Ethel is 101 years old. When she slipped and fell last spring, injuring herself, a University of Minnesota medical student was there by her side.
“Lindy was the first one there,” June Englund, a 23-year resident of Augustana senior living apartments, said.
Ethel first met Lindy Watanaskul through University Medical School professor Ed Ratner’s class that matches medical students with seniors who were socially isolated.
For years, Ratner would bring his students to Augustana, located near the Metrodome, to spend a half day interacting with and interviewing their resident.
Watanaskul visited Ethel once a week, spending time with her and making sure she was in good condition. Ethel had been living by herself in a single bedroom apartment and, when faced with countless trips to the hospital because of her injuries, Watanaskul was there to help.
“She’s back in her apartment now,” Joan Edwards, housing director of Augustana apartments said. “I think that had a lot to do with the support by [Lindy].”
Watanaskul moved into the apartments with the seniors at Augustana last year through a new University Medical School course, which Ratner designed after a decade of close relations with Augustana.
“Over 10 years, I’ve heard more and more stories of isolated, lonely seniors who don’t leave their apartments,” Ratner said. “At the same time, I heard there were a few vacant apartments [at Augustana].”
Five years ago, Ratner did not think a course like this would be approved, but this fall, the program received a $35,000 grant from UCare.
The class has four graduate students living at Augustana and three more students working with residents at other senior living centers in the suburbs.
Three of the four graduate students living at Augustana are living there with a spouse.
“Part of the idea is to change the general feeling of the apartment building by having some younger people the tenants can interact with so it can create a more useful and energetic environment for everybody,” Ratner said.
Students enrolled in the course are not required to live at Augustana but like Watanaskul, most choose to.
“It’s been really rewarding and fun,” Watanaskul said of her experience. Watanaskul and her husband plan to continue living at Augustana until Watanaskul graduates in May.
Medical students are offered reduced rent to live at the complex, and there are plans to include Augustana as one of the housing options for graduate students.
Currently, the course is offered only to graduate students, but Ratner hopes to one day include upper-level undergraduates.
In a past attempt to fill vacant apartments, Augustana allowed a handful of University first years to become tenants, but that experiment was quickly abandoned.
The students were loud and weren’t a good fit, Edwards said.
Ratner is trying to garner more interest in the program to include more students and faculty and expand it to other senior living facilities.
The academic requirements for the course include weekly journaling, a final paper and a self evaluation. Ratner compares this course to studying abroad.
“You don’t have to go to another country to see another country – Augustana is another culture down the road,” Ratner said.
For the senior residents at Augustana, the experience has been just as valuable.
“It has become a close friendship with these students,” Englund said.
“It’s an eye-opener to [students] to live among seniors, and yet we’re the same people we were before we became old,” she said. “We still like to laugh and we still think life is great.”
Student-resident interaction is mostly informal, but residents know the students are always watching out for them, Edwards said. The students often eat dinner with the residents and participate in social activities.
“It’s kind of a dorm room with the elders,” Edwards said.
“It’s really a two-way street,” Englund said, referring to the elderly who miss interacting with younger generations and students who will learn how to treat seniors.
“Maybe it’s the fact that we live amongst friends that keeps you just up and going.”