An Intergenerational Approach to Campus Living

When David Warren moved to Delaware, OH, to start his tenure as president of Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU) in the 1980s, he had a slight problem: The president’s house would not be ready for occupancy for several months. But instead of moving into an apartment, Warren decided to call one of the residence halls home, a decision that would ultimately change the face of OWU’s on-campus living options.

Warren’s experience proved so positive that he decided to create an intergenerational living space on OWU’s campus, much like one he’d seen at Yale University. At the time, Austin Hall, originally a woman’s dormitory built in 1923, faced demolition, but instead of tearing down the dorm, Warren used the opportunity to transform the space into Austin Manor, which houses students, faculty, and retirees in its 60 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Twenty years later, OWU’s intergenerational community continues to thrive. Empty slots fill up quickly, and the housing office maintains lengthy waiting lists for both students and non-students alike. Since students make up only one-third of Austin Manor’s residents, OWU offers perks to the resident hall’s working professionals and retirees to help integrate them into campus life, such as providing residents with university IDs, so they can attend concerts and sporting events at student rates and allowing them to audit courses.

But it’s the residents themselves who make Austin Manor feel like home. The apartment community buzzes with activity throughout the year, whether they’re getting together for monthly mixers, keeping an eye on a neighbor’s pets, tending the shared garden, or reading a book on the porch. 

“It’s like living in a neighborhood,” said Jean Archer, 85, who moved into Austin Manor two years ago and now serves as president of the resident hall association, “and it goes both ways with the students and the residents. It’s not that we have a real intimate interaction with the students; after all, they’re here to do one thing, and that’s to study and get a degree, and they have their own social lives. But yet, it’s enough.”

It’s that neighborhood feel that motivates so many of OWU’s juniors and seniors to apply to live at the residence hall each year. “Everyone who lives here is so friendly,” said Carla Hoppe, a student resident who moved into Austin Manor for her senior year. “It’s so much fun, and it’s a good transition living area: I’m not completely out on my own off campus, but I’m not living in the dorms either. I have a kitchen and a cat. I love it here.”

Partnering With Communities
While OWU takes the on-campus approach to intergenerational housing, other colleges and universities partner with neighboring retirement communities to bring the generations together. For instance, at Ithaca College (IC) in New York, the residents at Longview, an independent-living Ithacare community where the average age is 85, mix and mingle with the college’s students and faculty, both on and off campus.

Though it took several years for IC to nail down the details of its intergenerational program, such as setting up shuttle service and linking Longview’s phone service to IC’s network, today roughly 300 students head to Longview each semester to participate in a myriad of activities. Some students simply stop by to visit, while others use the opportunity to help the residents with their taxes or interview them for a school project. And Longview’s residents take the shuttle to campus, as well, to attend concerts, audit courses, or share their life experiences as a class’s guest speaker. 

“Increasingly, colleges recognize that they’ve got to get their students applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to the real world, and what’s really satisfying is how many faculty and how many students, most of whom are not gerontology students, find a way to tie this program into what they’re studying,” said John Krout, professor and director of the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute. “With most residential colleges, 18- to 22-year-olds are segregated from the rest of the community by all kinds of barriers, from distance to attitudinal. We created something where all those things are swept away.”

Intergenerational Interaction
“For some students, this will be the first time they have interacted with an older person outside of a nursing home, and their comments are often, ‘The people I talk to are so interesting and funny,’” Krout continued. “The students come away from it with this completely different notion of what an older person is. The value of the program for both organizations has really been… we try to measure it, but in some ways, it can’t be measured.”

David Robbins, interim president and provost of OWU, agreed. “Living at Austin Manor is a wonderful experience, not only for our students, but also for the retirees. I’m surprised there aren’t more facilities like this. We seem to be going in the opposite direction, building more and more retirement villas and fewer areas where we try to integrate intergenerational living,” a missed opportunity, Robbins feels, given that many retirees move to college towns because they want to stay connected to the youth and energy that permeates the communities.

That was the case for Archer, who spent her career working in the University of Akron’s school of education. “I like seeing a young face every once in a while; for wrinkles, I can look in a mirror,” Archer said with a smile. “As we get older, we need to have that youth part with us. They keep us young. It’s a mix that’s good for all of us.”