The sounds of the TV weather, a game of cards, dishes being washed and conversations mix together in the living room and kitchen of 90 East College Street as the late afternoon sun signals the coming evening. The house formally known as The Jeanne Beattie Butts House, and less formally as Intergenerational House, is home to seven senior citizens and six students.
According to founder Jeanne Butts, the house is the only one of its kind in the United States. She said that they receive letters and visitors from all over the country who admire the project, but she has not yet found another home that actually houses both senior citizens and young people.
The downstairs is divided into mini-apartments for the seniors, while the students live upstairs. The house is airy and clean, pictures adorn the walls and a photo of College President Nancy Dye on a visit to the house is displayed prominently. The students eat one meal a week at the house - Wednesday's supper - but due to busy schedules sometimes miss the event.
Around the dinner table the six women and one man are joined by house director Lula "Lou" Ransom and Butts. Ransom has been director for a year and a half. Her eight-hour days at the house are filled with many responsibilities varying from paperwork to more direct care-giving.
At the table she guides the conversation and introduces the residents. She speaks to the seniors patiently and with respect.
The table is lit by a chandelier which Butts points out later as one of the many donations made to the house. According to Butts, the money was raised and the house remodeled through the efforts of "good people just giving tons and tons."
The residents relax after the dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce, ice tea and pineapple upside-down cake. Grace Bachelor and Butts are setting up the Boggle cube. "I love word games," Bachelor said. Butts prefers cards though, so the two women deal a hand.
Other residents gather around the TV to watch the evening news and talk of Friday's "tornado."
Phurba Gyalzen, a college sophomore, returns home after a day on campus and is greeted with questions about why he wasn't home for supper. The other five students aren't home yet, and the seniors wonder aloud several times their whereabouts.
The inspiration for Intergenera-tional House came to Butts after meeting a woman who was going to move to a nursing home soon. According to Butts, she thought: "I've got to start a place to keep that woman out of a nursing home."
Butts said she had worked with students and senior citizens during her 20 years with Oberlin's Senior Center. "I knew that this was a thing that worked," Butts said.
According to Butts the students provide the seniors with "plain sociability." With students around "you get much more laughter and much more fun," according to Butts.
Butts is proud of her house. She speaks of the program with confidence and likes to describe the process of founding the house.
Although the house has been open for four years, it has not yet matched the seven it took to raise money for the project. After the initial idea evolved, $180,000 had to be raised for the construction.
Because Butts worked for the City of Oberlin at the time and could not raise funds for the project, it was taken over and administered by the Neighborhood House Association of Lorain County. Now the house is self-sufficient.
Butts said she sees benefits for both students and senior citizens in the living environment that Intergenerational House provides. "[You] go over a crest where you can no longer entertain, cook, clean. … [Intergenerational House] is a place where you can go on interacting without going into a nursing home," Butts said. She sees it as a way to put off the move to a more comprehensive care facility by five or 10 years.
As Butts speaks, other residents continue their evening activities. Gyalzen visits with the residents while they sit in the sunny living room. Bachelor is waiting for Butts to return to finish their card game.
The seniors describe the various activites of the students. They talk about on going jokes and conversations they have, as well as the accomplishments of the students. When all six are late for supper, concern is raised at the dinner table.
Conservatory senior David Moore said that due to his many responsibilities he can only spend one to two hours a week "downstairs." Resident Virgil Chips said that he talks to the students "whenever [I] can hold them down." He said, "I think it's terrific."
The house is not designed solely for the seniors, however. For students, Butts sees the house as an opportunity to combat their normally age-segregated lives. "It is nice to have another context," she said. Chips said, "It gives them a chance to be around older people and fraternize with them."
Gladys Elrick added that the students might also enjoy the family atmosphere. "They're a long way from home. It might keep them from being homesick," she said.
The house looks non-descript from the outside; trees hide the large addition that houses most of the seniors. The dining room, living room and other central areas are colorful and furnished with comfortable chairs and couches. A window faces the street and students returning to neighboring Tank Co-op pass on the sidewalk. The rooms and space, as well as the conversations and games, create an atmoshpere very different from that of a typical dorm or off-campus house.
"You're on campus all day. … It is nice to come home and talk to these people. They put a peaceful sense in your mind," Gyalzen said. "This is a place I can go and be myself but not necessarily a student."
"I learn from them a lot," Moore said. "I have an affinity for elderly people. I have a lot of respect for them."
The senior citizens unanimously agreed that they enjoy the company of students. They spoke of them as well-mannered and polite, as well as caring and nice.
Interested students must apply to live in the house, but according to Gyalzen it is an informal process. "I can say we've had some excellent students. [They are] people that care about people," Ransom said.
The house counts on word of mouth and some advertisement to fill the student places. According to Butts, there is never a shortage of applicants.
Butts said that when interviewing the candidates she looks for a genuine interest in elderly people. She said that interest usually manifests itself as an interest in their grandparents.
Moore said that he heard of the house through a friend and became interested in the idea of seniors and students living together.
Many of the residents are very thankful for the chance to live in the house. Butts spoke of a new resident approaching her and saying, "You don't know how much I love it here."
Senior citizen resident Dorothy Henderson said, "I was pretty lonely when I came here." Now however, she said more is going on. "When I want it to be quiet I can go to my room but come back when I want to," she said.
Gyalzen said that he thinks the students help the seniors because it provides a break in what could be boring, unchanging days. "I think it adds to their lives not being monotonous. It helps to have students around to remind them that there are things going on outside," he said.
The house keeps Ransom busy during her 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift. At the house her jobs range from doing paperwork, to cooking breakfast and lunch, to driving the residents to appointments and on outings. When other employees call in sick she is also responsible for laundry, dishes and sweeping. "Some days can be hectic," she said.
Ransom said that she finds her job very rewarding simply because she loves elderly people. "I enjoy working with elderly people. It's always been part of my life," she said. After caring for several aging relatives, she said she realized that "maybe [I'm] supposed to work with seniors."
Dinner time at The Jeanne Beattie Butts House: Senior citizen residents enjoy meals and conversation with students. (photo by Mike Oleson)
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 21; April 19, 1996
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