Opinion: Why We Can’t Ignore College-Based Senior Cohousing

This column was contributed to Senior Housing News by Charles Durrett and Bernice Gonzalez of McCamant & Durrett Architects, The Cohousing Company

Historically, “aging in place” meant that seniors spent their elder years in the home where they had lived and raised their children, and where extended family members could care for them. Families remained close by and often daughters or sons would stay at home to take care of their aging parents.

Back then—when we enjoyed close-knit ties with family, community, and place—nursing homes or caretaking facilities for the elderly were a foreign concept to most of the population. People would age in place within the community where they had built their lives and relationships; it was the natural thing to do.

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In today’s world, few of us enjoy the luxury of that type of support network. Society is increasingly mobile, as a result of work and other pressures. As family members and friends move across the state, country or the globe, we find ourselves saying goodbye more often, and those close, supportive relationships aren’t easily replaced.

These changes have led to a growing awareness of senior cohousing as an alternative housing model for active adults to successfully age in place. With over 125 communities built in the U.S., 20 of them for seniors, cohousing is well established as a custom high-functioning neighborhood. For most seniors successful aging means maintaining control over their own lives, and “Baby Boomers” are redefining what it means to age successfully. As 70-plus million “Baby Boomers” reach their golden years, they are creating higher demand for affordable senior housing options that support an active lifestyle in a sustainable way. “College-Based Community Development” is a future emerging trend among the retirement options available that allow for successful aging in place.

“College-based alumni senior cohousing” is a trend in retirement communities for active adults that allows retiring alumni to engage in a lifelong exchange with their alma maters that significantly enhances the college community and the quality of life in higher learning institutions. This is a beneficial exchange for students, alumni, their families and friends, and ultimately for society at large to college towns with friends and family, some bringing their continuing business interests with them. These retirees are looking for ways to continue to have purpose and meaning in their lives.

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The connection between campus improvement and retirees may seem distant from one another, but in reality they have a lot in common. Just as matured salmon return to their place of origin, it makes sense for retirees to return to their college communities. In addition, many elders are interested in moving back to college towns because of the active lifestyle and amenities they provide. For example, “college-based alumni senior cohousing” communities can provide seniors access to continuing education, college events, facilities, and in some cases hospitals and campus transportation.

Likewise, universities benefit from the presence of the retirees. Retiring alumni contribute to the campus by volunteering, offering their professional experience and perspectives in the academic arena, as well as advising and attending cultural and athletic programs. Financially, the development of senior cohousing opens opportunities for the university beyond those of real estate investment; it also facilitates the creation of jobs and college growth. In addition to building stronger relationships with alumni, it keeps them connected with current students and programs, and as an added benefit, their career accomplishments provide inspiration for the student body.

Universities across the country have embraced the idea of associating themselves with retirement communities and found that there is considerable demand for senior housing near campuses. By associating themselves with these projects they can derive great returns, especially in strengthening alumni relations cohousing inspired projects provide a foundation to develop “college-based alumni senior cohousing” projects and they can enhance campus life.

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“College-based alumni senior cohousing” is the perfect model for active adults seeking housing within college communities. It promotes an active lifestyle and encourages continuous learning. Unlike assisted care, or even independent living, senior cohousing puts elders in charge of their own lives and focuses on making the second half of life fun and engaging, while providing for their specific changing needs. Residents would be especially complementary for a college or university and their towns because they are lively people who want to be part of an intergenerational environment where they can contribute to their college’s culture. Senior cohousing can be created in the communities of institutions of higher learning, providing the basis for more diversified, educational, healthy, active, and sustainable college culture.

Charles Durrett is Principal at McCamant & Durrett Architects. He is an architect, author, and advocate of affordable, socially responsible and sustainable design. 

Bernice Gonzalez, is a Planner at McCamant & Durrett Architects. She has Master in Urban Design from the Universitat de Barcelona, Spain where she is a PhD candidate in Public Space and Urban Regeneration. 

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