College-Based Retirement Communities Have Been Upended by Covid. Are They Still Worth It? – Barron’s

Posted: September 23, 2020 at 7:57 am


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When Gordon Evans hopped on his bicycle and left his Ohio retirement community this past spring after two months of sheltering in place amid the pandemic, he found that all of the seniors were gone. The juniors, sophomores, and freshmen, too.

The 88-year-old Evans is a resident of Kendal at Oberlin College, one of a growing number of seniors opting to live in university-based retirement communities that offer a host of residential optionsfrom independent living to assisted living to skilled nursingto allow one to age in place along with the cultural offerings and vibrancy of a college campus.

They are attractive because of what I call the trifecta of what retirees today want: They want active, they want intellectually stimulating, and they want an intergenerational retirement environment, says Andrew Carle, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Universitys Master of Science in Aging & Health Program. They dont want to retire to what I call an elderly island.

Yet that is what the coronavirus has basically turned the residences into. Not only had his facility closed its doors to visitors, but as Evans pedaled across the Oberlin campus, every corner was quiet, the students dispersed as they had been since March when the school moved to virtual learning to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

It looks like that film that came out shortly after World War II about what life would be like after the nuclear bomb dropped, Evans says. Its just vacant.

For those living at some of the several dozen university-based retirement communities across the country, the tenor of life changed the day campuses shut down. In New York, the intergenerational choir of Ithaca College students and seniors at nearby Longview stopped singing. And in Virginia, the drumbeats sounding morning formation at Virginia Military Institute could no longer be heard at nearby Kendal at Lexington.

The universities are very generous in opening up programs, arts, music, lectures, says Bruce Summers, 74, a retired Federal Reserve official who had just moved into his new home, at the Kendal at Lexington, with his wife in February. All of that was taken away from us.

Now, as the fall semester continues with restrictions on the auditing of classesand with some campuses still empty of students and many canceling sportsresidents of these communities are finding themselves isolated in a way they didnt necessarily anticipate.

Whats more, in the age of Covid, do seniors want to live in a 20-story building, even if it does have chandeliers in the lobby, sushi for dinner, and an aquatic club, like the soon-to-open Mirabella at Arizona State University?

Barrons brings retirement planning and advice to you in a weekly wrap-up of our articles about preparing for life after work.

Congregate-care living in general is risky, with nursing homes some of the hardest-hit communities by the pandemic. Many seniors recognize they are at a higher risk and dont want to expose themselves to the virus by attending in-person classes or mingling with students.

Indeed, the virus has accelerated the shift toward technology in these communities, with iPads and social-media programs used to promote connection. Many seniors have recently transitioned to remote classes through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes program for the over-50 crowd with 124 sites set not only on college grounds, but also on satellite campuses inside the senior facilities or elsewhere in towns around the country.

Enrollment in live and recorded classes has declined in some programsincluding at the University of California, Irvine, for example, where membership dropped to 400 from 763 before the pandemic. Although many programs have lost some enrollment, Steve Thaxton, the executive director of National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, says there has been a silver lining to the digital transition: access for the seniors who dont drive or have physical limitations.

Still, for the seniors who banked on a rich cultural experience, the pandemic might lead some to rethink the costs and benefits. Living in these places can be pricey: The average cost of a unit in a continuing care retirement community is $3,665 a month, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, or NIC. Many have an initial entrance fee, which may be returned after death, averaging $384,000. It can be much higher, though. At the Mirabella at ASU, which is set to open in January, the initial fee ranges from $250,000 to $1 million, and $4,195 to $6,321 monthly.

The senior communities relationship to their neighboring universities varies as much as their floor plans. Just a few are physically on campus, such as Lasell Village at Lasell University in Newton, Mass., or the $167 million ASU residence. Some places may be populated with alumni and retired faculty who are actively studying alongside the traditional students. But most are adjacent or within 2 miles, and the collegiate relationships arent formalized in terms of governance or oversight, according to Zeigler, an investment bank that tracks trends in senior living and care.

The universities are very generous in opening up programs, arts, music, lectures. All of that was taken away from us.

Despite safety measures, the virus continues to spread. Though there arent any Covid cases at Kendal at Oberlin now, two staff members at tested positive for the virus in July. At Lasell Village, five died in April in the unit serving residents with cognitive and physical impairments, as well as one in the independent living unit who was on hospice. At present, there are no known cases at Lasell Village, and the five-year wait list for apartments remains unchanged.

Its not just being away from the students thats been hard for residents, but family and friends are restricted from visiting because of pandemic safety protocols. To combat loneliness, Lasell Village instituted a buddy system, pairing up single residents, and it has since expanded it to any four households.

Still, despite such efforts, some retirees have delayed their decision to relocate, and elsewhere have changed their mind. In some cases, people arent moving in just because of paralysis associated with Covid; not literally paralysis, but fear, said Beth Mace, NICs chief economist, of the trend across the board in senior living. That could be fear from adult children who often influence their parents on where they are going to live. It could be fear in general about Covid and where am I going to be safer? It could be operators have chosen to limit move-ins.

Some seniors, meanwhile, are bummed out but bent on making the best of a bad situation. Gordon Evans and his wife, Barbara, long to join their Oberlin classmates who have resumed in-person instruction. They miss studying in the library alongside them, or eating beside them in the dining halls.

Though the virtual classroom is not the same, Gordon Evans says his professors lectures about the transformation of Eastern Europe had helped him and Barbara reconnect to Oberlin and the world that they had traveled around four times while in the foreign service until Gordon retired in 1982.

But since sitting beside the students isnt possible now, the couple have cracked open their books and are dutifully studying from home. At the top of their curriculum now? A Zoom class on China.

Write to us at retirement@barrons.com

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College-Based Retirement Communities Have Been Upended by Covid. Are They Still Worth It? - Barron's

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