On campus, the living is easy

Waldo Wegner is at Iowa State University this fall and every fall. He takes classes, attends the theater, goes to football games, and holds season basketball tickets.

It's hard to find time for coursework, he concedes, but that's not why he's been on campus for the past 13 years. The 1935 graduate of ISU decided it would be nice to spend more time on campus - so he retired there.

"We wanted to take 'Origins of Jazz' this semester, but didn't get the application in on time," Mr. Wegner says of him and his wife, Katie. "That's OK - we'll just try again next time."

Unlike young undergrads who are rushing around fulfilling requirements and preparing for exams, senior students revel in all there is to do on campus. And universities and developers, realizing the perpetual appeal of a college campus as well as the numerous resources it can put at the fingertips of retirees, are building retirement communities on or near school grounds.

"Within the last three to four years the whole notion has caught on," says Leon Pastalan, director of the National Center on Housing and Living Arrangements for Older Americans. "There's a searching, a real need, to provide more value and meaning to retirement."

The idea also holds great appeal to those who don't want to undertake the traditional move South.

"I've never been someone wanting to ... retire somewhere where the sun shines all the time and what you do is play golf," says Dale Corson, one of the founders and residents of the Kendal at Ithaca community near Cornell University. "I wanted the lively intellectual and cultural life that a university provides."

Thirty-five million Americans are now over 65, and that population is expected to double in the next 20 years, according to the government's Administration on Aging. "The numbers are staggering," Mr. Pastalan says. "But rather than looking at it as a problem, it's really an opportunity."

Benefits go both ways

Indeed, university administrators say the benefits of a more diverse campus population work both ways. Retirees both take courses and teach them. Researchers and students use the elderly population for studies on aging, exercise, even customer service.

Mr. Corson first started working on the idea of a retirement community near Cornell when he was president of the university from 1969 to 1977. He couldn't think of a better place to retire, and neither could a lot of alumni, faculty, and administrators. Kendal opened in 1995, and has since drawn alumni back from all over the United States.

Robert Nafis, class of 1949, and his wife moved back three years ago from Long Island. "We both had our parents in Florida and were sure we didn't want to go down there," Mr. Nafis says. He is now on an advisory committee at Cornell's engineering school and helps the soccer coaches by videotaping the games.

"Many residents were on the faculty and continue to go to campus every day to do research and advise students," says Karen Smith, admissions director of Kendal at Ithaca, which is located about a mile from campus.

The Kendal Corp., a not-for-profit Quaker company, opened its first retirement community in Kennet Square, Pa., in 1973. Located within a half hour of Swathmore, Westchester University, and the University of Delaware, it soon attracted alumni and faculty of those schools. Kendal has since been approached by alumni of other schools, and now operates communities within two miles of Dartmouth, Oberlin College, and Cornell.

50 to 100 communities under way

Kendal's president says college towns are its biggest growth area. Developers have a built-in market: not only alumni, but retiring faculty and administrators, parents of faculty and those already drawn to college towns. These groups are often the ones who get the communities started.

Mr. Pastalan estimates there are 50 to 100 communities either already open or planned in proximity to campuses. Those open at Notre Dame and Indiana University and planned for Penn State and the Universities of Alabama and Florida are officially affiliated with the schools and marketed directly to alumni. Retirees live either on campus or nearby, with shuttle bus service. They take classes, use the library, and go to sporting and cultural events.

"Our goal is to make the members of the community full members of the university," says Leslie Bram, executive vice president of Oak Hammock, the nonprofit that will own and run the community at the University of Florida. "We envision a liaison from the university who says, 'I'm your dean of students.'"

The idea for Oak Hammock goes back to 1990, motivated by alumni interest. Five years ago, an alum from the class of 1942 gave $300,000 to push it toward reality. Without any marketing, 1,500 people - half alums, half faculty or parents of faculty - expressed interest in the 300 units.

"From the university standpoint, it gets a lot of enthusiastic alumni back in the community," Mr. Corson says.

The Green Hills community that the Wegners live in at Iowa State was initiated in the 1970s by the alumni association. It is now separate from the university but retains close ties.

"Iowa State is reaching record levels of support in terms of cash donations and our endowment, and I'd say Green Hills has played a significant role in that achievement," says Tom Mitchell, president of the ISU Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the university.

Like a university education, retirement is costly. Entrance fees are comparable to normal retirement communities and run in the $100,000 to $300,000 range, some or most of which is eventually refunded to the resident's estate. Monthly fees average $1,200 to $2,500 and include health care.

Faculty like the idea of integrating their parents into the university community, and in general retirees can remain independent of their families.

Wegner and his wife, Katie, have five children between them. "They think it's great," he says. "That was one of the important things to both of us, that they don't have to worry about Ma and Pa. It takes the pressure off."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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