LeadingAge Magazine · January/February 2013 • Volume 03 • Number 01

This Gerontology Student Lives for Homework

January 10, 2013 | by Stuart Greenbaum

A long-time relationship between this provider organization and a university gerontology program led to a unique one-year experiment in “immersion research” for one student.

For individuals who want to experience growing old, prematurely—and for good reasons some people do—there are a number of interesting options. Such experiential learning has been attempted in various controlled environments, with varying degrees of commitment and results.

The most extensive of these experiences, at least when measured by endurance, comes from a partnership established this past year between Eskaton and the Gerontology Program at California State University, Sacramento to conduct “immersion research.”

Before launching the officially titled “Eskaton/CSUS Student Living and Learning Experience,” the project’s co-developers critiqued several conceptually similar projects. Each was noteworthy, but none approached the scale being considered by the two Northern California institutions.

For a few minutes: Younger generations can get in touch with the feelings of older adults when they, as singer Joe South urged, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.” Aging institutes often test assistive living devices and nursing schools attempt to teach empathy by conducting simulations with modified shoes and gloves to challenge motor skills, and smeared glasses and ear mufflers to imitate sensory impairment.

For 24 hours: Progressive architecture and interior design firms occasionally assign staff members to spend the night in a skilled nursing community to better understand a pending project’s unique characteristics.

For a month: The mature market branding firm, Varsity, directed Project Looking Glass, which placed several researchers in a Boulder, CO retirement community for one month. The goal: “Uncover mind-sets, lifestyles, life stages, limitations and expectations of today’s mature market.” The open source project shared the experience on YouTube and various other digital media.

For a summer: Filmmaker Andrew Jenks produced a documentary, Room 335, about the summer he spent living among 300 older adults in a retirement community in Florida. The alternately entertaining and poignant film shows, as Jenks describes, “how young people can give something back to those who came before them, emphasizing the point that older people still have much to offer society.”

For six months: Similar to Room 335, comedy writer/author Rodney Rothman took up residency in a retirement community in Florida for about six months. He chronicled his experience in his book Early Bird. The “early retirement” odyssey in Boca Rotan for Rothman, a 28-year-old former staff writer for David Letterman, is a humorous and occasionally bittersweet take on infiltration of the residential and cultural aspects of aging.

For one year and counting: Yovana Gojnic and her neighbors at Eskaton Henson Manor in Sacramento share many common interests—cooking, gardening, reading, social media and volunteering on projects with local school children. So it isn’t all that surprising how effortlessly, in 12 months’ time (November 2011 to November 2012), she’s connected with fellow residents. Except that the ages of the other 90-100 residents range from two to three times that of the 29-year-old Gojnic.

The practical objectives of the Student Living and Learning Experience are for the Master’s level gerontology student to earn coursework credits—over a two-semester or one-year period—while providing support services and conducting applied research. The bigger picture is that innovative “immersion service and learning” should serve as a prototype for replication within gerontology education and the aging services profession.

Eskaton’s goals for the project, predetermined to help inform the daily activities of the student’s involvement, included the following:

  • Produce a mutually beneficial educational experience for the student and all residents of Eskaton Henson Manor.
  • Infuse the community with new programs, and engage residents with new purpose.
  • Demonstrate the benefits of intergenerational connections on physical and mental health, safety and general well-being.
  • Showcase the value of intentional generativity—one generation helping another.

With the history of successful collaboration between the University and Eskaton, the initial idea for the project came together comparatively quickly. Cross-pollination already exists, with Eskaton hosting regular rotations of gerontology student internships in its skilled nursing centers and CSUS gerontology courses hosting Eskaton executives as guest presenters, as well as supporting one another’s events and publications over the years.

Of course, as Peter Drucker reminds us, “All grand strategies eventually deteriorate into work.” Upfront, some logistical, insurance and legal issues needed to be resolved. Foremost, it was necessary to confirm that it was within government regulations for a young adult to reside in the government-regulated community. Of Eskaton’s 28 communities, this one is the only “55+ age-restricted community,” which by law requires 80 percent of residents to be 55 or older.

Letters went out to all residents explaining the unprecedented project, seeking their advance approval, which was forthcoming. A follow-up letter and an article in the community newsletter officially welcomed the new resident.

The invitation to gerontology and nursing students from Cheryl Osborne, director of the CSUS gerontology program, announced: “Are you interested in a lifetime opportunity? Live among people who have ‘been there, done that’ and fast forward your wisdom.” The appeal attracted considerable interest in its inaugural year, and has even prompted requests for a second student experience in 2013.

Once the candidate was selected, for her one-year commitment to the project Eskaton extended Gojnic a discount of about 20 percent on the monthly rent. From CSUS, she earned coursework credits toward her special Master’s in gerontology and public policy and administration.

Getting involved in something new and different is well within Gojnic’s wheelhouse. Her experience includes serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and assisting in elementary school classrooms. As this project began, she was simultaneously immersed in her gerontology studies, working full-time as an office assistant, and training for a statewide fitness and figure competition.

In contrast to her ambitious, fast-paced lifestyle, Gojnic offered an initial assessment of her new surroundings: “My neighbors love to go for walks, visit, bake and work their garden. Enjoying a more balanced lifestyle, with healthier time management, may be the most important thing I learn during this experience.”

To Gojnic’s credit, construction of two raised planter boxes doubled the production of the Henson residents’ popular urban garden. She coordinated a Veterans’ Day event and occasionally entertains the residents with her singing. Cooking demonstrations, programs on nutrition and healthy eating, walking groups, computer training and book clubs have also flourished with her assistance.

“I have enjoyed the opportunity to observe the experiences shared by Yovana and the other residents during this past year,” said Donna Garrett, Eskaton Henson Manor’s administrator. “We are definitely bridging generations with this project.”

Especially valuable has been the anecdotal research she has gathered by engaging her older neighbors with thought-provoking questions, including:

  • What do you think of a younger person (me) living among older adults?
  • What impression did you have of older adult communities before you moved here?
  • What do you find yourself spending more time thinking about: your past, the present or your future?

“To survive, let alone succeed, in a career in gerontology and especially aging services, requires a very genuine passion for working with older adults,” explained Teri Tift, Eskaton’s director of quality and compliance and a gerontology professor at CSUS. “What Yovana is really learning about herself and others from this hands-on experience ... is worth its weight in textbooks.”

Gojnic’s weekly journal entries chronicling her experiences and epiphanies, academic learning experiences, and work-study activities offer an authentic glimpse into the experience, warts and all. Additionally, regular debriefings were held with Gojnic and the project’s advisory team, which includes the director of the CSUS Gerontology Program, administrator Donna Garrett of Henson Manor, Tift and the author.

This experience may be a precursor to the natural evolution of intergenerational living. It may also establish a precedent for replicable, practical research in gerontology. Or, it may simply be an exercise in acceptance and understanding for Gojnic and her neighbors at Eskaton Henson Manor. Just as it will take time to harvest the bounty of the community’s new urban garden, it will take time to realize the results of this experiment.