Dorm life mixing youngsters and oldsters helps jump the 'generation gap'
Evanston, Ill. — * Every fall in Bellingham, Wash., elderly and college-aged students of Fairhaven College stage a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. * In Syracuse, N.Y., the Toomey-Abbott Towers project brings together its 400 elderly residents and Syracuse University students for discussions and social activities.
* In Evanston, Ill., two men look for land to build a housing project where the young and old will live together.
The concept behind these three projects is "intergenerational housing." Although not widespread at present, it is being offered by some as oneway to bridge the "generation gap" between young and old Americans. In a society which has spawned age-restricted housing, retirement homes, and left some 6.8 million elderly persons living alone, according to 1978 figures, proponents of intergenerational housing believe the young and old should get together.
The Bridge Project at Fairhaven, for example, brings 30 students aged 55 or older on campus to live with students in two dormitories. They may live on campus a maximum of four years and mus take at least one academic class per quarter.
"The blend of experience and blid enthusiasm and idealism that I get in my classes provides a spark for both," Prof. Doug Rich says of mixing the young and old.
The younger students learn some American history firsthand -- what it was like to live through the Great Depression, for example, says Mr. Rich, who is also director of the Fairhaven project. "And that just doesn't come through in a book."
Meanwhile, the elderly students, or "Bridgers" as they are called, have the chance to be involved in an active college life.
Twelve Bridgers are working toward bachelor's degrees; another two toward master's. When not in class, they go backpacking, swimming, or sailing.
"Once older students have become active in the Bridge Project and have discovered a supportive community, they find they have many more personal abilities and activities than they know," Mr. Rich says.
No one at the project finds it strange that the retired postman plays racquetball with the project's secretary or that the older women play tennis, he says. "They don't think of themselves as old or decrepit. The older students don't say: 'Poor me, I can't do it,' because everyone else is doing it."
Although somewhat similar to the Bridge Project, the Toomey-Abbott Towers at Syracuse University is not, strictly speaking, intergenerational housing. About 400 persons aged 62 and over live in efficiencies or the one- and two-bedroom apartments of the 21-story high-rise.Two student dormitories housing 750 undergraduates are connected to the complex.
Although the tower residents do not live in the same building with students and are not required to take regular classes, there are a host of programs where the young and old can get together.
One such activity is the "Group Match," where residents and students meet for ice cream socials, discussions, movies, square dancing, and, yes, even disco.
The project, started in 1969, has had problems with funding and communication with the university. But in a 10-year evaluation of the project, community service associate Mary Montague writes: "On balance, the experience has been extremely positive in its effect on individual lives."
It is this individual success that characterizes intergenerational housing as a whole.
How widespread are such projects? The number is hard to determine since there is no national organization specifically promoting intergenerational housing.
But Ray Lewis, an educational consultant who for seven years was involved in intergenerational education programs, expects the concept to spread, although the growth may be piecemeal.
"I certainly expect to see more of it," he says, "but it takes a pretty unusual set of circumstances to make it happen."
Proponents readily admit intergenerational housing is not for everyone.
The Cross-Generational Program at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., for example, sponsored housing for 16 senior citizens and 16 college-aged students from 1972 through 1975.
But "the live-in part didn't work out too well," says Douglas Candland, faculty adviser to the program. While other intergenerational activities received strong support from the Lewisburg community, and still do, the housing failed because those senior citizens able to take care of themselves, and thus eligible to live in the housing, preferred to live at home, he says.
Two men here in Evanston, however, think intergenerational housing projects can work .
"They've been tried at so few places and in different situations that you can't draw any conclusions," says Paul Arntson, a professor at Northwestern University. Mr. Arntson and his partner, Bud Ogle, plan to build a $3 million to $3.5 million project next year.
Unlike the Fairhaven project, they will not set limits on how long residents can stay or require them to take classes. Unlike the Syracuse project, senior citizens and students will live in the same building and the middle-aged generation will be included.
Mr. Ogle, executive director of University Christian Ministry in Evanston, wants to mix 40 percent senior citizens, 40 percent college-aged students from Northwestern and other nearby colleges, and 20 percent middle-generation people, although this will depend on how the selection of residents goes.
The initial response from students and senior citizens is quite positive, Mr. Ogle says, perhaps due in part to the projected monthly rent of $300 to $320 for a one- to two- person room.
"Everyone we've talked to has said that at that price, they'll take the whole building," he says. But money is not the motivating factor for these intergenerational proponents.
"We have a vision that we feel is a divine purpose," Mr. Ogle says. "I think the Holy Spirit works best in a mix."