College is like a retirement home: a generational cohort, housed in dormitories. Give them roommates, produce a social calendar. Host movie nights and music events. Serve them institutional food, and generally shelter them from the ‘real world’ like exotic birds in the synthetic tropics of a zoo.
In my small, isolated, liberal arts undergrad experience, college kids are some of the most self-absorbed beings to walk the planet. I can say this because I was one of them. It’s not our fault. Accredited academic institutions proclaim to polish students into generative gems, propagating the fallacy that, at 22, we are wise. We graduate mistaking education for experience. We are not humble, nor can we be, under the illusion that the world cares about our sense of vocation. Our self-importance is our defense mechanism.
There is no class except real life to refute our mistaken belief that college majors are life sentences, and our commitment to pre-med, music, or art history actually merits the agony and sleepless nights we granted it.
After all, life goes on, derailing our trajectories with distractions both major and mundane. And yet how else do we learn to deal with the human condition, other than by experiencing it? It’s not as though studying Dostoyevsky actually made us more resilient people. Old folks, now, they know. They’ve fought wars and cancer, lost limbs and loved ones, traveled, settled, and done it all before we figured out that dirt is not for eating. What I mean to say is, these crusty has-beens are the perfect compliment to we ignorant upstarts.
So why not install one beside the other, in a single, co-mingled location? College students are cheap labor in the face of America’s pending geriatric boom, and old people can help these kids see beyond their petty dramas and the naïve assumption that youth and health are indefinite. Instead of driving kids off campus to find jobs in local coffee shops and retail, harness their industry serving meals to the elderly, assisting with outings and errands, performing household chores and personal care. The average CNA class takes about a month and a half to complete – and is easily integrated to the academic semester. With college attendance on the rise, uniting student housing with retirement facilities would expand the opportunity for work-study arrangements, while also addressing the projected shortage of geriatric care.
Academic studies also stand to benefit from this ‘real life’ application. For example, kids in developmental psych courses can facilitate social events and evaluate the impact of storytelling, music, and reminiscence on the resident population. Anthropology, sociology, and history students (bless their hearts) will have at their fingertips myriad primary accounts of life in preceding decades and cultures. Pre-med and nursing students will have abundant opportunities to refine personal care and bedside manner, while future physical therapists can become acquainted with the locomotive difficulties characteristic of their largest client base. Lord knows chem and pharm students would have ample material in all the medications these oldies are taking, especially if extra credit were given for sleuthing out adverse combinations.
Socially, the two populations are also surprisingly compatible. Both are disproportionately nocturnal; in college as in elder care, I witnessed more yen for midnight snacking and chatting than any other developmental stage.
Alcohol is a factor not to be overlooked, for while college kids are notorious partiers, retirement homes are woefully short on “adult beverages,” which is an injustice to residents at least thrice the legal age. I can think of many an old man who would thoroughly enjoy a game of beer pong.
Did I mention that both populations have a proclivity towards gossip and storytelling? Old people have a remarkable knack for getting kids out of their own self-centered heads, while benefiting themselves from the inclusion. (As any psych 101 student can tell you, it enhances their sense of generativity.) In the interest of giving youth a preview of life through those who’ve lived it, while keeping our elderly integrated and engaged, I propose that it’s time to introduce this eager new blood to our elder-care system. I propose bringing our elders to the cultural forefront: bring them to our colleges and universities, under direct care of our future doctors, lawmakers, and hospital administrators.
What might happen if we made friends with our old people? Would we learn to treat them with tenderness and respect, instead of systematic disenfranchisement?
A modest proposal indeed.