Health Care, Higher Education, and Human Resources

WMU students move into retirement community

Nontraditional living situation is part of intergenerational research project.

September 2, 2016
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Collett Chapp
Collett Chapp will be among the WMU students living with residents of Clark on Keller Lake. The project will take an in-depth look at aging and stereotypes from the students’ and retirees’ perspectives. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Welcome week will be a bit different for three Western Michigan University occupational therapy graduate students.

Instead of moving into traditional student housing options, Collett Chapp, 22, Lori Johnson, 57, and Corey Youngs, 25, are moving into rooms at the retirement community Clark on Keller Lake, 2499 Forest Hill Ave. SE.

The students, who moved in a week ago, will call the retirement community home for the next 19 months, which is the full duration of their graduate program.

The nontraditional living situation is part of a research project that will look at the impacts of an intergenerational community on residents.

Nancy Hock, coordinator of the occupational therapy program for WMU in Grand Rapids, said the idea for the research project came after she read an article about a nursing home in Deventer, Netherlands, that allows college students to live in its facility rent-free in return for spending time with its residents.

“They have an intergenerational living project,” Hock said. “They had a student housing shortage, and they had vacancies in their retirement center, so they moved the students there.”

So far, the program at Residential and Care Center Humanitas in the Netherlands, which began in 2012, has been successful, according to reports. So well, in fact, that two additional nursing homes in the Netherlands have adopted the model, and a program also was launched in Lyon, France.

Hock said there is one similar program in the United States, in Cleveland, Ohio, between a retirement community and the Cleveland Institutes of Music and Art.

Maureen Mickus, associate professor in occupational therapy at WMU, said the goal of the program at Clark on Keller Lake is to reduce the social isolation often experienced by the elderly.

“A lot of research has been coming out about the impact of social isolation with respect to brain health,” Mickus said.

She noted social isolation is an independent risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, for instance.

“We know people do better when they are connected to other people,” Mickus said. “We are hoping the students will bring a component of not just fun, but reducing some of that isolation.”

Hock said the students will live in the facility like they would at any other apartment community.

“The students will have their meals with the residents and will live in the same halls as the residents. They’ll have classes every day, obviously, so they will go to campus, but we encourage them on the weekends and evenings to spend their free time with the residents.”

The students are particularly encouraged to spend one-on-one time getting to know residents and participating in activities of mutual interest, like taking a walk around the campus, having coffee and discussing topics they both enjoy and playing games together.

Charlie Lundstrom, an 86-year-old resident at Clark on Keller Lake who helped interview and select the students who would be joining the community, said he is eager to learn from his new student neighbors, particularly how to use Google to research topics he is interested in. He also wants to have discussions on generational differences.

“I just hope the interaction is great and that we ask each other questions about what is going on in the world and compare what we feel,” Lundstrom said.

He said he’d like to get the students’ take on music in particular. As a lover of his generation’s music he said he doesn’t understand the appeal of today’s music, and he plans to talk about it with his new friends.

“I have three sons who are in their 50s, but that is just one generation back. (Most of) these people are in their 20s,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the discourse between the two of us.”

Lundstrom said not all of the residents are as sure about the new arrangement as he is, but he expects in time they will be glad to have the students there.

“At breakfast this morning, I raised the question about how they (his table companions) felt about it, and two of them said they thought it was strange and the other’s response was similar,” Lundstrom said. “They didn’t know really what the purpose of it was or didn’t understand it.

“I think they will think it’s a good idea. They will need to get to know these people first.”

Mickus said the duration of the program was chosen specifically with relationship building in mind.

“What we learned from the program in the Netherlands is that it takes time for people to develop relationships, and six months, or even a year, isn’t enough time,” Mickus said. “We are hoping the 19-month span will make a difference in people getting connected to each other.”

Chapp, who originally is from St. Clair Shores and received her bachelor’s degree from Aquinas College this year, said she is excited to get settled into her new home.

“I think this is an awesome experience, and it’s incredible to me that this groundbreaking thing is happening here in Grand Rapids,” she said.

She said her passion for the elderly population pushed her to apply for the opportunity after she was accepted into WMU’s occupational therapy program.

“I decided I wanted to do this, because I’ve always been passionate about the elderly population, and I think this is an opportunity that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing that I wouldn’t get to do anywhere else. I think it will help me learn a lot and grow a lot and prepare me for afterwards.”

She said she is looking forward to spending time with residents enjoying the outdoors and discussing books. She also said she plans to participate in the facility’s cooking class, and she hopes the residents will teach her some card games.

She did admit to being slightly nervous.

“This is very different, and there won’t be people who can relate to this, so I think that is what I am most nervous about,” she said. “Hopefully, that will pass as I spend more time here.”

Johnson, who bills herself as a nontraditional student, because she went back to school after a 20-year career in finance, also is excited for the experience.

“I know that they want us to do some one-on-one time, so that will be a big component, being a friendly neighbor, developing friendships with the individuals,” she said. “One of the things I’d talked about during my interview was helping residents learn to surf the internet, a senior surf kind of thing, to help the residents connect with family who may not be in the area.

“There are so many tech tools available, and sometimes, it just takes somebody sitting down and teaching individuals how to utilize that. That is one area I am hoping to focus on.”

To track the program’s progression, the students will meet twice per month with Hock to discuss the experience and share the types of interactions they are having with residents.

Hock said she also will meet with the residents whom the students report spending the most time with to hear their feedback on the new living arrangements.

The hope is the program will be a success for the students and the residents, and it will grow beyond WMU.

“This is a rare and unique opportunity for them to see older persons aside from the clinical settings, to see them as persons with interests, challenges and things that make them happy that you aren’t always privy to as a clinician. I think that is really important,” Mickus said. “The other piece is to provide a model for other facilities across the country.”

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