passed away, including several people the WMU students considered friends.

“That’s been one of the major challenges,” Chapp says. “They did warn us that was a very likely possibility when we moved in, but I don’t think I was prepared for the extent of it. We lost a lot more people than we ever would have guessed, and I never realized how close I would be to the people we’ve lost.” 

As hard and as unwelcome a lesson as that has been, it put some of the seniors’ hesitation to connect in a new light. 

“The residents have sort of commented that they are reluctant to start new relationships because there is always the possibility they could lose that person pretty quickly,” Chapp says. “And once you put yourself out there so many times, it’s hard to convince yourself to try again.”

Project organizers also see the arrangement as a way to help shatter stereotypes older and younger generations may harbor for one another in a society in which, typically, very young and very old people don’t live together or have other meaningful engagement.

“Some of the consequences of that are, in my opinion, quite serious,” says Dr. Maureen Mickus, an associate professor of occupational therapy, a gerontologist and Hock’s partner in the research project.

“Aging is a natural part of the human condition, and when we are not exposed to older people, this may create stereotypes, misunderstandings, or perceptions that are not always positive.”

According to a 2017 Generations United/Eisner Foundation survey titled “I Need You, You Need Me” and focused on age segregation in the United States, 61 percent of young adults age 18 to 34 have a limited number of acquaintances who are much older or much younger. And 53 percent of all the survey’s respondents, 2,171 adults over age 18, reported that outside of family members they spend little time with people who are much older or younger. 

“I think it’s very easy to overlook this population,” Youngs says of older generations.

“Getting to old age is always a far-off idea, and nobody thinks that eventually they’re going to end up there. And the fact of the matter is, these are all normal, functioning human beings.”

He adds that getting to old age also can be a “great equalizer because everybody ends up in the same place, and everybody has the same need to be in the presence of others.”

Read more about WMU’s distinctive people and programs in the winter 2018 issue of W Magazine, a publication of WMU's Office of University Relations.