The retirement home that buzzes with college students

This post is adapted from a report I recently wrote with Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, “I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, the Old, and What We Can Achieve Together.”

Longview, a non-profit retirement community in upstate New York, welcomes elders who are completely independent, elders who need a little help, and elders who need round-the-clock care.

It also welcomes kids from nearby Ithaca College, hundreds of whom spend time there every semester.

A pioneering experiment in Ithaca, New York. 

“Have you ever gone into nursing homes and you see people sitting around in wheelchairs with their heads on their chests?” said Bob McCune, 87, a retired United Methodist pastor who moved to Longview with his wife a few years ago because they were feeling isolated in their rural home.

“And it’s just so depressing? Well, with those kids around here, it’s not depressing, it’s very lively.”

The students are there for all kinds of reasons.

Musicians and dancers stage performances for residents. History and journalism majors consider their life stories. Gerontology scholars ask them what it’s like to grow old, while budding physical, occupational, recreational, and speech therapists help assess and treat their ailments.

“They have the opportunity of using us as kind of their guinea pigs,” McCune quipped.

There are also lots of chances for students and elders to simply enjoy one another. The two generations come together for a quilting club, a baking club, a weekly bingo game, Sunday Mass, and an annual prom.

About 300 Ithaca students participate in at least one of the dozens of intergenerational opportunities at Longview each semester, which are jointly coordinated by the facility’s staff and a professor at the college. Meanwhile, Longview residents swim in the college’s pool, use its library, attend plays and other campus performances, and audit any courses they like.

“That sounds too good to be true,” said McCune, who, so far, has taken a political science course, a bioethics course, and two courses in aging studies. “I’m learning a lot and having a great time. It’s just a matter of joy.”

A big part of the fun is getting to know his classmates, he said.

“They’re very good, and of course, very polite,” he said. “My God, they open the door for you and everything else.”

Emily Laino, who graduated last spring, sat near McCune in the bioethics class.

“It was really great to have his perspective,” she recalled. “Sometimes, even in the college classroom, students aren’t really eager to speak aloud, and he had no problem doing that … It was really great to hear him, and I think the whole class got a lot more out of it because he was able to speak about his experiences.”

Laino, who was a healthcare management major, spent a lot of time at Longview during her college career. Once, for an aging studies fieldwork course, she was assigned to visit two residents weekly. One of them, Lucille Tompkins, devoted her days to crocheting baby hats for preemies born at a nearby hospital.

“I was really interested because I liked to knit and didn’t know how to crochet really,” Laino said.

So Tompkins offered to teach her, and they’d work on the hats together during their visits.

“I would go each week, and I’d show her where I was in the hat, or if I’d made a mistake, she’d show me where I went wrong. And she was always really patient. It was a really great experience for both of us, and we became really close through that.”

“She kind of became someone who I would open up to a little bit more. I would tell her about whatever was going on at school—if I had an upcoming exam, or how I did on one, or a project that was happening—or something that was going on in my family.”

“She would mostly just listen, and a few times if I asked for her advice, she would give advice, which was really nice.”

During her senior year, Laino interned in the office of Longview’s executive director, an experience that solidified her conviction that someday, she’d like to run a retirement community herself—and ensure that it integrates the young.

“Older adults have a lot to offer, even when they’re living in a long-term care facility. And just because they’re in a long-term care facility doesn’t mean they can’t function.”

“I mean, they have so much to teach.”