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Getting to Know You : Gerontology: Four USC graduate students living in a convalescent center get a personal view of aging.


Forget the tacky posters, the raucous rock 'n' roll and the hustle and bustle of dorm life. For graduate student Irian Diaz, they're not part of the living arrangements.

Her 250 neighbors would never tolerate such tumult, but not because they're docile apartment dwellers.

It's because Diaz, 24, and three other grad students from USC's Andrus Gerontology Center live, full time, at the Kingsley Manor retirement-convalescent facility in Hollywood.

In exchange for room and board, each of the four students works 16 hours a week at the manor, where the average age of the residents is 82.

For those on the verge of a career in gerontology, the novel living situation offers a first-hand view of the satisfactions and sorrows of growing older.

Diaz, to accommodate her class schedule, spreads her manor duties over four days. She devotes the most time--7 1/2 hours--on Fridays.

To spend a typical day with her is to encounter a smorgasbord of experiences and emotions.

At 8:30 one recent morning, Diaz's first order was to prepare for a visit by 28 third- and fourth-graders from nearby Ramona Elementary School. She and Susie Lukasek, program director, puttered around in the manor's sixth-floor Skyroom, which this day would serve as a kitchen where the youngsters would learn how to make Valentine cookies.

Lukasek recalled a time when the manor's resident centenarian had talked to some other youngsters, who were flabbergasted that a person could be so old; some wanted to touch him, as they might a redwood tree.

As Diaz gathered up flour, baking powder and honey, she related her own amusing tale about another recent Skyroom event: "I was the instructor for a cane drill team. It was called the Ben-Gay Brigade."

But not all her moments have been as light.

She reflected on the first time, as a gerontology undergraduate, that she had seen, first-hand, life's inevitable conclusion: "I was working at a convalescent hospital, and I got to know one woman. . . . When I arrived one day at 3 p.m. to begin my shift, she had just died. She was still lying in her bed. Until then, I had never known anyone who had died. That night, I couldn't enter her room. I couldn't even bring myself to go by her room in the hallway."

In gerontology, explained Diaz--who hopes to find work in program development for the elderly when she graduates in May--"they get us to realize that death is a part of life."

It was, however, a remote concern for the next hour as the children visited and the resident retirees began to arrive for the event.

Alice Andre, 85, was the first there and had time to tell a little about herself: "I was head counselor at Hamilton High School during the '50s and '60s. That was Sputnik time. We were encouraging everyone to go into physics and engineering."

Lorena Havlik, who only allowed that she is in her 80s, arrived and observed of the schoolchildren's visit, "It will be good for a change to hear young ideas."

Karoline Straky, 82, agreed, saying: "It is good when the young and the old get together."

In trooped the pupils, taking seats at long wooden tables. Andre and Havlik engaged them in small talk.

Diaz, meantime, bustled about, putting lumps of butter into bowls, handing out cups of honey, pleading: "Make sure everybody gets a chance to stir the bowl!"

Miriam Melhorn, 85, cautioned some youngsters near her: "Don't use too much flour!"

Soon the aroma of baking dough filled the air.

Eventually, each pupil proudly carried off a heart-shaped cookie.

But Diaz had little time to savor the moment. A hectic day loomed at the institution--a cluster of ivy-covered, red brick buildings surrounded by manicured gardens. It has been on the scene since 1912.

Administrator Bruce Udelfsaid Kingsley Manor offers three levels of services to the aged. Some of the residents, still largely independent, get meals, maid service, linens and other services for $855 to $965 a month. Some need more assistance--help with bathing or dressing--for which they are charged $1,390 to $1,515 monthly. And some residents require convalescent care, which runs $102 to $105 daily for a private room.

At 11 a.m., while en route to the manor's convalescent area, Diaz stopped at Cal's Popcorn, a stand run for two hours daily for the past seven years by Cal Tedford, 66, who turns over the proceeds to the resident-run gift shop.

Diaz and Straky shared a 25-cent bag of popcorn before Diaz headed to the grim confines of the convalescent area, where many patients are hooked to oxygen tubes and some are at the last stop on the journey of life.

But no matter their physical condition, most residents in the convalescent section still cherish attention. Providing it is one of Diaz's duties.

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