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'They Inspire Me More Than They Know': La Roche University Students Give Unique Living Arrangements A Try In Exchange For Free Rent

La Roche University Students Give Unique Living Arrangements A Try In Exchange For Free Rent
La Roche University Students Give Unique Living Arrangements A Try In Exchange For Free Rent 04:33

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Ricardo Serrano-Perez is a senior at La Roche University in McCandless. He's working toward an accounting degree while holding down a part-time job at a restaurant, all the while making time to hang out with his buddies in his building just off-campus. On some nights, he cooks for his friends.

But those neighbors are not fellow college students. They are senior citizens – the residents of Terrace Place at Vincentian -- a new, independent living community for seniors.

But it's not just for seniors. A few of the units are occupied by college students, like Serrano-Perez.

Vincentian CEO Nick Vizzoca says the concept has taken hold in the Netherlands, but this is the Pittsburgh area's first "intergenerational residency" for college students and seniors.

"The two biggest groups that are affected by social isolation are seniors and college students," says Vizzoca. "College students because they're away from home. Depression, they feel isolated, they don't know anybody. And seniors because their kids usually move away, so they don't have the grandkids, they don't have the kids. But when you put the two together, it's instant grandchildren and instant grandparents so the chemistry is fantastic."

Serrano-Perez says there are times that he does, in fact, feel like he is his neighbors' grandson. He likes it.

"It's a good feeling to have someone that cares about you, even though you just met like five months ago," he says.

In exchange for free rent in one of the apartments, the La Roche students agree to spend at least six hours a week with the senior residents. Serrano-Perez loves to cook meals from his native Dominican Republic, so he offers cooking demonstrations in the building's communal kitchen.

Another La Roche student, Natasha Ngandwe, is into fitness. Her twice-a-week Zumba sessions are popular with the seniors.

"I never thought I'd be doing Zumba, but I am - and it's fun," says senior resident Amy Byrnes.

"I feel like they inspire me more than they know," says Ngandwe.

The staff at Terrace Place at Vincentian says it's been gratifying to see how the seniors' and the students' lives have become intertwined.

"I've got to tell you, where most students would want to go out on a Friday night or a Saturday night, they want to stay in and they want to have that interaction," says Vizzoca. "Play cards, chess, checkers, put together a puzzle, watch TV."

For the seniors, a big benefit of having much younger neighbors is being able to take advantage of their assistance with technology - smartphones, computers, TVs.

Senior resident Albert Byrnes says, "We've had life experiences that can help them. And their younger, faster minds can certainly help us."

Says Serrano-Perez, "Just sitting down and talking to someone that's older than you 15, 20 minutes, you might learn a lot, you don't even know, the stories and experiences. That's how the things we know now get carried down. It's just people talking about it."

There are some limitations on the student residents. Serrano-Perez says living here means keeping his music down, even though he prefers it loud. And no, a kegger in his Terrace Place apartment would not be cool. But neither he nor Ngandwe seem to mind the tradeoffs.

"I'm spending time finding myself here," says Ngandwe. "So it's a good experience and I want more college students to get into it before they reach their senior year."

There are three La Roche students living at Terrace Place this year. Next year, they'd like to have six.

Serrano-Perez says he will definitely miss living here after he graduates in May.

"I've developed bonds and I just love everyone around here. So, I will be sad. But you know, it has been a great experience and I'm probably not going to stop talking about it for the rest of my life."

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