Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

At a Winona assisted living facility, elderly are co-living with students

An assisted living facility
Senior Living at Watkins is an assisted living facility in Winona that is multi-generational, with the elderly and students living together.
Chris Farrell | MPR News

The multigenerational home — several generations living together — is increasingly popular. So are residential communities designed to bring multiple generations together.

These intergenerational communities largely exist on the tributaries of the housing market. Yet they are gaining traction.

We’re continuing our conversation on intergenerational living with MPR News’ senior economics contributor Chris Farrell. In his second report, Farrell visited an assisted living center in Winona where younger students not only volunteer there, it’s also where they live.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The multi-generational home, several generations living together, is increasingly popular, so are residential communities designed to bring multiple generations together. These intergenerational communities largely exist on the tributaries of the housing market, yet they are gaining some traction.

We're going to continue our conversation on intergenerational living with MPR's senior economics contributor Chris Farrell. In this second report, he visited an assisted living center in Winona, where younger students not only volunteer there, it's also where they live. Pretty cool story, Chris. How are you?

CHRIS FARRELL: I'm doing well. How are you, Cathy?

CATHY WURZER: Good. Good, good, good. I think this is really interesting. So tell us about this trend toward building or creating communities designed to bring all the generations together.

CHRIS FARRELL: So, Cathy, there's been a slow increase in these deliberately designed intergenerational communities. And the idea is, let's bring the generations together for mutual support and a sense of purpose. Jennifer Molinsky is at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

JENNIFER MOLINSKY: I do think that we're talking more about multigenerational communities, and I think that there are a lot of people who want to be surrounded by people of all ages and have those daily interactions. And I do think we are seeing different organizations respond to that.

CHRIS FARRELL: And critical to the success of these communities, Cathy, is everyone gets their private space. You get to close your door. But there are also common areas for connection and conversation, says Molinsky.

JENNIFER MOLINSKY: People have their own private unit, and then they have some common spaces. And there's sort of an expectation and emphasis about community. I think that people who choose to live in settings like this are looking for that social interaction.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Social interaction, really important, especially as we talk about the threats of loneliness and social isolation.

CHRIS FARRELL: Yes. And social connections, they're just vital to the well-lived life. And Marc Freedman, he's the founder of CoGenerate. It's an enterprise that bridges the divides between generations.

MARC FREEDMAN: People who study successful development later in life have shown that connecting with younger generations is extraordinarily important for the well-being of older people. And for young people, many of whom are facing isolation and loneliness, this is a way to have more connection built into their lives, and also to develop a sense of the wholeness of life.

So there's much mutual benefit, not just from an economic standpoint, but also from what it means to be a human being in our long-lived world.

CATHY WURZER: So I think I have heard about this intergenerational community in Winona. Tell us about it.

CHRIS FARRELL: So the Watkins Manor Assisted Living Complex-- it's on this tree-lined neighborhood near Winona State University. And the assisted living center has some 45 residents. And they live in an apartment building constructed in the early-2000s.

And the newish apartments, they're attached to an English Tudor-style mansion built in the 1920s by the second generation leader of the JR Watkins Company. And that company was founded in 1868, and it's known for its all-natural products. So among the students who live in the manor house and volunteers at the assisted living center is Dylan Cassella. He attends Winona State University, and he'll become a social worker when he graduates.

SUBJECT: I get to form connections with older adults and learn more about them from their past, because they experienced a lot of different events. And they went through a lot of stuff that I probably haven't gone through. So it's cool to hear the history behind them and what they had experienced in life.

SUBJECT 2: We can learn from each other. So the older residents teach us a lot, but we also get to teach them a lot. And I think that's been really helpful like getting me through college and helping them with technology, and just younger language, younger energy-- and then we can also learn skills that they have that they can teach us.

CHRIS FARRELL: So that's Hannah Edmond. And she lives at the Watkins manor. And Hannah is the first in her family to go to college, and she'll graduate from Winona State in May. She's a nursing student there, as well as a nursing assistant with the memory care team.

CATHY WURZER: This sounds like a win-win. I'm curious about what the residents say about the young students living with them.

CHRIS FARRELL: Well, Cathy, they told me they love having younger people around. And among the residents I talked to was Nancy Newman, 85 years old.

SUBJECT 3: Wonderful, wonderful students learning all about the process of education and their careers. It's wonderful.

SUBJECT 4: Hopefully they will learn something from us, too. But yes, I learn, yes, without even hesitating, I will say "yes," we learn from them because of their lifestyle, their technology. The world has changed so much that we never experienced, even as they have not experienced what we did.

CHRIS FARRELL: Alan Thompson is 93 years old.

CATHY WURZER: This is so cool. How does this work for the students? What are the economics of intergenerational living for them?

CHRIS FARRELL: OK, so there are eight students in the program currently. And they live on the second and third floors of the manor. The rent is $400 a month. And in return, they volunteer 10 hours a month.

And their rent is reduced even more, Cathy, if they put in more hours. They can eat for free with the residents in the residents' dining room. And utilities are covered. That said, the big return comes from the generations being around one another. Cheryl Krage is director of assisted living and hospice services for Winona Health.

CHERYL KRAGE: We've had students that have paired up one-on-one with residents that have trouble with eyesight and they need help reading things. They will spend some just really intentional one-on-one time with them. So it is the intergenerational piece. It's a real special component of the program.

CHRIS FARRELL: And her remarks echo the experience of Reuben Cephus. He's the therapeutic recreational specialist at Watkins. He's worked there for two years, and he likes what he sees.

SUBJECT 4: Absolutely love the student program. I work really closely with all the students. I help them get their volunteer hours. And they help me out in assisting me in some of the activities that need to be done here at Watkins.

So it's really nice to see the connections that they get to build amongst themselves and amongst the residents. I hear nothing but good things from the residents about the students. They're always asking me about updates about them.

When they go home for summer vacation, winter break, they're like, when are the students coming back? So it's just really great to see the experiences that they get to share with the residents and things like that. So I'm really, really glad to have all of them here.

CATHY WURZER: I love hearing that the bonds between the students and the residents are really strong. I'm wondering, this seems like such an interesting trend, is it gaining momentum elsewhere?

CHRIS FARRELL: It is gaining momentum. It's definitely growing, Cathy. There are a number of assisted living centers elsewhere in the country that have established programs similar to Watkins. Colleges and universities have built intergenerational communities on-campus.

And then there are these intriguing organizations like Bridge Meadows and Treehouse Communities. And they've created intergenerational communities that move foster care children into adoptive homes and connect them with honorary grandparents and mentors. And Cheryl says she gets calls about the Watkins programs from developers and organizations wanting to know how the program works.

CHERYL KRAGE: We get called frequently. I would say probably a handful of times a year. I've had people from Ohio, the Virginia area, or South North Carolina, up in the cities. So there's some businesses that are doing new development or new building, and they're looking at creating student space from the very beginning of their new building.

CATHY WURZER: I love this. What I like about the trend, you bring the generations together rather than pitting the generations against one another.

CHRIS FARRELL: I know. I mean, it seems to me, Cathy, that the business consultants, think tanks, they love generating this theme of generational warfare. But the notion that the relationship between generations is a zero-sum economic game or emotional game, it's just wrong. It's deeply wrong.

The far more powerful story is generational interdependence. And that insight includes where we live.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. Chris Farrell, good work. Thank you.

CHRIS FARRELL: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: That's Chris Farrell, our senior economics contributor.

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