WALLINGFORD, Conn. – Victoria Kozar, like many students, met one of her best friends while in college.
The now 23-year-old, who attended Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, says she and Beth lived in the same building and spent hours talking about everything from boyfriends to baking.
Her other friends are usually surprised when they find out that Beth Eichelman is 91 years old.
“I don’t refer to her as like, my elderly friend Beth,” she said. “She’s not like another grandma. She’s just one of the girls.”
Kozar, of New Milford, was among the first students to participate in the Masonicare-Quinnipiac University Students In Residence Program, which had her live during her senior year in 2016-17, at Masonicare at Ashlar Village, a retirement community in Wallingford.
Intergenerational learning isn’t new. There are dozens of programs across the nation that have opened assisted living facilities on campus or given senior citizens access to college classrooms. But only a few, such as Quinnipiac, actually have the generations live together.
The idea of the program is to tear down generational stereotypes, combat ageism and introduce students to possibility of careers working with the elderly.
On Friday, Ashlar Village welcomed Cathleen Dacey, a law student. Dacey has her own apartment there and will provide at least eight hours of service each week in exchange for housing.
“I’m really interested in elder law and I find that the best way to help those people is to be with them to listen to them,” said Dacey, 23. “So I’m hopeful that this year, I’ll learn about their lives, but also how to help them.”
Kozar, who is applying to medical schools, said the program helped steer her toward a career in geriatrics. She helped run a jewelry-making club and baking class at the center. Residents would ask her for help with computer tablets and technology.
“It’s nice to have someone come in who’s young, who is vibrant, who smiles, who talks to us,” said 85-year-old resident Clarisse Miessau, who wore a Quinnipiac University T-shirt Friday to welcome Dacey. “That’s what they have done for us.”
Kozar said she and the other students get just as much, if not more, from the program through living history lessons. Several of the women at the center, she said, had distinguished careers in science and medicine, breaking down barriers that she is now able to walk through. All of them, she said, are happy to share their stories and expertise.
“This place was more full of life than many of my college classrooms,” she said. “My other friends wanted to spend more time there than anywhere else.”
The experience inspired her to start an organization, “Old Friends and New,” which brought other Quinnipiac students to the center.
John Morgan, a university spokesman, said it is becoming clear throughout the higher education community that the elderly are an untapped resource. He said the next step may be to have a Masonicare resident live in a university dorm.
In Ohio, students from the Cleveland Institute of Music have been living at the Judson Manor retirement home since 2010.
Kristina Kuprevicius, the center’s director of marketing, said the arrangement provides a built-in audience for the students and welcome interaction with the younger generation for the seniors.
“Between the two generations, there is a lot of comradery that starts to build, because as one resident told me, ‘We don’t have baggage with each other,'” she said. “Students can ask residents about certain issues and how they should react to their parents, and the seniors are kept up to date by the students.”
Kozar said the students have learned that the elderly aren’t necessarily frail and the older residents have learned that Millennials aren’t necessarily self-absorbed, she said.
J.P. Venoit, the chief executive of Masonicare, said when they became involved in the Quinnipiac program he assumed the students would come in, do their required work with the elderly and spend the rest of the time in their rooms studying.
“That hasn’t been the case,” he said. “They aren’t going through the motions. The have become fully engaged. That has been the interesting part. It’s turned out to be something much better, much more than we thought it would be.”