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From Shakespeare to Sports

Senior adult residential communities are cropping up on and around
college campuses, allowing retirees to enjoy campus life.
By Lydia Lum

Does the phrase “retirement community” conjure up images of a Florida condo next to a golf course? If so, think again.  In recent years, a

growing number of residential senior adult communities have sprung up on, or near, the campuses of colleges and universities around the country. Such housing offers residents an array of activities and intellectual opportunities in a vibrant atmosphere with like-minded adults as well as a generation young enough to be their grandchildren. Meanwhile, the arrangement provides schools with a ready-made pool of campus volunteers and part-time workers, as well as another source from which to cultivate potential donors. All of this occurs against an American social backdrop that believes that age 60 is “the new 50.” 

“It’s a significant social movement,” says Dr. Leon Pastalan, a University of Michigan professor emeritus and a principal in Collegiate Retirement Community Consultants. “When we talk about older adults, we are getting away from the orientation of personal comfort and, instead, shifting to personal growth and giving people reasons to get up in the morning.”

Pastalan and other experts estimate that about 50 such retirement communities now operate nationwide, with more under construction or being planned. They vary from active-adult, independent-living apartments and condos to assisted-living and continuing-care facilities, often with waiting lists up to two years for a vacancy. Some are furnished, although the complexes geared toward independent living tend to attract residents who bring the furniture and contents of their previous homes with them. Many communities are nestled on picturesque properties with views of sports stadiums and centerpiece university buildings.

Campus opportunities for the retirees vary. But for modest fees or as part of their housing agreement, they can participate in discussion groups on everything from astronomy to Shakespeare, arts and crafts and academic courses, sometimes alongside the undergraduates. Some retirement communities are owned, operated and marketed by the university, while others are independently managed. Some are for sale, others only for rent. Housing costs vary, but typically are aimed at the middle class — and wealthier — and fall in line with market rates of their respective geographic areas. So far, White retirees have been the most likely to jump aboard the trend, observers say. However, such a project could well serve a minority higher education institution where officials want to reach out to alumni and retired faculty.

“This is an excellent opportunity for historically Black schools and others to draw the well-educated back to campus,” says Gerard Badler, a consultant and managing director of Campus Continuum.

The University of Michigan has already made room on campus for retirees with ties there. The University Commons was conceived and designed for alumni, faculty, staff and their spouses age 55 and older.

Billed as a community for adults with a “continuing commitment for intellectual growth,” the complex offers residents the privacy of condo living on an 18-acre site along with the option of attending lectures, concerts and social activities at a commons facility. The school, however, doesn’t own or manage the community, only setting aside the land for construction. Its residents have included Dr. Robben W. Fleming, former UM president. Condos range in price from $200,000 to  $700,000.

A tighter relationship exists between Lasell College and Lasell Village, both located near Boston. Although the 1,100-student private college doesn’t own or operate Lasell Village, college officials were quite hands-on in marketing the residential retirement community before its May 2000 opening, says Dr. Paula Panchuck, dean of Lasell Village.

College officials designated on-campus space for the contractors during the complex’s development, and they regularly hosted campus lectures and social mixers for retirees already living in the area. As a result, more than half of Village residents come from within a 30-mile radius of the school and about a half-dozen are Lasell College alumni, says Panchuck, formerly the college’s interim academic dean. The Village is owned and operated by a nonprofit corporation. Apartments rent for $2,500 to $5,000 monthly, along with entrance fees starting at $250,000.
Interestingly, in order to comply with zoning ordinances over land use, Lasell Village is an educational institution unto itself. In fact, Lasell Village residents enroll in an individualized continuing education curriculum of 450 hours annually — or an average of 1.25 hours daily.

Residents, who range in age from 68 to 95, fulfill the requirement with activities such as volunteer work; courses such as art, literature and current events; and organized fitness such as tai chi and water

aerobics. The activities are so popular that several Village residents who moved from the one- and two-bedroom independent living apartments into the adjacent skilled-nursing facility have insisted on continuing to take classes, Panchuck says. Teachers at the Village include Lasell College faculty, adjuncts from the surrounding area hired for their expertise and the retirees themselves. 

Meanwhile, about one-fourth of the residents of Longview, which is a quarter of a mile away from Ithaca College, come from outside the state of New York. Begun in 1975, its original mission was to provide high-quality housing and personal care to the elderly regardless of income. Since then, residents at its 60-unit Adult Home, which includes personal aides and assisted care, pay up to $3,230 in monthly rent. However, indigent residents can qualify for discounts. The difference is paid by government subsidies and Longview’s “Quality of Life Fund” made up of private donations. Such arrangements are similar to universities giving tuition discounts to disadvantaged students. Longview also offers 101 apartments for independent living that rent for as high as $3,335 monthly. 

The retirement community also houses a classroom called the Center for Life Skills. There, the college faculty teaches coping skills to Longview residents and other people living in Ithaca, says Laura Day, director of development and community relations for Longview. “So, we might have an 80-year-old resident in class who’s had a stroke, next to a 24-year-old who’s rehabilitating from a motorcycle accident,” Day says. “The services might include occupational or physical therapy, or speech pathology.” 

Campus Appeal
Higher education outreach to retirees is far from new. For years, many institutions around the country have offered seniors the opportunity to take classes, view theater and artistic performances on campus or attend sporting events at discount prices. The University of Maryland, for instance, allows retirees who are age 60 or older to enroll in its Golden Identification Card Program at its flagship campus in College Park. Golden ID students can register on a space-available basis for up to three courses a semester as long as they meet prerequisites for such courses. They can also use certain academic services, such as libraries.

And if they wish, they can participate in the Golden ID Student Association, which offers peer advising as well as social and cultural events.

Currently, school officials are negotiating with a developer about designing and building a condominium complex. Current plans call for the complex to be intergenerational — targeting alumni and former faculty — but perhaps especially appealing to retirees such as the Golden ID students, officials say.

Elsewhere, Badler’s organization, Campus Continuum, has been surveying individuals about their preferences in university-linked retirement communities. Among other things, respondents are asked to list a “dream school” where they would like to live. It’s not very different from the way teens are polled about their college choices. Interestingly, about half the respondents in Campus Continuum’s survey are willing to move more than 100 miles in order to retire at a housing community at,

or close to, their first-choice universities, Badler says.

Furthermore, about 70 percent of respondents have no current or prior affiliation with their top-choice schools. And while many of the respondents have bachelor’s and graduate-level degrees, about 15 percent report that community college is their highest education attained. What it all might speak to, Badler and others theorize, is how much appeal the campus lifestyle has among Baby Boomers, who are poised to start retiring in about five years.

While most of the current retirement communities are affiliated with four-year universities, experts say community colleges are showing a growing interest as well. That’s not surprising, considering that two-year colleges have, for many years, encouraged older adults to enroll at their campuses.

Pierce College, which is in the Los Angeles area, already opens its theater and swimming pool to the general public, says Tim Oliver, the school’s vice president of administrative services. So it was a natural step for Pierce officials to consider ways of incorporating people of all ages into campus life. The most popular idea? A residential, active-adult community for people age 55 and older in the center of the campus. The residents would be required to get involved on campus, Oliver says, adding, “This wouldn’t necessarily be aimed at only retired Pierce faculty.”  

Oliver says the retirement community isn’t one of Pierce’s “active” projects, but remains on its master plan as a future source of not only outreach but also self-sustaining revenue for the school.

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