Like most residents on college campuses, Nelly Murstein is busy all day, almost every day.
She’s in class, attending cultural events on and off campus, in and out of the library for research and browsing, and exercising to keep her body fit and her mind sharp.
What makes Murstein and about 250 other residents at Lasell University near Boston stand out is their age — they’re between 50 and 80 years older than the traditional college student.
They’re residents of Lasell Village, a senior living community on the campus of 1,500 undergraduates and 500 graduate students. The village residents enjoy the benefits of the vibrant college environment while having access to the health care and other services that aging people need.
“There are so many wonderful things to do, I can’t do them all,” says the 89-year-old Murstein.
Lasell University is one of more than 100 higher education institutions that have a partnership with a senior living community. Typically, the seniors live adjacent to or near campus so that they have easy access to audit classes, attend cultural and sporting events, and be part of the college scene.
Two features of Lasell Village distinguish it from other similar arrangements: It is located on the university campus, and its residents are required to take 450 hours of classes a year. Like other age-friendly higher education institutions, Lasell University designs specific classes to be intergenerational.
“We get to know a different generation, how they think and what they feel,” says Murstein, who took an intergenerational philosophy class recently. “And they look at us and see a different kind of old people.”
In other words, they see older people who are active physically, intellectually and socially.
“We have the opportunity to change the story about aging from one of loss to one of living,” says Anne Doyle, president of Lasell Village. “Connecting across generations is a game changer. It breaks down stereotypes. It brings a lot of fun into life.
Always learning and growing
Wandering around the college campus, with its green quads and tree-lined streets, visitors might not realize a village of older adults is part of the footprint. Although it has a nursing facility and other amenities designed for residents’ needs, the village is integrated into the campus, and its buildings look just like the nearby dorms. Murstein says she loves being a quick walk from the campus’ central library, where she goes regularly to check out books for classes or for pleasure reading.
Just as college students avoid early morning classes, Lasell Village residents like to sleep in — Doyle says the village stopped scheduling early morning classes because the residents stay up late socializing and studying. Throughout the day, residents are in and out of classes, either in the halls of the university or in the village itself. Some of the classes in the village are intergenerational; others are tailored to village residents.
Murstein, who spent her career as a professor of French and Italian literature at Connecticut College, has taken a wide variety of courses since she and her husband moved to Lasell Village in 2014. She has studied genetics, evolution, social movements and the Bible.
Her late husband, Bernard, who retired after a career as a psychology professor at Connecticut College, was an active student learner at Lasell even as he battled Parkinson’s and heart disease.
Two days before his death last year, Nelly says, Bernard attended an online class on Chaucer, and he was an active contributor to class conversations. He also was editing an article he co-wrote with one of their three daughters.
The requirement that residents participate in classes and other activities “is part of the glue that brings people together,” Doyle says. “Everyone realizes that curiosity creates a community that is caring and very lively.”
Doyle says the village staff will waive the requirement for residents who are unable to meet the learning requirement for health reasons.
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Staying active on campus
Residents can choose from lots of extracurricular activities — everything from fitness classes to ukulele club — but the intergenerational experiences may offer the most unusual opportunities.
In addition to connecting with students in classes, the village is the largest employer of university students, Doyle says, providing jobs in the dining room and at the pool as lifeguards. It also offers internships in marketing, and in nursing at the long-term care facility.
For the students, the internships are more than just résumé boosters. They learn from people with life experience who can offer career advice or share anecdotes that make class content come alive, says Kelvyn Perez, who is assistant manager of dining services at the village and a junior majoring in international business.
“They give me advice that pushes me,” Perez says. “It’s not something you’ll find in a textbook.”
The key to fulfilling the promise of being an age-friendly university is providing opportunities for the generations to interact daily and in informal ways, says Skye Leedahl, an associate professor of aging and health at the University of Rhode Island.
When those connections happen “on a consistent basis,” they lead to better physical and mental health as well as cognitive functioning for the aging population, Leedahl says. They also counteract the social isolation common for aging people, especially those in nursing homes.
For Murstein that means a continuation of learning, new interactions and a feeling of support among residents. On a busy day, after doing an interview for this story, Murstein rushed off to an exercise class to improve her balance. By the end of the day, she would be at a dinner table with neighbors, sharing stories about all she had done and learned since she woke up that morning.
Living on Campus
The Gerontological Society of America has formed a global network of age-friendly universities. Participating schools pledge to support aging populations on their campuses by:
- Encouraging older adults to participate in classes, research programs and other activities
- Promoting personal and career development for all ages
- Recognizing the range of educational needs of older adults
- Providing intergenerational learning· Increasing access to online learning
- Increasing access to online learning.
- Giving older adults access to health and wellness programs
David J. Hoff is a contributing writer who covers family life, health and education stories for national publications. A former reporter and editor for Education Week, his work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Washington City Paper and other publications.