Growing up in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Rusudan Kilaberia was surrounded by older people, including her three surviving grandparents, who lived nearby. They were a familiar presence at family dinners and holiday celebrations. She even knew their friends.
"It really is a way of life where I came from," said Kilaberia, a 30-something University of Minnesota doctoral student who now lives in Minneapolis. "I've always had older people around me."
So Kilaberia feels right at home living in a downtown Minneapolis high-rise apartment building occupied primarily by people about half a century her senior.
Unlike Georgia (and many other cultures), the United States has made a custom of housing older people in separate senior residences. Grandparents, parents and children rarely live together — often not even in the same city or state.
Kilaberia is involved in a university program that offers housing units at Augustana Care senior residence to a handful of students. The younger people live there at a reduced rate in exchange for volunteering time with residents, who are typically over 80. The program began about 16 years ago, providing credit for visiting volunteers, and has included the housing component since 2009, said the program's founder, Edward Ratner, a doctor in the university's graduate faculty for geriatrics.
"The project to a great extent is addressing the cultural problem of frail people being isolated," Ratner said.
In her five years living at Augustana, Kilaberia happily goes above and beyond the minimum hours required. She spends about 50 hours a month with older residents, partly because it's helpful as she works toward her doctorate in social work — she recently published an article about her observations in the academic journal Gerontology & Geriatrics Education. But also because she simply enjoys it.
Kilaberia plays Scrabble, watches TV with groups, brings coffee to weekly current-events discussions, provides company on outings, or just visits with people who want someone to talk to. If she spots a resident sitting alone, she goes out of her way to initiate a chat. Kilaberia doesn't consider these activities a one-way exchange; she says she also learns from the older people and is honored to receive their friendship and favors.
"This is not a chore for me; I like doing it. I would seek out a similar opportunity," Kilaberia said. "The seniors can teach something to enrich the lives of younger people. … I love it, and that really is the short answer."