Across the country, developers are working to partner with colleges and universities to create senior living communities that provide active seniors with opportunities for intellectual growth, creative development, and physical wellness. With more than 2,800 institutions of higher learning in the U.S., the possibilities for this model seem endless. And yet, according to the experts, only 50-100 university-affiliated senior living communities currently exist.

Some, like Lasell Village at Lasell College in Newton, Mass., and Ann Arbor Commons at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., are actually on or adjacent to college campuses. They have strong program ties that connect residents with faculty and students and on-campus activities. Others, like Belmont Village in Westwood, Calif., near the University of California Los Angeles, are more loosely integrated, offering occasional lectures by faculty and free transportation to campus. Many are designed as continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), with independent living apartments/cottages, assisted living units, and in some cases, memory care units. Others bill themselves as “active adult communities,” with independent housing and shared facilities like meeting rooms, fitness facilities, and dining.

Gerald Badler, managing director of Lasell Village’s parent company Campus Continuum (Brookline, Mass.), considers the community—which was developed in the 1990s with independent living and skilled nursing—to be a successful model for senior living on campus. But it’s changing, he says. “Many of the senior administrators at universities that we’re talking to now are looking for a different model. Because by the time you’re in assisted living, you’re not going to be active in the community.”

Lesson plans
Badler’s firm consults with developers and academic institutions on the planning, marketing, and operating of university-branded 55-plus active adult communities that are tightly integrated with academic institutions. His clients are looking for healthy, active seniors, ideally college-educated, affluent baby boomers with strong ties to their universities—possibly retired faculty members.

According to Badler, very few architects or designers have experience with senior living communities on college campuses, which is why those that do exist tend to look and operate like traditional CCRCs. He sees an opportunity to capitalize on relationships with academic institutions by designing spaces that encourage socialization between faculty and residents. For example, the community dining room could double as a university’s faculty club, or a school’s alumni club could be incorporated into the project. Classrooms for residents could be used as spillover space for students.

“Community colleges are always looking for places to hold classes,” says J. David Hoglund, principal and executive director at Perkins Eastman (Pittsburgh), whose firm has been involved in planning and designing several campus-based senior living communities, none of which have been built yet. He’s not sure why the model hasn’t evolved beyond the traditional CCRC, but typically these projects are driven by the university’s objectives and developer interest.

He says that Regis College in Weston, Mass., had envisioned the design of a CCRC as a learning laboratory for its nursing students, but zoning issues killed that project.

Finding visionary leadership for this type of community also seems to be difficult. Turnover among university presidents coupled with the slow decision-making process at most academic institutions create additional challenges. “We worked with a couple of university presidents who were champions for the idea,” Hoglund says. “But then they moved on to other institutions and the project died.”

Badler agrees: “If the university president isn’t interested, it usually goes nowhere.” Community groups frequently call his firm asking for help starting a senior living project on a university campus. “But, the first conversation has to be with the university president or chancellor,” he says.

“There’s a lot of inertia in university leadership on this,” adds Brian Kaskie, associate professor of health management and policy in the College of Public Health at University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. “They don’t see it as their core mission.” Kaskie’s consulted on three campus senior living projects in Iowa and is involved in an effort to develop one for his own university.

Learning curve
The recession slowed the development of these types of projects a bit, as well, but Badler thinks campus-based senior living will take off as more projects come on board. For that to happen, those who’ve done it successfully have to start sharing the benefits.

What are the benefits to the university? According to Victor Regnier, professor of architecture and gerontology at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, who’s been watching this model for more than a decade, there are several. They include:

  • A way to satisfy faculty, staff, and alumni who want a better connection to the university, which may enhance fundraising
  • Programs that focus on aging or age-related issues
  • A ready source of potential research subjects
  • Part-time jobs for students
  • A location for classes taught in the community
  • Potential investment profit from land lease or joint ventures
  • A source of volunteer labor for projects, programs, and events
  • Enhanced student body diversity.

“College towns consistently make AARP’s list of the most livable communities in the U.S.,” Kaskie says, noting that the right ingredients to attract seniors already exist within the college campus, except for a viable housing model. In a survey of University of Iowa faculty and staff, Kaskie and colleagues found that what most were concerned about as they got older wasn’t money; it was “what am I going to do?”

