Chicago: Loyola Program Mixes Seniors and College Students

Chicago Stop IconBy Jamie Leary and Torrey Sims
The Red Line Project

Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Residents at The Clare retirement home have a lot to smile about -- with frequent visits from Loyola University students just a few yards away at the school's city campus.

The program SMILE (Students Moving Into the Lives of the Elderly) is a collaboration between The Clare and Loyola University in order to provide a friendship and mentoring experience.

The Clare is the first and only luxury high-rise retirement home in Chicago. It is situated in a prominent area of downtown on 55 East Pearson St, just steps away from the Red Line’s Chicago stop.

The Clare is owned by The Franciscan Communities and sponsored by The Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. While the Catholic chapel within The Clare holds regular services, there are a variety of religious beliefs among the residents.

Sister Jean Schmidt, Loyola University’s Campus Ministry and founder of SMILE, established the program to form unique friendships.

The one-on-one relationships are designed to give each member the opportunity to meet on their schedule. During the meetings, residents and students enjoy each other’s company through various activities.

Some residents take their students to dinner while others enjoy conversation and activities at the retirement home.

“They actually have fun with these people," Schmidt said. "I think that’s very important for the young people to see that older people are just not sitting around disintegrating.” 

Organizers say the it's an effective program for the 16 students and residents involved. Students and residents meet with their SMILE partner once a week and twice a year with all members for a group social.

The meetings with each student and resident are personal, as are all the relationships established through the program.

“I have a student, her name is Lindsay, and in fact we’re going to meet today for dinner because she’s graduating this year and so we’re all set to celebrate,” said resident Catherine Keebiler.

Mac And Keebiler say they are thankful for SMILE.

While Keebiler, 81, is celebrating Lindsay’s graduation, Trudy Mac, 91, is looking forward to her weekly visit with Hillary Kenyon.

Kenyon visits Mac once a week and said, “I’ve been organizing her files and helping her with the computer, and she plays her piano for me too.”

Schmidt doesn't advertise the program to students at Loyola because of the fear of having too many interested students and not enough residents available at The Clare.

“I didn’t want to put up a big sign, or I didn’t want to put it in The Phoenix—which is the student newspaper, because I thought that if I got more students than they have residents then students would lose interest if I couldn’t place them,” Schmidt said.

The Clare has 105 independent living residents and 16 assisted-living residents. The members in the SMILE program all come from the independent living section of The Clare.

The only problem with expanding the program within The Clare is that there are still 170 independent living units to be filled.

Jennifer Ayers, director of The Clare's lifestyle enrichment program, hopes that with more residents the SMILE program can expand and give residents the company that she believes is one of the factors that keeps them active during retirement.

Ayers said, “Elderly who are socially active they say live longer, so that’s obviously huge in the successful aging process.”

SMILE helps students and residents in different aspects of life. For Mac, it’s the sharp eyes and young mind of Kenyon that helps her to stay organized.

For Kenyon, it’s the soothing sounds of Mac playing Clair de Lune and the old pictures that tell incredible stories from Mac’s past.

Kenyon helped to find a treasured photo from Rome that Mac thought was lost forever.

“I opened up this one folder because I thought it might be in there and immediately this choir photo pops up out of it and she (Mac) said “(gasped) There it is, there it is! You found it! I love you!””

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