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UBRCs: Goodbye Bingo, Hello Blue Books

Why just retire when you can retire with class(es)?

Out: bingo, birthdays, and bridge.
In: basketball, biology, and Blue Books.

When he's not in Latin class, history lectures, or the campus library, Bob Ellis can be found at a Pennsylvania State University Nittany Lions football game, wrestling match, or fitness center. Ellis isn't your typical coed. The 80-year-old and his wife, Ruth, 79, are residents of The Village at Penn State, a university-based retirement community.

Once developers sought out locations on mountainsides or near golf courses; now, real estate within walking distance of a college campus is considered prime, and waiting lists for entry are the norm. This isn't your grandma's retirement community.

"Boomers came of age in the dorms. They still go to the games, wear the sweatshirts, and love the idea of continuing education," said Andrew Carle, an assistant professor at George Mason University and an expert in UBRCs. "People feel younger when they are surrounded by 20-year-olds. And they want the perks that come with college life: theater, classes, guest speakers, the library, even hanging out. This is the only model community that is intergenerational by definition. To me, it's the future of senior housing."

As a sign of the popularity of developing land near academia, Carle has established criteria for real-estate agents and buyers to prove a development’s connection with a university. Carle and others had worried that any developer would be able to say it was "affiliated" with a university. The basic UBRC criteria include the following:

• A location that is accessible to the school (within one mile of the university, preferably)
• Formalized programming incorporating the school and the community
• A full program of continuing care, from independent to assisted living
• A baseline percentage, at least 10 percent, of residents who have some connection to the school
• A documented financial relationship between the university and the senior-housing provider

Fewer than two dozen communities meet the criteria so far, while another 40+ have looser affiliations with schools. Still, Carle points out that if only 10 percent of the 4,000 universities and colleges in the United States developed UBRCs, we could see 400 in the next 20 years.

That wouldn't surprise Ray Goldwire, 74, a resident at Oak Hammock, a 270-unit complex on 136 acres. It opened in March 2004 at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The retired human-resources executive is sold on the idea. When he and wife Anne moved in, they were issued campus IDs just like any student or faculty member. Ray loves sports, so Gators football and basketball games are on the agenda, as are gymnastics meets and cultural events. "It's invigorating. You feel so in touch with the younger crowd," he said.  

The couple spends time at the community's 22,000-square-foot fitness center, where graduate students serve as personal trainers and instructors. And through the Institute for Learning and Retirement, Ray and Anne have immersed themselves in classes from "Early Western Civilization" to "Appreciation of Modern Art." "The biggest challenge is keeping up with the choices," laughed Anne. Another benefit: access to one of the country's top medical teaching hospitals.
Mary Nelson, 79 and her husband Eric, 83, both have degrees from Penn State, so moving to The Village in December 2003 was a no-brainer. Because residents can take college classes at no cost, except for books, Mary signed up for one on the Crusades and another on art history. Besides puttering around in her small garden, Mary asks Eric to join her for monthly recitals by music students. The two have attended on-campus lectures and concerts from the likes of Elie Wiesel and Wynton Marsalis.

Lasell Village, affiliated with Lasell College in Newton, Mass., takes the UBRC concept one step further. The approximately 215 residents each agree to complete 450 hours of continuing education each year.

"This is a true living-and-learning environment," explained the Vice President for Lasell Village, Paula Panchuck.

Though 450 hours may seem daunting, Panchuck explained that the figure includes homework, classroom time (either on campus or in the village), study, mentoring, travel, and even physical fitness activities. "This is not a sedate community. It appeals to those with an active lifestyle who want to be intellectually engaged." In fact, residents have access to any Lasell College course, plus up to 30 on-site classes at the Village each trimester.

Residents at The Village at Penn State can enroll in one college class per semester, on a space-available basis. Oak Hammock community members can audit classes at the university, free of charge.

At UBRCs, many college students also benefit by working on-site or by serving in internships. Universities provide the communities one-on-one training from computer science majors, for instance, or ceramics or painting workshops from students in the art department. The University of Florida College of Dentistry staff offer an on-site dental hygienist suite at Oak Hammock, while their veterinary college offers pet care. 

According to Carle, if done right, UBRCs get an A+. "Schools find additional employment and work-related experiences for their students and maintain that connection between alumni and faculty," he said. "Residents get an intergenerational, active, intellectually stimulating environment. It's a win-win."