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Medical students and seminarians to learn more about aging by living with the elderly

What do elders, seminarians, and medical students have in common? This fall, they are all under the same roof. A new initiative designed to bring the generations together is enabling medical and seminary students to move into a senior housing facility at Augustana Apartments in Minneapolis.

While medical students have visited residents at the apartments before, the decision to live side by side with the older generation is a novel one. “We continue to look for new ways to teach geriatrics,” says Dr. Edward Ratner, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Minnesota and medical director of Heartland Home Health Care in Roseville.

Ratner began bringing students to Augustana in 2000 to give them practical experience with the unique needs of the elderly. “Senior housing can be very segregated,” says Dr. Ratner. “At one time there were 65- to 95-year-olds in a senior setting. Now the average age of those moving in is 80. A large number are frail, with little exposure to younger generations, and the potential for much loneliness. Many may lack a neighbor who can easily change a ceiling-light bulb.”

University of Minnesota medical student Lindy Watanaskul (left) joins resident June Englund and seminarian Jane Harris at Augustana Apartments in Minneapolis.

To remedy the older adults’ isolation and give them a chance to mentor a younger generation, Ratner proposed that medical students move to the Augustana Apartments to learn from and about their elderly neighbors. As Augustana currently has vacancies and students often need housing, the plan meets the needs of all involved.

To remedy the older adults’ isolation and give them a chance to mentor a younger generation, Edward Ratner proposed that medical students move to the Augustana Apartments.

Ratner chose Augustana because, when bringing his second-year students to the apartments for a brief exposure, he found “it was always such a helpful place. The service coordinators always made sure everything went smoothly. The residents are a really special group of people, committed to helping others. The volunteerism in the building is much greater than in other places.”

A service-learning opportunity

The university’s commitment to the service-learning concept, helping students learn by engaging in community service, was the basis for the new program which provides the medical school’s only geriatric course offering. To date, two medical students have moved into Augustana Apartments. They will eat meals; attend social, recreational, or religious activities; and socialize with their older neighbors. Some may transport a neighbor to the doctor and help them navigate the health care system.

Students will also complete home health aide training so they can be on call in case of emergencies. “They might have to help someone in the middle of the night with something like an elastic sock,” Ratner explains. “They will learn how to put them on and remove them.”

Including seminarians in the mix

When he learned from Augustana’s chief operating officer, Tim Middendorf, about medical students moving into the apartments, Gary Wilkerson, visiting professor of congregational and community leadership at Luther Seminary, was intrigued. Wilkerson, who is also president of Augustana Care’s board, talked with Middendorf and Patricia Lull, the seminary’s dean of students, about creating a live-in program. As a result, three seminary students moved into the Minneapolis apartments this fall.

“Many of the students at the seminary say they don’t get the chance to work with older people or children. The program at Augustana is excellent for these people, when they’re going to go out into the world and work with the elderly,” says Joan Edwards, director of housing at Augustana.

“I’m excited about a partnership with this depth and breadth,” says Lull. “It offers students a real context for ministry and a wonderful option for housing while they are in seminary. In exchange, it offers the residents of Augustana an opportunity to interact with a wider variety of seminarians.”

Seminary student Jane Harris agrees. She moved into the apartments recently and says, “Right off the bat, I could feel a sense of love and warmth from both the residents and the staff here.” Jane and her fellow seminarians are interning with Chaplain Amy Luukkonen and Pastor Jim Meyer.

Medical student Lindy Watanaskul moved into her apartment last summer and has been getting to know her neighbors. “The population is getting older, and anyone working in health care should have experience working with the elderly,” she says. “It’s just invaluable, a very different experience from anything else that’s out there.”

Jenna Zark is a freelance writer and communications consultant in the Twin Cities.

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