About half way through my freshman year of college, I was starved, starved to see and talk to people who weren’t aged 18 to 21. I have a vivid memory of being invited to dinner by a young couple with a baby and feeling a sense of relief, even though the parents were just a few years older than I. It was a relief to step back into the wider world, beyond the homogenous pond of my fellow students in the dorm, the dining room, the nerve-wracking chemistry lab, and the giant biology lecture hall.
Students at the University of Minnesota (UM) Medical School and St. Paul’s Luther Seminary have a lifestyle opportunity to step out of the age-narrow ghetto of higher education and gain skills in working with elders in their chosen professions. The residents of Augustana Apartments, a downtown Minneapolis senior housing complex, have invited people from these two programs to be their neighbors. Co-housing across Generations The arrangement is the brainchild of Dr. Edward Ratner, UM associate professor of internal medicine and medical director of Heartland Home Health Care in Roseville, Minn. The initiative began Fall 2009 with two medical students and three seminary students moving to vacant apartments at the complex.
The idea is mutual support. Dr. Ratner wants his students to better understand the needs of elders; each student completes training as a home health aide as a condition of residence. Students have a place to live, eat, and socialize with people who aren’t in a hurry. For the elders, it’s a way to combat loneliness and to have the chance to pass along age-tested knowledge. In addition, such things as changing a light bulb or greasing a squeaky wheel in a walker can seem almost insurmountable to someone who can’t climb a ladder or easily squat down, while a younger person does such chores without hesitation.
Dr. Ratner’s plan is low-tech/high-touch. It’s almost laughably simply and blindingly obvious, yet it’s innovative. The population over age 65 is growing fast. Fewer people than ever choose geriatrics as a medical specialty. Not only is it in the bottom of the pay-scale for physicians, many ailments of aging don’t respond to quick fixes. Depression is common and undertreated among elders and isolation boosts the tendency to depression. Fewer kids grow up being around elders. As those kids become adults, elders can seem foreign. Younger people, even those pushing middle age, live hurry-up lives dominated by technology. An elder may offer a kind of listening and attention that seems novel to the fast pace of mainstream 21st Century life.
The co-housing initiative at Augustana Homes seeks to address these issues. I’m going to be checking with them in a few months for an update. In the meantime, I am scheduling time both with my mom and other elder friends, and with the “youngers” in my life.