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Why more seniors are going back to college — to retire

May 14, 2014 at 6:27 PM EST
Retirement communities with ties to universities are a growing trend. Catering to the college-educated baby-boomer generation, nearly 100 schools have revived relationships with former students and others who live in nearby senior communities. Special correspondent Spencer Michels talks to residents of one such community in Florida.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Many Americans have strong and nostalgic ties to their colleges and universities. Some of those institutions are reviving those relationships by developing retirement communities for former students and others.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels reports on one such development, and its residents. It’s part of our Taking Care series.

SPENCER MICHELS: Have you been stung?

RAY GOLDWIRE, Resident, Oak Hammock: Many times.

SPENCER MICHELS: Oh, really?

RAY GOLDWIRE: Yes, and the thing about getting stung, you really sort of get immune to it after a while.

SPENCER MICHELS: Ten years ago, when he was 69, Ray Goldwire and his wife,  Ann, moved into a new retirement home in Gainesville, Florida, north of Orlando, and a few years later he began a new hobby: beekeeping.

RAY GOLDWIRE: It’s entirely different from anything I have ever done before, just like I started singing in the chorus this year, because I have never sung before.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Goldwires chose a place to live that they hoped would keep them stimulated in their retirement years. They live with about 400 other residents at Oak Hammock. It’s affiliated with, and close to, the University of Florida Ray Goldwire’s alma mater.

And it’s a far cry from their first try at retirement living.

RAY GOLDWIRE: I played golf three or four times a week, and we had our circle of friends, but there seemed to be something that I was missing.

ANN GOLDWIRE, Resident, Oak Hammock: I got here and I thought, oh, dear lord, what have I done?

(LAUGHTER)

RAY GOLDWIRE: We had friends that told us we’d move into the nursing home.

ANN GOLDWIRE: As did our children.

RAY GOLDWIRE: But they have changed their mind now.

SPENCER MICHELS: This is not a nursing home?

ANN GOLDWIRE: No, this is not a nursing home. This is independent living.

SPENCER MICHELS: Retirement communities like Oak Hammock with ties to universities are a growing part of the American scene. Estimates are there are fewer than a hundred of them right now, but those numbers are growing, as the college-educated baby boomer generation is now retiring.

From Stanford to Oberlin, Davis and Duke to Notre Dame, Cornell to the University of Texas, retirement communities tied to the nation’s top name-brand schools are getting in on the game, aiming to tap the deep pride and deeper pockets of those aging baby boomers.

Goldwire says he likes it because he can stay active, attend performances, even get bussed to them, and hang out with academics and Ph.D.s at classes held at the retirement community itself.

Judith Plaut appreciates that she can even take classes on campus. She’s now taking one in horticulture, alongside the students.

JUDITH PLAUT, Resident, Oak Hammock: We worked in groups. So, they just treated me like an ordinary member of the class.

SPENCER MICHELS: Plaut, who was a medical social worker, and her husband, Michael, who’s a psychologist, like about half the residents here, have close ties to the university. They knew what they didn’t want when they came to Oak Hammock.

JUDITH PLAUT: Because of my profession, I had put a lot of people in nursing homes, and a lot of times, they’re pretty crappy. And I didn’t want that for us.

SPENCER MICHELS: Right now, the Goldwires and the Plauts are active participants in the community, and like most current residents live independently.

But in case things change in the future, there’s an assisted living wing, where 100-year-old Alvera Davison still serves as president of the assisted living resident council.

Skilled nursing is also available, as is a memory unit for those who have dementia. Planning for the future is comforting, but also a bit disconcerting.

RAY GOLDWIRE: When you come here — we have moved in our lives eight or nine times. But when you come here, you have to sort of get in the mind-set that this is where you’re going to be for the rest of your life, and that’s hard for some people, and it was hard for us in the beginning, but we have adjusted. And we’re happy.

And if you could change anything, which you can’t, is that a lot of these friends, they come in as a couple, and then one of the spouses dies, or goes into the memory unit, and that’s sort of hard to take, particularly for the spouse, but for us as friends, too.

SPENCER MICHELS: To live at Oak Hammock, residents must pass financial and health tests. An entry fee for a two-bedroom apartment or home, which the residents do not own, averages $350,000 $400,000, more for larger units.

Should they leave or die, their estates may get some back, depending on how much was paid up front, which contract they chose and how long they lived there. In addition, there are monthly fees that can run as high as $5,000 for the first person in a couple. That covers 20 to 25 meals, activities and maintenance.

The Plauts had to think hard before deciding to move in, paying up front without owning their house. But for them and other residents who can afford it, the math made sense.

MICHAEL PLAUT, Resident, Oak Hammock: It’s fine, because what we’re buying is a sense of lifetime security. That’s really what the tradeoff is. It’s like an insurance plan.

SPENCER MICHELS: Star Bradbury, whose title is director of life fulfillment, recruits new residents, although at this point most only can get onto a waiting list. She understands the math is tough.

STAR BRADBURY, Director of Life Fulfillment, Oak Hammock: I wish I could wave a magic wand and make a lifestyle like this available to anybody, but the truth of the matter is that, yes, you do have to pay an entry fee, because we want and they want to know if they move in here, are their finances going to last for their anticipated lifespan?

Sometimes, I have had to say to people, this isn’t going to work for you. I’m really sorry.

SPENCER MICHELS: So most of the residents are wealthier than average, and almost all of them are white. Bernie Machen is president of the university, and both his parents lived at Oak Hammock until their deaths.

BERNIE MACHEN, President, University of Florida: It has to have a business model that will work, and that’s why a lot of people cannot afford to live there. There’s no question about that. It is unfortunate, but I think we have learned to accept that.

SPENCER MICHELS: He says, for the University of Florida, sponsoring Oak Hammock was a gamble, but one that paid off for the community.

BERNIE MACHEN: We’re in a small community that doesn’t have a very diversified economy, and the senior citizen industry is something we thought would be a boon to our community, and it turns out it is. It’s a big taxpayer in our community. And the second is, we have a large alumni base, and we wanted to use this as a way to reconnect to our alumni base.

SPENCER MICHELS: But it isn’t easy for a university to go into the senior living business.

Oak Hammock may have got it right, says Andrew Carle, who directs the senior housing administration program at George Mason University. But not every school does.

ANDREW CARLE, George Mason University: The problem a lot of universities have had is, is they don’t know who the good senior housing providers are, the major leaguers from the minor leaguers. Or, unfortunately, too many universities, in my opinion, try to do this themselves. And this isn’t their area of expertise.

SPENCER MICHELS: The University of Florida has done that by hiring an experienced management firm to run Oak Hammock and keep it solvent. But Carle warns, if anything goes wrong at a university-based facility, the school’s reputation can still suffer, and not every university can run one successfully.

ANDREW CARLE: You have to have enough student volume and enough alumni volume to warrant the demand for the amenities available. You’re really looking at a significant level of athletics, a significant level of visual and performing arts, a significant ability to have a lifelong learning institute in place just for retirees.

SPENCER MICHELS: While Oak Hammock has remained viable for most of its existence, many university-based retirement communities had declines in membership in the recession of 2008, but senior housing was one of the first industries to make a strong comeback. Occupancy levels are up, and predictions are that there will be explosive growth in places like this in the next decade or two.

GWEN IFILL: You can find a lot more on this topic online, including smart workout tips for seniors. That’s on our Health page.