Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Inter-generational Living in St. Louis
By Emma Swinford, MPH, MSW, Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging
The Back Story
My experience in the world of inter-generational living started when I began working as a research assistant with the Friedman Center for Aging in my second year of grad school. The Friedman Center’s work on inter-generational housing has led the way in promoting innovative, cross-generational living options in St. Louis and as an RA, I loved learning about the inter-generational exchanges and friendships taking place in the community-based homesharing program and in independent living buildings. When the opportunity to be a student-in-residence at Crown Center for Senior Living emerged several months later, I found myself eager to dive in.
How Does it Work?
Through Crown Center’s inter-generational living pilot program, I live in an apartment at Crown Center in exchange for at least 8 hours of volunteer work a week. These volunteer hours span a wide range of activities including serving meals in the dining room, volunteering at the welcome desk, helping with art workshops, music performances and cooking demonstrations, and organizing events for residents. One of the most popular events is the monthly inter-generational discussion circle, called Conversation Corner.
Regardless of their individual circumstances, older adults are often treated as part a monolithic category, with certain (often ageist) traits ascribed to it— wrinkly, grouchy, frail, needy, incompetent, forgetful, weak. No doubt, we have all encountered these deficit-focused stereotypes of older adulthood and this narrative is so pervasive that it can be difficult to remember there are other realities.
If you ever need a place to challenge age stereotypes, I’d recommend spending a few hours at Crown Center. Many of the residents here live full and vibrant lives that accommodate their changing bodies and circumstances. Consider some of my neighbors: the 94 year-old who decorates her walker seasonally and volunteers in the community every week; the woman in her late 60’s who recently taught herself to crochet while caring for her sister with Parkinson’s; and the man who started his own weekly podcast to talk about pressing social issues. Residents here are travelers, bloggers, caregivers, activists, and gardeners. They play games, plan outings, go to protests, and bake cakes for one another’s birthdays. Many of them are quite happy with their life stage. Early on in my time at Crown Center, I organized an event called “6 Word Memoirs.” One woman came and cheerfully penned her brief memoir: Life didn’t get good until 73.
This is not to minimize the fact that aging can be difficult, or that aging is often accompanied by various kinds of loss. As we age, we may lose loved ones, physical abilities, a sense of identity or cognitive capacities. I have seen my friends and neighbors manage difficult medical diagnoses, grief, and frustration. I’ve heard them express exhaustion, disappointment, and pain. However, they do not exist solely in spaces of discomfort. My time living at Crown Center has shown me that the experience of aging is nuanced, individual, and requires a more flexible, balanced perspective than what we typically see in the media.
How could I possibly adopt a conventional lens on aging when the same people I see coming back from a discouraging doctor’s appointment one day are gleefully leading an impromptu show tunes sing-a-long the next?
The Big Picture
The past few months at Crown Center have shown me that it is a very special place to live. Undoubtedly, it is special because of the community of people who live and work here. But its special because of its position in the larger world of senior housing. At Crown Center, residents across the income spectrum can live comfortably and proudly, and can benefit from expertise and resources to help them age in place.
At Crown Center, residents have safe, healthy, and affordable housing. They can access a community garden, exercise equipment, a library, and programming spanning a range of topics. Staff is available to assist with specific needs and there is a strong physical and social support infrastructure for residents. Unfortunately, it is unique to find low-cost senior housing that offers the kind of support and programming that Crown Center does. Many times, lower-income older adults are left under-engaged, isolated, and housing insecure, which can negatively impact health and well-being.
Simply put, we need more financially accessible resident-centered housing options for older adults.
In much of society, we find ourselves partitioned by age. Spending quality time with people of different generations is extremely valuable—will become increasingly necessary as our society ages. Living at Crown Center broadened my perspective on aging and helped me re-write some of the ideas I held about later life. I am so grateful for the opportunity to live at Crown Center and will hold the lessons I have learned from my neighbors close.Tags: Older Adults