Housing Innovations for Young and Old Counter Senior Isolation

Housing Innovations for Young and Old Counter Senior Isolation

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Photo: Rusudan Kilaberia, middle, is a University of Minnesota doctoral student living at an Augustana senior high-rise in Minneapolis. She hangs out often with the older residents. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune)

Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.—Growing up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Rusudan Kilaberia was surrounded by older people, including her three surviving grandparents, who lived nearby. They were a familiar presence at family dinners and holiday celebrations. She even knew their friends.

"It really is a way of life where I came from," said Kilaberia, a 30-something University of Minnesota doctoral student who now lives in Minneapolis. "I've always had older people around me."

Kilaberia feels right at home living in a downtown Minneapolis high-rise apartment building occupied primarily by people about a half-century her senior. With more than a quarter-million Minnesotans over 60 living alone, a number experts say will rise significantly in the coming years, elders’ isolation can result in declining physical and mental health. So new shared housing arrangements are emerging to offer innovative options to young and old.

Unlike Georgia (and many other cultures), the United States has made a custom of housing older people in separate senior residences. Grandparents, parents and children rarely live together — often not even in the same city or state.

Senior Living with Students

Kilaberia is involved in a University of Minnesota program that offers housing units at Augustana Care senior residence to a handful of students. The younger people live there at a reduced rate in exchange for volunteering time with residents, who are typically over 80. The program began about 16 years ago, providing credit for visiting volunteers, and has included the housing component since 2009, said the program's founder, Edward Ratner, a doctor in the university's graduate faculty for geriatrics.

"The project to a great extent is addressing the cultural problem of frail people being isolated," Ratner said.

In her five years living at Augustana, Kilaberia happily goes above and beyond the minimum hours required. She spends about 50 hours a month with older residents, partly because it's helpful as she works toward her doctorate in social work — she recently published an article about her observations in the academic journal Gerontology & Geriatrics Education. But also because she simply enjoys it.

Kilaberia plays Scrabble, watches TV with groups, brings coffee to weekly current-events discussions, provides company on outings, or just visits with people who want someone to talk to. If she spots a resident sitting alone, she goes out of her way to initiate a chat. Kilaberia doesn't consider these activities a one-way exchange; she says she also learns from the older people and is honored to receive their friendship and favors.

"This is not a chore for me; I like doing it. I would seek out a similar opportunity," Kilaberia said. "The seniors can teach something to enrich the lives of younger people.” She emphasized, “I love it, and that really is the short answer."

Then there’s Facebook. Use of the social-networking site has been correlated with loneliness, but it’s hard to say whether seeing friends’ posts makes people feel lonely or lonely people are drawn to the site for virtual companionship. For Holmberg, it’s definitely the latter. “Facebook, to me, is like my family,” she said.

A Home for All Ages

The scene might resemble an extended family’s Thanksgiving dinner — roaring fire in the hearth, soft music, delicious food smells, people of several generations eating and talking — except that the main dishes on the buffet table are baked salmon and a colorful salad, and most of the people are not related to one another.

It’s an ordinary Thursday at the Monterey Cohousing Community [https://montereycohousing.com/] in suburban St. Louis Park, one of two nights a week that the community’s residents gather for dinner.

Cohousing communities around the nation, such as Monterey, sometimes called intentional communities, are groups of people who occupy a single housing development. Residents typically


Photo: Keightyn Baity, 6, and Monika Stumpf, 76, set the table at Monterey cohousing in St. Louis Park, Minn. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune)

have their own fully equipped apartments or condominiums but gather in common indoor and outdoor areas for meals, meetings, shared projects or ordinary conversation.

People who want time alone can find privacy in their own units. Those who want company can usually find it — often spontaneously. Residents work together to maintain the building and grounds, take turns cooking meals and perform other needed tasks.

“The everyday functioning of this place brings people together,” said Monika Stumpf.

At 76, Stumpf is Monterey’s oldest resident. She became involved in its founding in 1991, for “very simple” reasons, she said. Having grown up in a multi¬generational household, she missed casual interaction with others.

“I didn’t like living in apartments, or even when I lived in a house where I didn’t know the neighbors and the neighbors didn’t necessarily want to be involved or even say hello,” she said. “That drove me crazy.”

Joelyn Malone, 66, a Monterey resident for 21 years, had a similar experience, having grown up on a Nebraska farm among aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. “When I moved to the city, I was so lonely,” she said.

Minnesotans’ notorious social reserve made things worse. “Everybody was still best friends with the people they went to first grade with.”

A Growing Option

There are hundreds of co¬housing communities around the country (and many more around the world). A few, like Monterey, date back to the 1980s and ’90s, but most have popped up since 2000. Minnesota has only two so far (the other a small community in Rushford). At least a couple of others are in the works, with groups formed to make plans and search for sites.

Monterey is relatively small as cohousing communities go, with 29 people in 15 households, including younger and older adults and a handful of children. The development includes a brick mansion built in 1924 that houses common areas and some individual homes, and a cluster of newer condominiums next door.

Joey Baity and Heather ¬Garrett-Baity are among several residents in their mid-30s. They moved in about a year ago with their now-six-year-old daughter, Keightyn. They didn’t set out to find cohousing — they needed a place to live, and came across Monterey — but they felt at home right away. On the day they moved in, residents rushed to welcome them, help carry boxes or offer gifts of food.

“We love it; it’s great,” Garrett-Baity said. “We want to stay and die here.”

Katy Read wrote this series for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation.