Mercer students, senior center residents forge friendships through new program
They could have lived on the Mercer campus with their peers, but two students chose to take up residence among an older and wiser crowd this year.
Junior Ava Nguyen and senior Elise Colquitt are the first two Bears to participate in a new program where students are housed at Carlyle Place senior living facility in Macon. They spend 10 to 15 hours a week with assisted living and independent living residents and have a budget to plan activities for them.
Carson Outler and Anna Stallings, 2019 graduates, created the project as Mercer Service Scholars and used a program in the Netherlands as their model. With assistance from Mercer psychology professor Dr. Tanya Sharon, they completed a feasibility project that included a quantitative survey and a focus group to gauge student interest and then presented their idea to several senior living communities in the area.
“We followed that model (in the Netherlands), and we recognized that it was possible,” said Outler, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Mercer. “We finally found the right people at Carlyle Place to make that dream a reality.”
Susan Bankston, Carlyle Place director of resident life, said a partnership with a local college group is something Carlyle leaders had wanted for a long time, but they weren’t sure how to make it work. So, they jumped right on board when Outler and Stallings approached them with the idea and had already figured out the logistics.
Many residents at senior living communities don’t interact with others on a regular basis and become lonely, which can lead to negative health consequences like depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular issues, said Stallings, who earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Mercer. The Mercer program aims to fight that problem.
Age-segregated communities can reinforce the sense of isolation, but an intergenerational environment can help connect seniors back to the larger life cycle, Dr. Sharon said. Older people often enjoy the energy and enthusiasm that young people bring. In addition, survey data suggests participation rates as low as 10 percent for resident activities at senior living centers, and students could be the encouragement that the seniors need to get more involved.
Nguyen hopes the program will “break the wall” between the younger and older generations and reduce the stigma around aging by meshing the two groups together.
The goal is for the college students living on the Carlyle campus to create bonds with the residents, and for the seniors to see the students as family members they can turn to, Stallings said.
“Our residents absolutely love engaging with younger generations,” Bankston said. “We have a lot of residents whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not living nearby. When they have the opportunity to interact with someone of that age, they really enjoy it.”
Finding students with a passion
The first two students chosen for the program needed to be outgoing, be able to easily step into conversations and think on their feet, and not be intimidated by an older population, Bankston said.
“In the end, we were looking for students who had that passion, who we thought would get along and connect with the residents there,” Outler said. “We ended up with Ava and Elise. They are so wonderful. They’re extremely passionate, and they’ve had so many great ideas.”
While volunteering at Brookdale senior living center, Nguyen realized how much she loved being around and helping the residents and how much they were impacting her life. The Carlyle Place program was an opportunity to immerse herself in the whole culture.
Colquitt, a sociology and criminal justice major, was drawn to the program because of its goal to combat loneliness in the elderly.
“I was excited to be able to engage in an opportunity in medical sociology where I could apply what I’m learning at Mercer to a real-world thing before I graduate. I can learn a lot from them that I can take with me throughout the rest of my life,” she said.
In late August, Nguyen and Colquitt moved into a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the Carlyle campus. They complement each other well. Nguyen is vivacious and talkative, while Colquitt is an easy listener, Bankston said. The residents and students are equally excited about getting to know each other.
“We’re not afraid to step out of our comfort zone. We want to be there for them,” Colquitt said.
Nguyen and Colquitt join in campus activities and eat meals in the main dining room when they can. On Sept. 11, they organized and held their first event, part one of a weekly technology series. They are also planning a series of arts events and are thinking about themed movie nights and gardening activities.
Nguyen said they already feel like they’re a part of the community. One lady shares a new joke every Friday, and their next-door neighbors had them over for dinner and shared family photos with them.
“So many residents have told me that just us being bubbly and smiling all the time really helps them,” said Nguyen, a biochemistry and molecular biology major. “I want to have a personal relationship with everybody there. I’m hoping that I can bring some sort of comfort to somebody who needs it. I want to be in their lives and help them out. I want to gain some wisdom from them also.”
Planning for the future
The plan is to look at data on things like resident engagement, loneliness and participation later this school year, share the results and build on the program, Dr. Sharon said.
“It’s very exciting for us going forward,” she said. “It’s never going to be an enormous program, but it’s going to be highly significant for the students involved as well as the residents. We’re all hopeful that we’ll be able to expand it slightly.”
Bankston would like to have at least two Mercer students but preferably four – two men and two women – living on campus each year. The program also could be expanded to other senior living communities in the future, Stallings said.
“I hope we’re able to lay a good foundation for this project so that it can be something that grows and gets better,” Colquitt said.
“I hope we are the best guinea pigs ever, and I hope this opportunity continues,” Nguyen said.