For residents, the connection/affiliation with a university can answer that question. They have access to a range of cultural and sports activities and the opportunity for intellectual stimulation and self-exploration. The promise of connection to young people is also enticing.

Design studio
The design aesthetic for these communities isn’t different than senior living sites hoping to attract baby boomers: transitional, upscale environments that can be customized to individual wants and needs. Dean Maddalena, president of StudioSix5 (Austin, Texas), suggests that even a more contemporary approach can be taken with active adult communities. “I don’t mean a stark minimalist approach but, rather, design that’s current,” he says, adding that senior living best practices to ensure safety and accessibility must still be maintained.

Also, many residents living in campus communities may not be alumni, so overly branding the interiors in school colors and mascots isn’t the best approach. “The residents living in these communities will also be educated and well-traveled, so we look to global design influences,” Maddalena says.

As for the future of the model, Kaskie thinks that a new solution might merge the livable community concept with the CCRC—something that’s not at the edge of town and doesn’t look like a retirement community. “Boomers don’t want to live out at Shady Oaks where Building A, Building B, and Building C mark which stage of life you’re at,” he says. Moreover, tenured faculty members are now among the oldest of all the labor categories in the U.S. “This will become increasingly problematic as more baby boomers age,” Kaskie says. “They are healthy. They have a good job. Why should they leave?” He sees this as an incentive for universities to create campus senior living communities.

Another emerging model for senior living that could work on campus settings is a European “apartment for life” concept that Regnier and his graduate students explored in a studio project several years ago. Basically, the concept is to build conventional housing that’s universally designed and adaptable to meet the healthcare and service needs of people as they age. Forty design features were identified for the apartment units, such as a five-foot turning radius and mechanisms to lower upper cabinets and the sink in kitchens.

In a report on his studio project, Regnier outlined several reasons why the model would work well for USC, in particular. USC officials liked the idea of a senior living community on campus, but they eventually passed. “Their answer was, bring us a donor and we’ll talk,” Regnier says.

Aside from funding, other challenges to the concept include location. Universities in smaller, more rural towns may have more available real estate, but they could potentially also have trouble attracting boomers. “They want to live in cities,” Regnier says. On the other hand, the broader benefits of university-affiliated retirement communities could potentially create more of a national draw, which would widen the pool of potential residents.

No matter what the project, or where the university is located, the right senior living solution all boils down to identifying a champion and securing a little bit of funding. For designers, it’s an opportunity to think beyond the traditional CCRC and help create something that no one has done before.


Sara O. Marberry, EDAC, is a frequent contributor to Healthcare Design. She is a writer, blogger, speaker, and strategic marketing and business consultant in Evanston, Ill. She can be reached at


SIDEBAR: What is a livable community?
According to AARP, a livable community is “one that has affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community features and services, and adequate mobility options, which together facilitate personal independence and the engagement of residents in civic and social life.”

College towns often already meet several of these requirements, with programming and design features including:

  • Places to worship
  • Well-designed and maintained streets
  • Parks, community centers, and recreation centers
  • Accessible public buildings and facilities
  • Affordable shopping
  • Places to socialize
  • Places for public events and meetings
  • Transportation alternatives for peoples with disabilities or health problems
  • Affordable housing
  • Hospital in the community
  • Sidewalks that go where you want to go
  • Entertainment, such as theaters and concert venues
  • A grocery store and drugstore within a half-mile of home
  • Walking or bike trails within a half-mile of home
  • Dependable public transportation.

Source: “Beyond 50.05. A Report to the Nation on Livable Communities: Creating Environments for Successful Aging,” AARP, 2005


SIDEBAR: Retirement living: What do university faculty and staff want?

  • Most people plan to stay in the community upon retirement
  • More than half realize their home will be hard to live in
  • Most people intend to “relocate” locally; they are most interested in assisted living, but many are interested in senior villages
  • Almost everyone values a livable community development; 75 percent are willing to invest their own money

Source: “Successful Aging in Academic Institutions. Phase II: University of Iowa Employee Survey Housing Preferences,” presentation by Brian Kaskie, August 2014