We Should Put Old People In College Dorms. Seriously

By Melissa Davidson

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

If one takes this quote to heart by feminist icon Betty Friedan, it’s clear that successful aging should be considered a time of growth in life rather than an inevitable decline.

By redefining aging, we can start tackling some of the challenges and needs of a dramatically growing older population.

One of these challenges involves reinventing how people are housed in our country.

The two largest generations in our nation – Baby Boomers and Millennials – are finding common ground on the housing front, literally.

The concept of merging college dorms with nursing homes to create a multigenerational living situation is less radical than one might think and is actually becoming more common throughout the world.

Boomers are traditionally community-oriented and have probably lived in college dorms in a former life, which makes them more open to living with people they are not related to.

Meanwhile, Millennials are open to new ideas and ways of thinking, especially if they can save money on rent as they attend college.


The Dutch have already figured this out.

In exchange for spending at least 30 hours a month with the elderly residents at Humanitas retirement home, college students in the small town of Deventer get to live rent-free in their own apartments within the facility.

As part of their volunteer agreement, the students spend time teaching older residents new skills, such as how to use social media, email and tablets, or they’ll simply make dinner and watch TV.

Bringing the outside world into the retirement community is a refreshing change for the residents.

Research has shown that social interaction with friends leads to less loneliness and mental decline and increases overall health in older adults.

At least two more nursing homes in the Netherlands have opened their doors to college students since Humanitas laid the groundwork in 2012.

Spain and the city of Lyon, France have also started similar programs.

United States

Historically, 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population has been 65 and older at any given time, but within the next four decades that percentage is expected to grow to 20 percent, according to Renae Smith-Ray, a research scientist in the Center for Research on Health and Aging at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Older generations are living longer and the impact on caregivers, social service agencies and government spending are issues that need to be addressed now, Smith-Ray said in the Chicago Tribune.

Photo Credit: jamieleto/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Photo Credit: jamieleto/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

“We’re going to need to begin thinking outside the box much more regularly to deal with the needs of our aging population,” Smith-Ray said. “This type of housing arrangement is one terrific example of that.”

Smith-Ray is referring to the three multi-generational homes in Chicago run by non-profit Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E), which helps low-income seniors stay independent for as long as possible.

In some cases, seniors live with college students and even middle-aged married couples.

The combination of college dorm/independent senior living facility (all rolled into a three-story brick building) seems to work.

Living spaces and bathrooms are shared, but each resident gets his/her own bedroom. Meals are prepared by a cook during the week and college-age resident assistants on the weekends.

Some organized trips are planned, but most of the bonding happens during downtime at the house.

Sharing a laugh over a favorite show or getting help on the computer creates a connection.

Many seniors aren’t particularly computer-savvy, so learning how technology can benefit them is a way younger generations can help.

With apps like Doctor on Demand and NowClinic, senior residents can connect with a healthcare practitioner face-to-face through a mobile device, instead of depending on a ride to the clinic.

Multigenerational housing isn’t just for college students or low-income seniors.

More families are living under one roof – millennials returning home to pay off student loans and grandma or grandpa need more assistance so they move in, too.

One big happy family as they say.

Builders are capitalizing on the multi-generational trend by designing homes featuring shared space, but also with separate living areas and private entrances.

Sort of looks like a dorm room, doesn't it? Photo Credit: Sean Hayford Oleary/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Sort of looks like a dorm room, doesn’t it? Photo Credit: Sean Hayford Oleary/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Miami-based homebuilder Lennar has made a big push into multigenerational space with its NextGen line of homes as has Palm Beach County-based Kotler Homes.

Statistics show that a record of 57 million Americans, or 18.8 percent of the population, lived in multigenerational family households in 2012.

Historically, older Americans were the ones most likely to live in multigenerational households, but younger adults are now surpassing them.

RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in the world. You can write for us.

Cover Photo Credit: Paul/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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About the Author
Melissa Davidson is a freelance writer & social media marketer based in Boise, Idaho. She has a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Montana and is a former newspaper reporter. When she's not hovering over a keyboard, Melissa can be found in the pain cave of endurance sports.
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