Mature students welcome

July 20, 2007

Cash-strapped US universities have a new revenue stream - retirement villages on campus.

Sunlight streams through the windows of Myril Axelrod's neatly appointed apartment. She watches as a chattering group of university students hurries past.

"See all those kids walking back from school?" she asks. "You're not just sitting here with a bunch of old people."

In fact, Mrs Axelrod, who is 87, lives in a retirement community whose 225 residents are aged from 68 to 95. There is full-time nursing care, communal dining and other amenities. But unlike most of the retirement facilities popping up to care for America's ageing population, this one is on the campus of Lasell College, a small university with 1,200 undergraduates in suburban Boston.

About 95 US universities have built or are planning retirement communities on campus. Some, like Lasell, require residents to take courses; others make it voluntary. Still others cater exclusively to retired academics from, and alumni of, the host schools.

Like many such complexes, Lasell's was born of economic necessity. The land rich but cash-strapped university wanted to build housing, but the city required that the property be used only for educational purposes. So the $40 million Lasell Village Retirement Community was created, with a requirement that residents attend the university.

"Necessity was the mother of invention," said Paula Panchuck, director and academic dean of Lasell Village. "People doubted we would to survive, much less fill up, but I was stunned to discover that the learning part was the marketing plus; that it was a promise to residents that they would find people of like mind."

In fact, almost all the campus retirement communities have waiting lists - there are 90 people on Lasell's - despite costs averaging $650,000 to buy an apartment and up to $4,000 a month for meals, healthcare and tuition.

Lasell Village has already been expanded, and there are now 16 buildings, each with classrooms, art studios or fitness areas. Residents are required to spend 450 hours a year in class, preparing for classes or volunteering - about the same amount of time as full-time students. University officials from as far away as Japan have come to see how it works.

With the US retiree population expected to double in the next 30 years, the rush to build retirement communities on campuses has quickened. There are now campus retirement facilities at the universities of Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and Notre Dame; at Purdue, Cornell, Duke and Pennsylvania State universities; and at Dartmouth College, among others.

"You have millions of ageing baby-boomers who are about to enter their retirement who are asking themselves what they're going to do with the next 20 or 30 years," said Gerard Badler, managing director of Campus Continuum, which helps universities build retirement developments.

"They're looking for a more stimulating place to spend their retirement than their parents did, on a beach in Florida."

Universities, meanwhile, can add a new kind of diversity, he said. "The presidents of one of the colleges we're working with likes to say that young people have as much to learn from older people as they do from fellow students from other backgrounds."

But the bottom line, said Mr Badler, is money. "Academic institutions are always in need of money, especially those facing cutbacks in their allocations from the states." And retirement communities make money.

Not all of the developments have been instant successes. Meadowood at the University of Indiana, one of the earliest, was originally meant for retired university employees and alumni. But it ran into financial problems and began to welcome non-university-affiliated retirees.

Still, 80 per cent of residents have some connection to the University of Indiana. Many wear the university colours, hold season tickets to university football games and have formed a pub crawlers' club in the tradition of students everywhere. There are now 120 families on the waiting list.

"We want people who will contribute to the life of the community," said Susan Bookout, Meadowood's director. "If you want to sit in front of a television and be sedentary, there are other facilities that will meet your needs."

Residents are also drawn by such perks as regular maid service, deliveries of prescription medication, transport to classes and shopping, live entertainment, walking trails and swimming pools. Their communities are tranquil and, above all, protected.

The director of one community politely warned that if a journalist were to visit to interview residents at random he would be removed by the campus police.

Back at Lasell, Mrs Axelrod is worn out from her art class. Instead of cooking for herself, she may choose to join fellow residents for a meal in a restaurant staffed largely by young students. "Sometimes that generation is disdainful of older people. But the kids who work here are so respectful," she said. She has also taken courses in opera, classical music and Freud and aggression.

"People around here are proud that everyone was a professional," said Mrs Axelrod, a retired housing industry consultant. Other residents include retired professors, scientists and classical musicians. "All of them have come from a lifetime of having pretty important jobs," she said.

Dinners are inevitably stimulating. "People are so vital and so alive. Every night people are talking about the courses and what they're planning to take."

There have also been connections made between the younger students and the older. Lasell has even established the Lasell College Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies to do research on the concept.

"There is something that happens when an older and younger person who aren't related to one another interact," said Dr Panchuck, a former professor of education.

"The older adult can accept that younger person with the tattoos and piercings and green hair without worrying about the family honour. And we've done a lot to improve the image of older adults among young people through that daily contact."

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