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Why Senior Housing is Welcoming Residents of All Ages

Senior living no longer means living with only seniors. At least, that’s what some housing providers across the industry are starting to realize.

From grandparents who take care of children to college students and babies spending most of their time in retirement communities, family dynamics have changed and the senior housing industry is keeping pace.

College With Grandma

One extreme example of the intergenerational trend is to invite younger generations to actually be a part – and reside within – a community. That’s the approach taken by Deerfield a Lifespace Retirement Community in Urbandale, Iowa.

The community sought a partnership with a nearby university in order to create a new sense of vibrancy to the community and actively engage residents in a unique partnership. In its commitment, Deerfield opened its arms to a college student for one semester, offering housing and meals in exchange for musical performances.

“What I wanted to gain was stories that the people who live at Deerfield have to offer,” says Haley Jenkins, the Drake University senior currently residing at the Deerfield retirement community. “I really do love older people and sharing their life experiences, whether that be in college or where they grew up or advice they want to give me. I really love that opportunity to learn and talk with them about the different experiences. And vice versa – for to share with them.”

Jenkins, a classically trained vocalist and music major at the university in her last year of studies, moved into the community in early January. When it comes to her performances, Jenkins says she is apt to connect with seniors by tapping into their musical knowledge as well as introducing new genres and styles.

“I want to educate them about music as well as bring them hopefully some familiar tunes from their past,” she tells Senior Housing News. “So, I purchased some oldies books and some jazz tunes and big band books from the 50s and 60s and earlier.”

Deerfield’s executive director, James Robinson, says the partnership has been beneficial for residents and staff members alike, and is an important part of aging normally.

“It’s good for the older adults who live here at Deerfield to be able to share their hopes, dreams, ambitions with someone that is Haley’s age, who has her own hopes, dreams, ambitions,” says James Robinson, executive director of Deerfield. “They overlap in a lot of ways. They are not just limited to people who are Haley’s age, those hopes, dreams and ambitions. I also think it’s important for older adults to share their wisdom and to connect to younger adults. That’s what is happening here.”

By actively seeking to bring in other generations to interact and actually reside with seniors, Deerfield is hoping to achieve a sense of normalcy that more resembles everyday life beyond the walls of the community. Partnerships like the one Deerfield has with Drake can also help combat seniors feeling isolated.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for a community just to have older adults living in it, isolated from younger adults and vice versa,” say Robinson. “I don’t think it’s healthy for younger adults to have no exposure to older adults. I think it’s part of a healthy community to have people that are mixing from different generations. I just think it’s natural and healthy. The downfall might be that it’s just unnatural for a cohort of individuals to live alone, isolated from anyone else.”

For Jenkins, living with seniors is a way for her to unplug from her everyday life and connect outside the world that she knows. She says living in a college dorm doesn’t expose her to other generations and may result in missed opportunities when it comes to communication.

“I think that some of the younger generations can really have a disconnect from our older generation and really get caught up in technology,” says Jenkins. “They don’t reach out as much in face-to-face communication with older generations anymore.”

In addition to creating connections between residents and college students, there are some implications for these kinds of programs when it comes to other industry challenges, such as recruiting young people to senior living.

“I think the more exposure that individuals that are Haley’s age can have to senior living communities like Deerfield, the more that maybe people will start to think about senior living as a career option for themselves,” says Robinson.

The senior housing industry should continue to look for ways to innovate when it comes to the aging process and what adults want from a retirement community, says Robinson. While this is Deerfield’s first time hosting a college student, the community hopes the model can influence other providers to follow suit by encouraging intergenerational interactions as part of daily life.

“I would encourage the industry to think about what aging successfully means,” says Robinson. “I think aging successfully means to have people of all ages together. They don’t necessarily have to be living together under one roof, but have opportunities for people of all age to come together. If that results in a relationship with a university like Deerfield has with Drake, that’s outstanding. From our perspective, it’s been well worth it.”

Building for the New Age

When senior housing developers think about new projects, there’s more to consider than just one generation of older adults. Family members of different generations, like a mother and son, may end up living together in the same retirement community at the same time—a phenomenon that The New York Times shone a spotlight on.

With multiple levels of care offered and living options, older adults are moving into retirement communities earlier, along with their parents who may need a higher level of care.

Shifting family dynamics across the country have also led Catholic Charities, a national network of agencies that serve poor and vulnerable people and families, including seniors, to develop a new senior housing project in Northwest Albuquerque designed for seniors who take care of grandchildren.

The project aims to serve those over the age 62 and will emphasize seniors older than 75 years old who are raising grandchildren. The project is funded through low-income housing tax credits through the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority. In addition, a child care center is expected to be part of the development.

“There are so many grandparents raising young kids,” Santa Fe City Councilor Ken Sanchez told the Albuquerque Business Journal. “This will be a tremendous asset to the community.”

Sharing Space With the Young’uns

A short, viral video has captured the hearts of Americans on social media platforms. The video depicts a preschool within the setting of a Seattle-based retirement home that offers assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitation services, Providence Mount St. Vincent (“The Mount”). The community is home to more than 400 older adults and hold a transitional care unit for short-term rehabilitation stays. Young children are featured interacting with seniors, playing games, packing lunches and creating art projects with residents.

The Mount, which first established an Intergenerational Learning Center with a child care program 25 years ago, is the subject of an upcoming documentary by filmmaker Evan Briggs called “Present Perfect.” The film explores the aging process and the meaningful connections forged between young children and older adults in this unique setting. Any viewer can instantly see the joy the interactions bring residents and the value of children learning from older adults.

“We’ve been doing it forever, and we just see it as our normal work every day,” says Charlene Boyd, an administrator who has been at The Mount for nearly 30 years. “Kids and families and parents and everybody are just part of the hallways, the noise, the sounds. That’s just part of what we do. [Briggs] could then capture by film that meaningful engagement between young and old. That ‘Present Perfect’ is what [Briggs] calls the joy and the magic that happens with these ages. We did something with social media and that just captured the hearts of everyone.”

The child care program initially began in 1991 and was started because a small group of employees were seeking a child care solution for themselves. What evolved over the years is a program that currently serves 125 children between the ages of six weeks to five years in six classes, and it has become an integral part of resident life.

“We looked at the fact of having an on-site child care program, and we wanted to make sure we were benefiting both communities – the community of children and the residential setting we were in,” Boyd tells SHN.

Residents and children interact through spontaneous and planned intergenerational programming. Getting residents involved is easy, says Boyd, though they also have the option to passively participate instead of engaging directly by watching children play or learn in common areas. For example, toys are available to children in the lobby when they come through the community and there is even a classroom located within the skilled nursing section that is designated for two-year-olds.

The connection between people who are in the beginning stages of life and those who are in their final stages of life is one that can benefit everyone and is worth being forged, says Boyd.

Boyd’s understanding of this meaningful interaction between generations is echoed throughout the industry, as providers adopt their own methods to enable seniors to age, grow and change through retirement with the wisdom of all ages.

“There are some people that benefit from the children in terms of their care planning,” says Boyd. “Maybe somebody who is socially isolated, somebody who has advanced dementia, somebody who some certain kinds of fears or anxieties can play with the children. It gives them that sort of renewed sense of worth.”

Written by Amy Baxter