Closing a generational gap

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November 23, 2009 // UPDATED 8:22 am - November 23, 2009
By: Amanda Kushner
Amanda Kushner
Three Luther Seminary students and two University of Minnesota medical students packed their bags and moved into Augustana Apartments in Elliot Park as a part of their coursework this fall.

It’s the first time students have moved into a senior living facility anywhere in the country. Seminary students will work at the Christian-based senior living facility for 12 hours a week and medical students will interact with seniors to help them learn to become better doctors.

Expanding a partnership

For the past eight years, University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Medicine Edward Ratner’s physician and patient class visited Augustana to teach students how to interview seniors and how to perform geriatric assessments, he said. Following the half-day visit, students would return and discuss their experience.

“Over the years I hear lots of stories about seniors who are lonely who need help with small things but don’t have somebody to help them,” Ratner said.

Segregated housing doesn’t allow multiple generations the opportunity to interact, and it doesn’t seem to work well for either group, he said.

That’s why Ratner approached Augustana about medical students moving in and creating a program that hasn’t been tried anywhere else in the country.

“It is about educating the students in a new way. It is about giving opportunities for seniors to contribute back to the professional development of these students,” he said. “It’s about using apartments that might otherwise be vacant for a population that needs housing, and it’s a way to make the lives of the seniors in Augustana that much better just by even little things.”

Lindy Watanaskul, a third-year medical student, decided to move in to gain experience working with an older population, particularly since she didn’t have grandparents growing up.

“There is only so many electives you can take to work with the geriatric population, and it’s such an important population because there is going to be so many baby boomers. And no matter what part of medicine I go into unless it is pediatric I am going to have some interaction with senior citizens,” she said.

As part of her class project, Watanaskul plans to analyze geriatric depression since she recently finished a psychiatry rotation at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Hospital. She also plans to become a home health care aide.

During her experience at Augustana, Watanaskul has learned that the residents are strong, and many are independent.

Dana Boralessa, also a third-year medical student, agreed and said that expectations are sometimes different.

Her objective in moving into Augustana is to become more comfortable interacting with the seniors, so she can better serve them in the future. She has become friends with one of the residents that she met at game night and regularly tries to dine with her and her friends.

“I think if I wasn’t living here my interaction with this age group would probably be very minimal,” she said.

Personal connections

While walking through the lounge area, seminary student Jane Harris noticed an acquaintance who looked sad and lonely. Harris stopped and soon learned the woman had a horrible headache, and since her family hadn’t visited it was turning into a long day. So the two women decided to walk and talk and ended up in the billiards room. Harris was able to cheer up the woman on a challenging day

When Gary Wilkerson, president of Augustana’s board, heard from Chief Operating Officer Tim Middendorf that medical students would move into the apartments he decided to expand the experience to include seminary students. The three students work at Augustana as part of Wilkerson’s Foundations of Pastoral care class.

Harris, who is interested in the counseling aspect of pastoral care, is learning information about the elderly that helps her communicate when she visits with residents.

“There are so many different stories and lives, these lives that have been lived so fully,” she said of her one-on-one visits with residents.

She also leads a Bible study for about 50 residents, helps in the worship services and is on call when regular chaplains aren’t available.

Augustana Pastor Jim Meyer said residents appreciate hearing the gospel filtered through younger students.

“This gives the younger folks, seminary students, an opportunity to learn how to know your audience when preaching,” he said.

And since students are living at Augustana they are immersed in the area of aging.

“Because seminary students are in the care and apartments, the presence for spiritual care has been greatly enhanced,” Meyer said.

Also the residents love having the students at Augustana, and they will benefit in the long run by having their doctors and pastors know more about their age group, said Joan Edwards, Augustana director of housing.

“They love to see young people, they want young people to know they are not all alike. One resident put it that the only thing we have in common is our age, and they are all different,” she said.

Augustana resident Clinton Peterman, 88, recently was visited by seminary student Carl Joyner. Peterman said Joyner was cordial, friendly and interested in his well-being, comfort and discomfort, and particularly his religious and spiritual concerns.

The medical and seminary students are adding a sense of security to Augustana since residents know they are around for almost instant help, conversation and fellowship, he said. Also it’s a learning experience for the students and helps provide deeper insights about senior citizens’ lives, mental conditions and likes and dislikes, said the eight-year Augustana resident.

“They get a deeper appreciation and understanding of what makes an older person tick, what’s going on in their hearts and minds and what’s of concern to them — something they might not learn in the classroom or in the seminary or serving as a chaplain or intern in the church setting,” he said.

Having the medical and seminary students has enriched the spiritual atmosphere of the apartments, he said.

With the impact of the housing market, the program is helping to fill spare rooms in Augustana, and the facility has offered students a discounted rent, Ratner said.

“I feel so grateful that they decided to open up the doors to younger people as a model hopefully for other care centers,” Watanaskul said.