LOS ANGELES — Kingsley Manor Retirement Community is home to grandmothers and gardeners, professors and painters, doctors and Zumba enthusiasts — and because it’s in Hollywood, you’ll also find film editors, dancers, and magicians.
And a couple of students in their 20s, too.
“It’s Heinz 57 varieties here. Some of everything and everybody,” said Yvonne Battersbee, an 82-year-old resident of the retirement home and one-time chorus girl.
The students, Tina Guan and Sai Raj Kappari, are part of a unique collaboration between the retirement home and the University of Southern California’s gerontology school. The program, which has been around for more than 30 years, allows select students to live and eat for free in the retirement home. In exchange, they spend time with the residents — they teach fitness and art classes, swap stories over dinner, and answer a constant flurry of computer-related questions.
“Having young people? That is the best idea. We can see their energy,” said Gabrielle Boisson, 97, a resident who lights up when Kappari stops by her room to say hello.
The students might one day fill a critical health care gap. Geriatrics continually falls at the bottom of the list of specialties that new MDs choose as they launch their medical careers. Residency programs have reported that they can’t fill even the handful of spots they reserve for doctors interested in geriatrics.
That shortage will only worsen as baby boomers continue to age. By 2030, an estimated 34 million people in the US will be over age 75. There are just 7,200 practicing geriatricians in the country right now, according to the American Geriatrics Society. Experts warn not that’s not nearly enough to meet the coming demand.
Part of the issue, geriatrics experts say, is that the pay is considerably lower than that of other specialists. Internal medicine doctors, who can specialize in geriatrics, earn an average of $225,000 a year — less than half of what their peers in orthopedics took home. And geriatrics isn’t a particularly sexy field. It’s impossible to stop the process of aging, and often not possible to cure diseases of the elderly.
That’s where a program like the one at Kingsley Manor fits in. The goal is to spark the next generation of health care providers to take interest in gerontology — and better equip them to take care of the elderly by immersing them in the world of retirees, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“They share things with you that you wouldn’t necessarily get as a doctor at a 20-minute appointment. It’s kind of like being an undercover police officer,” said Ben Howie, a former participant in the program who is now in medical school.
“[The retirees] share things with you that you wouldn’t necessarily get as a doctor at a 20-minute appointment. It’s kind of like being an undercover police officer.”
Ben Howie, who lived in retirement home as a student
At the same time, the program is poised to boost the health and well-being of the home’s older residents.
Social isolation is widely thought to be a health risk. And there’s a large body of research to suggest interaction is a key to aging well— though the studies only show correlations, not cause and effect. Social isolation among the elderly is an issue that’s garnered attention in Congress — a special committee held a hearing this week on the subject. Staying connected with neighbors and friends has been tied to better blood pressure, lower risk of disease, and slowed mental decline, among other health benefits.
“Regardless of whether social integration somehow has a specific health effect, the fact that social connections can enhance your subjective well-being is in and of itself an important outcome for the field of aging,” said Lis Nielsen, who conducts social research at the National Institute on Aging.
‘Too bad I’m not 20 years old’
“It’s a beautiful Thursday morning. Let’s rub our hands. Let’s rub our knees. Can anyone tell me why we’re rubbing our knees?” Kappari asks a room full of seniors who showed up to his “chair yoga” class.
Everyone knows the answer: “Circulation!”
He counts each pose — one, two, three, four. They do shoulder stretches and side bends. They take big, deep breaths in and long, loud breaths out. He knows which residents have arthritis or bad knees, and which poses might be tricky for them.
“Every movement, he explains why you’re doing that movement and how it strengthens your body,” said Wilhelmina Diener, 82, who has been living in Kingsley Manor for four years. Every day, the students give residents a friendly nudge to come to their classes when they pass them in the halls.
“The people who come in, it keeps them from social isolation. It gives them something to look forward to,” said Kappari.
The exercise classes are popular, typically drawing more than a dozen residents. The students-turned-yoga-instructors both come decked out in scarlet and yellow USC workout gear. Their pupils are more likely to be in polyester pants.
“You are a très bon teacher,” Boisson, who is French and an artist, told Kappari when he stopped by for a visit. She asked him for a hand getting up to show off some of her artwork, and he cautioned her to ease out of her recliner slowly. She gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Too bad I am not 20 years old,” she added.
Almost every woman living in Kingsley Manor has something to say about Kappari’s sparkling smile or his strong arms. He has a side gig as a male model —his portfolio of headshots is at the ready —and it doesn’t go unnoticed among residents. His hugs are a hot commodity — as are his technology skills.
“If you have a problem with your computer or your phone, he becomes a mechanic,” said Battersbee.
The seniors have turned an equally attentive eye to Guan’s style — her silver shoes are a hit among the residents. Today, she’s hoofing around the home carrying an envelope holding jewelry for a resident who took her beading class. Guan finishes the clasps, because she’s found they’re too tricky for frail fingers.
The relationships forged in the retirement home are about far more than just classes: Kappari plays gin rummy every Thursday afternoon with a rowdy group of retirees who say he’s too humble about his skills. Many nights, you can find him in front of the TV with Ann Short and her friend, Philip Spalding. She keeps the candy dish stocked with dark chocolate for him, and together they sit glued to “Homeland.”
