Your next resident could be a senior ... in college

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

If you opened a dictionary and flipped to the entry for “dorm,” there's a good chance the picture and definition would exactly describe the dormitory I lived in my freshman year of college.

Frontier Hall had all the makings of a stereotypical college dorm, for better or worse. There were drab concrete walls, lofted beds that always seemed one missing screw away from reenacting that scene from “Step Brothers,” and hallways that frequently hosted impromptu Nerf gun battles or games of lacrosse.

It wasn't fancy or cushy by any means. But as my friends and I discussed at a recent holiday gathering, college just wouldn't have been the same had we not been assigned to that specific hallway of that dorm. We would have been sorted into different orientation groups, and had different neighbors. It's mind boggling to think of how different those four years could've gone if I had checked off a different building on my registration forms.

Where you live in college plays a huge role in the overall college experience, a fact that I'm sure isn't lost on 21-year-old Drake University student Haley Jenkins.

On Friday, the music major will move into Deerfield Retirement Community in Urbandale, IA, thanks to a partnership between the facility, Drake's music department and the Masterpiece Living initiative. Jenkins will spend her spring semester living at Deerfield with free room and board, in exchange for performing for residents twice a month.

The intergenerational arrangement is a win-win for Jenkins and the facility; she'll get to beef up her resume and vocal performance skills, and the residents will get entertainment and companionship from their young neighbor.

“I've been in senior living more than two decades, and this is one of the more unusual partnerships I've seen,” said Deerfield executive director James Robinson. “This particular situation provides not just an entertainment value in terms of music, but an opportunity for residents to interact with a bright and talented local student.”

The concept of college kids moving into nursing homes and senior living facilities isn't entirely new, with the first intergenerational program thought to have been started in Spain in the 1990s. Many students participating in such programs in the United States are music majors, who receive free rent in exchange for their therapeutic talents. Some, like those participating in this Dutch program, simply have to devote 30 hours a month to being “good neighbors” and offering companionship to residents.

That Dutch program began after a student at a nearby university wrote to the Humanitas retirement home with complaints about the noise and conditions in traditional student housing. As someone whose upstairs neighbor would frequently dribble a basketball on the floor while he did his late night studying, I can vouch: College dorms aren't always pleasant places to live, and an “Animal House” atmosphere isn't for everyone.

While these intergenerational living arrangements are gaining traction, they're still novel enough to make the news. But they make sense, in many ways. Students gets a quieter place to live where they can make an impact, or practice their craft. Residents get companionship, and the mental health benefits that come from intergenerational friendships.

Of course there are boundaries to such programs. Students would have to keep their visitors and music at a low volume, and they may miss out on the experiences that come with living with the college-aged crowd. But for many students — including some I knew who begrudgingly toughed out a year in the dorms — those things wouldn't be an issue.

A program like the one Jenkins is participating in could strike the right chord for bridging the gap between nursing home residents and younger people. At the very least, it would give interested students a new, more impactful living option — and one that comes without the threat of your bed collapsing in the middle of the night.

Emily Mongan is Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow her @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.