Students and Seniors Discover Common Ground in an Uncommon Place
Justine Myers and Laura Berick’s friendship blossomed in an unlikely place: a senior apartment complex in the heart of University Circle.
Despite their nearly 60-year age difference, their friendship grew within the walls of an innovative intergenerational housing experiment started at Judson Manor in 2010. Justine is 25, an oboist and a graduate of nearby Cleveland institute of Music. Laura is 81, the grandmother of six, and a former first grade teacher and art gallery owner.
A few years ago, Judson Manor had a handful of apartments that were too small to use for their residents. They were the perfect size for a college student.
Housing in University Circle is always tight. Judson board members reached out to CIM. Was there a way to provide free housing in Judson Manor in exchange for an artist-in-residence program?
After working through a few concerns — would the staid Judson Manor turn into a party house for college students? Would students be comfortable living among older people? Did they have anything in common? (No, yes and absolutely yes) — the decision was made: Bring on the students.
Judson’s Artist-in-Residence program has transitioned beyond the experiment phase and settled comfortably into the friendship and co-worker phase. The only question now is, why haven’t more places tried it?
A NATURAL FIT
Laura’s apartment is a riot of colors and textures. Sculptures, intricate fabrics, funky furniture and sunlight all compete for attention. At the center is Laura, a spritely woman with a wide smile, close cropped hair and oversized glasses that seem to represent her oversized personality.
The residential experiment at Judson brought not only more music and art into her life, it brought Justine.
“This connection has value because it allows you to maintain a place in the world,” Laura says. “You forget when you’re in an enclosed environment that there’s another world out there. So (these college students) bring it to us and force us to engage, if you’re willing, in the outside world.”
“They also come to us without any baggage,” Laura continues. “Justine and I are able to forge a friendship, and she can accept me as I am today, and I can accept her as she is today.”
The friendship comes with practical benefits, too. Justine has taught Laura how to make reeds for Justine’s oboe and has taught her about music. Charlie, Laura’s 11-year-old miniature poodle, has taken a liking to her, too. Together, they’ve been a welcome distraction from the rigors of studying music and taking post-graduate classes at Oberlin College.
“It’s nice to have a supportive family while I’m in school,” says Justine, who comes from Anchorage, Alaska. The two share cooking tips, talk about music and art, and seem to have an easy relationship that bridges the nearly six-decade age gap. Moving to Judson Manor was an easy transition for Justine, who moved in almost two years ago. in exchange for rent-free housing in a grand, 1923 building in a desirable neighborhood, she and the handful of other music and art students help out at performances and hold recitals, says Rob Lucarelli, director of communications for Judson Services Inc.
This year, five students are living in Judson Manor — two from CIM, two from the Cleveland Institute of Art and one from Ursuline College. Two CIM students live at nearby Judson Park. The Artist-In-Residence Program is for students with financial need. The application process includes an essay, approval by CIM and an interview with a group of Judson residents. They look at two main things: a good personality fit and an ability to be at ease with older adults.
Bringing in artists and performers has been a good fit for everyone involved, Lucarelli says. For example, practice space at CIM is at a premium, but the Judson students have a double bonus: access to practice space and a built-in audience that is both appreciative and attentive. Students can use a Steinway grand piano and a recently restored 1902 Bechstein piano for both planned and impromptu recitals.
Living at Judson “takes me out of myself and my routine when I walk through the door,” Justine says. “Going into music (it) is extremely focused. You spend so much time by yourself, and most music students aren’t around other people other than music people.”
As a twentysomething living among senior citizens, “The hardest thing for me was to speak up and use good diction,” to make herself understood, Justine says. Being among older people “is only awkward if you make it awkward. I don’t really think about the fact that they’re a few generations older than me. They’re just people. If you start out open to it, it’s the easiest thing. It’s very natural.” “Laura has taught me to stick up for myself and to be assertive and not to be afraid to speak my mind,” she adds.
A COMMUNITY THEATER BLOSSOMS
For a neighborhood rich in the arts — University Circle is home to the Cleveland Art Museum, Severance Hall and several colleges — the area didn’t have a community theater. So Judson residents and spouses Mark and Bill Corcoran started one last year.
Mark is managing director and Bill is artistic director for the semi-professional Theater in the Circle based at Judson Manor. CIA students helped with set design for their first show last fall, “Eddie.” Theatre in the Circle just ended a wildly successful run of its second show, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Nineteen-year old CIA student and Judson resident Anna Lattanzio, a photography major, helped with the sets. As Company photographer, she took photos of the actors on the Euclid Beach Carousel at the Cleveland History Center at the Western Reserve Historical Society, then had them blown up as background for the set.
Mark and Bill, both in their 60s, liked collaborating with the students. “Bill and I have pretty large lives; we both volunteer extensively in the community so we have a lot of contact with millennials. In addition to our Artist-in-Residence Program, Judson has a long and colorful reputation of doing work with (local schools),” Mark says. “We see kids in this building a lot.”
The intergenerational living opportunity at Judson Manor is a good match for the Corcorans. Younger people “keep you active and curious. They tell us what’s going on in their lives and they ask what it’s like being older. They keep us young and challenged,” he says.
“They bring a lot to the table and we bring a lot to the table, too,” Mark says. “I like to say our residents are terminally curious.”