Three seniors at the University of Northern Iowa have immersed themselves in a seniors community of a much different kind.
The trio – Shelby Miller, George Ahrenholz and Lauren Turbett – are taking part in the Western Home Communities' inaugural students-in-residence program. They'll spend this summer and the academic year living in the senior living communities of Willowwood Independent Living and Stanard Family Assisted Living in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
"I'm so excited to get to know the residents and begin building relationships with them," Miller said.
The students began moving in May 27.
The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports that the students are provided apartment-style living spaces for a rental fee of $150 per month. In exchange, they are expected to log 10 to 15 hours per week of engagement activities, said Carolyn Martin, director of volunteer services.
Those activities could include anything from arranging formal programs to suppertime or movies with the residents. The arrangement also includes 15 meals per week for the students.
Martin believes the program is the second of its kind in the state of Iowa. A Drake University student moved in with an Urbandale assisted living community for the spring semester of this year, according to Drake University's website.
A 2014 Dutch project of the same nature served as a landmark model for similar engagement programs that are popping up across the country: Senior living centers are providing college students housing at free or reduced rent in exchange for hanging out with the residents.
"It's been shown in many, many studies that interaction between generations shows benefits for seniors," Martin said. "And the longer-term immersion is even better."
Linda Hudwalker Bowman, chief communications officer for Western Home, said senior living is trending toward inter-generational housing.
The idea has been in the works for about three years now, Martin said, but the logistics didn't come together until recently. She said many UNI students volunteer on a weekly basis, usually for classes, and she's wanted to see a program that involves more contact for an extended period of time.
Miller, who majors in gerontology at UNI, said she's eager to get experience in her major. Ahrenholz, a leisure, youth and human services major, isn't sure about his goals for the experience quite yet.
"I grew up doing activities here and helping out," Ahrenholz said. "And when I heard about the program I found it very intriguing."
The three plan to use their strengths and interests in order to get the community involved and active. Miller said her interest in theater could come in handy. Ahrenholz, a manager for the UNI men's basketball team, looks forward to possible pickup games.
"I've already played with some of the residents," Ahrenholz said. "Some of them hold memberships at the Waterloo rec center, and one guy is 80."
Burnett, who's been working with Western Home since January of 2015, said one of the most rewarding aspects of working with elderly populations is exploding stereotypes.
She said many think of seniors as close-minded, grumpy and judgmental.
"But that's not been my experience at all," she said. "If we think differently about something, [the seniors] want to know why that is. They are often open-minded."
Bowman said stereotypes about millennials – they are lazy and only concerned with their phones – blow apart as well when seniors and young people get together.
"There's a lot of common ground to be found," Martin added.
Willowwood houses about 40 residents, while around 85 residents live in Stanard, which is across the street from Willowwood. Turbett and Miller will room together in Willowwood, while Ahrenholz will stay across the street at Stanard.
He says the residents are eager to meet him; they'd been knocking on his door and asking around about him for a few days before his delayed arrival.
Miller hopes a successful stint will inspire other senior living facilities to open their doors to a younger crowd. Martin said if all goes well, Willowwood will continue the project in the future.
"As people become older and closer to the end of their lifetime, they begin thinking of their legacy," Martin said. "And they want to make an impact on others. They want to share their stories in the hopes of teaching others."
• This is an AP Member Exchange story shared by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.