Who is the New University “Senior”?

Today’s university senior just might be a senior citizen. Increasingly, the faces on a university campus might include baby boomers as well as young adults—integrated to form mutually beneficial relationships for lifelong learning and intergenerational inclusion. Nearby housing options might include senior living communities in addition to traditional dorm housing. This emerging multigenerational setting offers creative ways to live a vibrant and enlightened life regardless of age.

Many of today’s senior living communities have an increased focus on integration into the surrounding neighborhoods, providing residents with opportunities for activities and socialization both within the immediate community and outside it. One such active senior living model is the University Retirement Community (URC). This unique model provides seniors with access to an energetic campus environment and the opportunity to participate in classes. College students benefit from the added diversity and informal mentorships that frequently arise. The opportunity to be immersed in campus life is often chosen based upon former professions or by those interested in continued education opportunities, particularly by those motivated to achieve lifelong goals. Additionally, alumni and sports team boosters who wish to be more closely associated with their alma maters during retirement are often interested in URCs.

What is a University Retirement Community (URC)?

University Retirement Communities can take many forms. Some communities are physically located on a university campus, while others are simply located nearby, offering increased privacy while maintaining strong ties to the university. Still other communities share only a loose affiliation with the school, allowing interested residents to pursue opportunities individually.

University Retirement Communities provide a social and educational framework to help seniors to maintain balance and healthy lifestyles. Intergenerational relationships are important during every phase of life, especially during retirement when opportunities to form these relationships start to lessen. The opportunity for seniors to interact with a variety of age groups is especially important when living in an age-based environment. URCs offer more extensive diversity, as well as the opportunity to pursue continued education, whether for a degree or simply for enjoyment, utilizing auditing programs. Some seniors have little interest in classes but enjoy the livelier aspects of campus life, such as theatre productions, sporting events and people watching.

URCs provide the socially and mentally stimulating environment essential to the wellbeing of active adults.

                                                                                                                                             – Chad Bederka, AIA, Associate Principal

The benefits of this model are not limited to senior residents; students can also benefit from the synergy between universities and senior living communities. During such a transitional period of life where they are often far from home, students can benefit from the intentional connectedness and different perspective that these communities offer. Additionally, opportunities can be developed for internships, research, and mentorship programs. Senior residents can provide insights into potential professions, drawing upon their previous work experience to guide students as they choose their fields of study. These relationships are often invaluable for both sides.

Design Considerations

When planning a URC, the biggest consideration for designers is flexibility. Universities operate very differently than they did decades, or even years, ago. Just like any other community, university campuses are living, breathing, and ever-changing entities.

Today’s universities continually evolve and differ from year to year, so it’s especially critical to design with flexibility in mind. Also, the preferences of future incoming seniors will likely change. Our challenge is to design flexible spaces that work now and can readily adapt to future needs.

                                                                                                                                             – Erica Zoren, AIA, Associate Principal

Each community is unique; what is successful for one campus may not be successful for another. We cannot predict, nor do we want to limit, the capacity to which residents of a senior community will be involved with a university, and vice versa. By providing well-designed, technologically advanced spaces that serve multi-purpose uses, a community can blossom organically. Providing flexible areas where seniors can study, have book clubs, or log into online classes are a good place to start. This “future-proofing” of design means that spaces do not necessarily need to be dedicated to specific purposes; instead, the goal is to create comfortable spaces where senior-students feel at home while learning and collaborating with others. Another important consideration is whether students will be utilizing the spaces as well; if educational programs will be hosted within the building, it is important to design a space where all the users feel comfortable. For seniors and students to interact positively, the amenity must cater to the needs of all users.

As with any type of community, a URC offers unique challenges. Developers are often reluctant to add a programming burden or additional square footage. However, if properly affiliated with a university, the community can see a reduction in their own programming needs. It is a misconception that the community needs to provide dedicated classrooms or study hall spaces. Instead, incorporating these spaces into already well-used areas can increase program interest and build greater community.

Residents may also experience challenges non-existent in a standard senior living community. One common concern is transportation, since walking long distances to class is often impossible. Providing alternative methods of transportation, such as shuttles, or spaces equipped to stream online classes can solve these difficulties. Another important consideration is adequate technological support to address any complications that may arise. Lastly, security is often a greater concern since campus-adjacent environments are less private than typical senior communities.

Case Studies

One example is a confidential senior living community that will be located adjacent to a small liberal arts college. The HCM-designed community has no direct affiliation with the college, but offers seniors the opportunity to participate in the college’s senior citizen program once completed. The program connects seniors from different communities socially and allows them to audit a wide range of classes at reduced prices. This program also hosts social events for members. The community will have physical access to the campus, with walking trails that connect to the university’s path network. It will also offer a shuttle bus to and from campus buildings. This community is designed to create opportunities to host programs in their buildings to engage citizens; additionally, six apartments will be allocated for student use at a reduced cost. In return for the reduced housing rates, these students will become a part of the community family.

Broadview at SUNY Purchase College is a new community located on the campus of SUNY Purchase College. Scheduled for completion in January of 2023, Broadview will offer a “learning commons” to deepen the connection between the college and the senior living community. The learning commons will provide a space for residents to actively engage in many aspects of the campus community. Residents will have opportunities to participate in activities at the renowned Performing Arts Center and Neuberger Museum of Art. The College also anticipates senior residents participating in academic activities and utilizing the other facilities of the college, including its athletic facilities, walking paths and the extensive campus grounds. The link between the College and senior population will also provide support to the traditional students in the form of mentoring, tutoring, and guest lecturing.

A list of more than 85 current URCs with at least some level of documented connection to a university or college can be found through www.UniversityRetirementCommunities.com, the first directory and information resource website dedicated exclusively to this unique and rapidly growing model of retirement communities.

Conclusion

As University Retirement Communities continue to grow in popularity, developers will increasingly seek to provide senior residents with greater access to campus environments. For developers, this new model offers a differentiator in a growingly competitive senior living market, providing residents with unique amenities and experiences not found in a traditional retirement community. For universities, this prototype offers an active pool of mentors and guest lecturers. It’s a win-win for universities, developers, and seniors.

Looking to speak with a senior living design expert on the opportunities and challenges offered by this residence model? Reach out to Cynthia Shonaiya, Senior Living Sector Leader at cshonaiya@hcm2.com.


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