The Doc Project

'Like dorm life, but way better': These students are living with seniors and loving it

At Oakcrossing Retirement Home in London, Ont., three music students are sharing meals, stories and regular performances with residents - and living rent free, to boot.

Oakcrossing Retirement Home is piloting the first initiative of this kind in Canada

Music students Ivy Manouchehri, Shirleen Xu and Kristal Daniels (Abby Plener)
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by Abby Plener

After years of living in dormitories and sharing student apartments with multiple housemates, grad student Ivy Manouchehri was looking for a different kind of living experience.

"We spend so much of our lives in our university student bubble," she says. "To me, that's not growing as much as you could grow as a person."

She applied for a spot at Oakcrossing Retirement Home in London, Ont.

Twenty-six-year-old Ivy lives with two other fellow music students, and 62 seniors.

Ivy Manouchehri and Kristal Daniels performing for residents at Oakcrossing Retirement Home in London, Ontario. (Abby Plener)

The new facility opened in the fall of 2017. Inspired by a similar model at an Ohio retirement home, students from Western University's Faculty of Music get to live in the home rent-free, in exchange for committing 12 hours per week to spending time with the seniors. The concept of having students and seniors live side-by-side was originally piloted in the Netherlands back in 2012, as a way to combat social isolation among seniors while addressing students' acute need for housing.

Jeanette Corcoran, a resident of Oakcrossing Retirement Home (Abby Plener)
At Oakcrossing, the first program of its kind in Canada, Ivy and her colleagues share meals with the residents and perform music for them throughout the week. Ivy plays flute, piano and guitar. The two other music students, Kristal Daniels and Shirlene Xu, are both singers, while Shirlene also plays piano, violin and viola.

While most music students are constantly searching for rehearsal space on campus, the students at Oakcrossing have unfettered access to a grand piano right next to the dining area.

In between classes, readings and rehearsals, the students are taking requests from their senior neighbours for what to play next.

Often, when the students are rehearsing, 87-year-old Jeanette Corcoran pulls her chair out into the hallways so she can listen. When she decided to seek out retirement living, the music program is what attracted her to this community.

Music student Kristal Daniels singing for residents at Oakcrossing Retirement Home. (Abby Plener)
Both the students and seniors are adjusting to their new living arrangements. Jeanette misses living on her own and her home cooking, but she revels in the students' company.
I love to listen to them. It makes me feel younger, talking to them.- Jeanette Corcoran , resident of Oakcrossing  Retirement Home

She even convinced Kristal to join her church choir, in which she still sings on a weekly basis.

Jeanette had hoped to move into the retirement home with her husband, but after a nerve hit his spine, he's been confined a hospital bed while she waits for him to get into a nursing home. She visits him in the hospital almost daily.

Ivy herself is getting married this summer. She's heartened by the residents' love stories and their long-lasting commitment to their partners.

"It's certainly made me look at things through a longer lens."

Volumes of music at Oakcrossing Retirement Home, in London, Ontario. (Abby Plener)
For Kristal, she considers her senior neighbours friends.

"A program like this is valuable because it breaks the barrier that is stereotyping age and ability," she says.

She hopes more students in the future will benefit from multi-generational housing arrangements like these, and dreams of bringing the idea back to her home state of New Jersey.

"The downside to a program like this is that we're here on loan. Every student is on borrowed time. Already there's this kind of bittersweet (feeling). Of the friends I do make, we will part."

But she promises she'll keep in touch.

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About the producer

Abby Plener (Yuli Scheidt)
Abby Plener is a Toronto-based journalist and an associate producer at CBC Radio. Her past work can be found in NOW magazine, Spacing and Shameless, and several boxes in her parents' basement. You can find more of her work at abbyplener.com or @AJPlener.

This documentary was edited by Tom Howell, and made through the Doc Project Mentorship Program.