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The New Face of College "Seniors" – the University Based Retirement Community

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Think back to arriving to your college campus for the first time freshman year.  Palpable excitement fills the air as moving trucks and minivans jostle for a precious spot on the curb.  Fall semester starts in a few days, and nervous energy gives way to excitement about the new opportunities that lie ahead in the coming years.  The sidewalks are filled with students exploring their new surroundings and catching up with friends.  Classes start soon, sure, but so do football games, campus concerts, and club meetings.

Fast-forward to today, and the new kids on campus aren’t just 18 years old… they’re 68!

Baby boomers have more college degrees than previous generations entering retirement age, so is it any surprise that many of them might want to relive their glory days on campus?  University based retirement communities (UBRCs) have been popping up around the country over the last several decades, and it’s an attractive model for further development in today’s market.  More so than their predecessors, baby boomers are seeking active, stimulating environments for retirement – or rather, their third act.  Meanwhile, enrollment is down at many colleges and universities, and administrators are looking for new revenue streams to stay solvent.  Enter the UBRC, a model that can address both of these considerations.

Older Adult Experience

Today’s seniors are not kicking back and retiring peacefully – many of them are seeking new opportunities to provide meaning and excitement in their later years.  Growing numbers of seniors are seeking opportunities for part time work, learning new skills, volunteerism, and even political involvement.  What better place to find all these options than at a university?  Older adults are seeking more than just physical health; they’re seeking occupational and intellectual wellness.  Amenity packages at standalone senior communities have long addressed physical, mental, and even spiritual wellness, but existing institutions with expansive resources provide ready-made opportunities to satisfy the occupational and intellectual wellness needs of older adults.

The scale of experience UBRCs provide for older adults is also attractive to baby boomers – rather than feeling like they’re isolated to an age restricted community or building, residents are entering into a larger existing intergenerational community.  Wherever possible, UBRCs should be located within walking distance of the university or at minimum easily accessible via public transportation. While senior communities provide the convenience of on-site amenities, it does mean that residents don’t have to leave the building for almost anything.  That’s not a normal way to live, but it’s often necessitated due to locations of the communities or preferred for the convenience.  But inserting a UBRC into an already thriving university neighborhood allows residents to leave, explore, and engage with a wider world around them.

University Benefits

As enrollment declines across the country, universities may be taking a keener look at the value of their physical capital – namely undeveloped or underutilized land or buildings on or near campus.  A better and higher use of that land may be selling it to a developer + operator team for senior housing.  In addition to the revenue from the sale or lease of land, universities could gain increased revenue from the older adults living nearby, whether that’s higher use of dining facilities, increased ticket sales at sports or cultural events, or other sources of income.

Having a cohort of engaged older adults nearby can have additional benefits for universities when it comes to opportunities for their students.  Programs like the MIT Age Lab or LiveWell Collaborative rely on volunteers of all ages, including older adults, to test and provide feedback on new consumer, technology, and health products.  Additionally, as experiential learning programs grow at universities across the country, UBRCs can be convenient training grounds for the next generation of geriatricians, nurses, dieticians, physical therapists, social workers… the list goes on.  As the number of dedicated geriatricians declines and the aging population grows, having more health professionals who are at least exposed to the issues of older adults can be vastly important to the wider health system.

In the Context of Aging

In the broader context of senior housing, UBRCs present a perfect opportunity to move away from the “othering” of older adults – locating their housing in the heart of it all, rather than somewhere unseen and unconnected.  In a society plagued by ageism, could we start to reverse the tide if we welcome older adults – eager to learn, participate, and grow – into our communities?  So much of ageism is rooted in fear of what will happen to us when we reach a certain age, but if we see older adults thriving all around us, maybe that fear starts to ebb.  Intergenerational living helps build empathetic communities that benefit people of all ages.

UBRCs are not a one-size-fits-all solution to senior housing, but they are uniquely positioned to mutually benefit older adults and universities in today’s disruptive market.  Project teams must carefully consider location, scale, operator, and market conditions; when the right mix is found, we will see unbelievable opportunities for older adults emerge.  Why simply reminisce about the past when you can relive – and in fact reinvent – your formative years and continue the lifelong journey of discovery and seeking purpose?

Jennifer Sodo , AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Senior Living Market Leader

Jennifer is a Senior Living Market Leader in our Living Environment Studio in the Milwaukee office. Her inspiration for design stems from people and their stories.