A Different Kind of 'Senior' Living


By Susan Shelly

It’s a work in progress, but so far it’s working well.

Josh Harmes ’18 and Eric Moran ’19 had barely settled into their apartment at the Highlands at Wyomissing, by late August. But immediately, residents of the Berks County retirement community couldn’t wait to meet them.

“We haven’t met the students yet, but we’re hoping to have dinner with them very soon,” said the Rev. Dr. Paul Hetrich, 82, who resides at the Highlands with his wife, Barbara. “We’ve heard very nice things about them, and everyone is glad they’re here.”

Hetrich was anxious to meet both students, but particularly Moran, who is pursuing a double major in theology and history at Alvernia, and hopes to follow that up with a master’s degree in secondary education.

“I’d love to talk to him about his theology classes and what he hopes to do after he graduates,” said Hetrich, a retired minister.

The student-senior residential program, which has been modeled in parts of Europe and a few areas in the United States, is intended to provide an exchange of learning and promote better understanding between different generations, explained Joseph Cicala, Ph.D., vice president for University Life and dean of students at Alvernia.

“It’s meant to bridge what people used to call the generation gap,” Cicala said.

Kevin P. DeAcosta, a 2000 Alvernia graduate who is president and CEO of the Highlands at Wyomissing, said that having Harmes, 23, and Moran, 21, at the retirement community benefits both residents and the students.

“It’s a great idea for a community like the Highlands to participate in intergenerational opportunities,” DeAcosta said. “The residents are just excited about being with young people, and it’s a good opportunity for the students to learn about giving back.”

Moran and Harmes, who were selected for the program based on academic achievement, campus involvement and personal character, signed an agreement with the Highlands that, in exchange for room and some of their meals, they would share at least one meal a week with residents and provide 12 to 16 hours of service related to their majors each month.

Harmes, a fifth-year Master of Science in Occupational Therapy scholar, will work with seniors who need physical assistance and is considering forming a walking group. The pair might also assist residents with technology or just spend time playing cards or talking with residents.

“This is a brand new program, so we’re kind of figuring it out,” said Harmes. “But we know that our payment to the Highlands for letting us live here is to give back to residents.”

Just a couple of weeks after moving in, Harmes and Moran had already dined in some residents’ homes or apartments and were well on their way to forming friendships.

One resident, named Ernie, was looking forward to being invited to college parties.

“We don’t have parties, but I think we’ll invite Ernie over some night and get a bottle of his favorite wine,” Harmes said.

“But, only if it doesn’t interact with his meds,” he added.

Jodi Gibble, marketing director at the Highlands, said partnering with Alvernia on the project makes sense because the retirement community and the university know each other well.

“We already have a strong connection with Alvernia through the university’s Seniors College,” said Gibble. “That’s been a wonderful partnership for our residents, who can attend classes for free. Many do, and some have even taught courses.”

Alvernia also offers continuing education opportunities for staff members at the Highlands.

While the program is new, the intent of both the Highlands and Alvernia is to have it continue.

“We fully intend to do it every year,” said DeAcosta. “This first year is a trial year, and we need to make sure that we get it right to get the most value for us, the students and the university.”

Cicala suggested that in the future, the program might be expanded to include additional students, even if they don’t live at the Highlands.

“There may be different ways to get our students involved,” he said.

Cicala said he is impressed with how the program is progressing so far and confident that Harms and Moran are the right fit for the trial year.