“He makes us feel very human,” Spalding. “He’s made a lot of people’s lives richer here by saying, ‘Do you mind if I sit down and join you for lunch?’”
(Kappari isn’t just a dining companion; he’s a hawk in the dining hall. He jumps up from his seat at lunch whenever he sees someone struggling to hoist themselves from the table. When a resident starts to wander off without her cane, he’s right behind her to place it in her hand.)
“He makes us feel very human. He’s made a lot of people’s lives richer here by saying, ‘Do you mind if I sit down and join you for lunch?’”
Philip Spalding, Kingsley Manor resident
The students’ own backgrounds provide fodder for conversation, too. Both Guan, 26, and Kappari, 28, are international students, hailing from China and India, respectively. Each has advanced degrees from their native countries: Guan a medical degree, Kappari a PhD in pharmacology.
Guan teaches introductory Chinese language classes to residents. And for the Chinese New Year, Guan had her Chinese friends over to celebrate with the retirees. They hung paper lanterns and made dumplings. She used to teach calligraphy, too, but switched to a Chinese-style painting class when the residents said they’d prefer it.
And so on a sunny recent afternoon, she hauled out a tub of paint tubes and brushes and squeezed half a dozen different colors onto a palette for her only student that day, Elaine Castroverde. (Most of the residents were away seeing the “superbloom” of poppies outside Los Angeles.)
Castroverde picked out a picture of three birds on branches — one for each of her grandkids — to color in, and mixed red paint with water to make a light, dusty pink for the cherry blossoms. They sat quietly for awhile, each painting. Guan mentioned that she’s been hiking in the area of the superbloom.
Castroverde, formerly a pediatrician, asked Guan whether she takes sunglasses when she goes out hiking.
“You’ve got to protect yourself against cataracts,” she cautioned.
That kind of exchange is common. The retirees like to return the favors they get from the students whenever they can — often with words of wisdom and advice, even if it’s just about the best black-and-white movies to watch.
When Guan quizzed residents in a friendly trivia game, they helped her with words she hadn’t encountered before. When Kappari helped Diener inside as she returned home for a hospital stay, she thanked him with an extra ticket to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“He was there to really give me a hand coming out of the hospital. He was there to settle me into my room,” she said. “These are very thoughtful and very wonderful things I won’t ever forget.”
Diener, once a fashion designer and model, was a longtime donor to the Philharmonic. She and Kappari had some of the best seats in the house — “so close you could see the pianist’s fingers,” she said.
Shaping the next generation of gerontologists
The program at Kingsley Manor is one of just a handful in the US.
In Cleveland, a retirement home has set up an “artists-in-residence” program that allows area music students to live rent-free in exchange for giving recitals to the residents.
And at the University of Northern Iowa, undergraduate students in any field of study can apply to live in an area nursing home. They pay low rent and receive meals in the dining hall and, in return, they spend time each week with residents.
“It’s a great way to experience intergenerational relationships,” said Elaine Eshbaugh, who runs the program.”It teaches them to have empathy and understand that older adults are not a different population. They’re just people who’ve been here longer,” she said.
“We can give them years of knowledge about what we’ve lived through, been through, and are going through.”
Ann Short, Kingsley Manor resident
The program at Kingsley Manor stands out for one reason — it’s training future health care providers about what it’s like to live in a retirement home.
“We can give them years of knowledge about what we’ve lived through, been through, and are going through,” said Short.
That’s a huge asset to students who will go on to careers as doctors or nursing home administrators.
“It gives you a look into the life of a resident of a retirement community that you wouldn’t get in a regular internship or as an employee,” said Shaun Rushforth, the executive director of Kingsley Manor. Rushforth participated in the live-in program 11 years ago, when he was attending USC. That experience gave him not just empathy, but genuine understanding: When the retirement home residents complained about the noise the garbage truck makes early in the morning, he knew exactly what they were talking about. The racket had bugged him when he lived there, too.
Howie, the former student resident, is now in medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University. During his stay at the home from 2012 to 2014, he taught art history classes and organized Alfred Hitchcock movie nights. He also taught one resident who was going blind how to use dictation software to write an autobiography. He said the experience has been invaluable to his training as a physician when it comes to interacting with elderly patients.
“You don’t really think about some of the challenges older people struggle with,” he said. “When you actually live with them, you realize their experiences.”
You just have to be willing to live in a place with a buffet that serves baked fish for lunch and ambrosia for dessert.
“The biggest confusion was in my own family. You’re in LA in your early 20s and you’re living with old people in a retirement home? Is that really how you want to spend your time?” said Mia Bennett, who lived in Kingsley Manor from 2008 to 2009 — and who now counsels clients who are transitioning from living independently to joining a retirement community.
But the students who take the plunge will all tell you it’s worth it. It’s a lesson in living — and, often, it’s a lesson in the end of life, too.
“It’s hard to live in a place with so much death. Someone dies probably every other week,” said Guan. She remembers the first death at Kingsley of someone she considered a friend. At dinner, the 68-year-old woman told Guan she’d meet her for breakfast the next day. She died that night.
The residents say the deaths take a toll on them, too. But having young people living in their midst is a breath of fresh air.
“When you live in a spot like this, you are continually reminded that you are at the end of your life,” said resident Joan Biddlecomb. “The students remind us that there is a future.”