Pricey but Good for the Brain: University Retirement Communities
Take classes alongside young people to keep sharp
To age really well in retirement, according to neuroscientists, you need to seriously challenge your brain — perhaps like you did in your college years.
What longevity experts call “lifelong learning” now includes 100 or so university-based retirement communities (UBRCs), whose residents can take academic classes for little to no cost alongside undergrads at local colleges and universities. Penn State, Furman University and Oberlin College are some examples.
Retirement does bad things to your brain. You’re no longer challenged to use the cognitive skills you did when working. After four months of learning a new language, healthy people age 59 to 79 showed significant cognitive improvement, according to a 2019 Frontiers in Neuroscience study.
If you’re healthy at age 65, you have a good chance of living into your 90s, as my colleague Carla Fried writes, so you likely have decades left to expand your neural networks by breaking an intellectual sweat.
UBRCs are typically more intellectually challenging than the guest speakers or book clubs of traditional retirement communities. For a full list go here. The coursework through UBRCs is more immersive than the online courses offered by Coursera or the open online courses from schools such as Harvard and the University of Chicago.
A “light” version of UBRCs are the more than 400 traditional retirement communities with Osher Lifelong Learning programs through local institutions including Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Washington in Seattle and 24 college towns across Florida. Unlike UBRCs, those classes are typically designed for retirees, so you don’t get what neuroscientists say are the social and psychological benefits of learning alongside young students.
Most UBRC housing options are rentals. Monthly fees are typically in the $3,000 to $5,000 range after a one-time buy-in fee that typically starts at around $100,000. That number can go as high as $5 million at communities such as Stanford University’s Vi. The good news: A portion of the initial fee is often tax deductible as a prepaid medical expense and/or partially refundable to your heirs.
For comparison, AARP says that the nation’s 2,000 or so traditional retirement communities have an average entry fee of $239,000, with some exceeding $1 million. Monthly services fees typically range from $2,000 to $4,000. Communities without the one-time fee typically range from $3,000 to $6,000 a month.
Longevity researcher Andrew Carle, who coined the UBRC term, says that the best UBRCs have five elements:
Proximity of one mile or less to classrooms.
Retirees and undergrads learning together.
Assisted living and dementia care alongside independent housing.
A formal relationship with the university.
At least 10% of senior residents who are alumni or retired staff.
Carle estimates another 25 to 30 UBRCs are in development.
Mirabella at ASU, a new, 20-story high-rise on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, has a minimum age of 62 and initial buy-in fees of $378,500 for a 900-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment and $810,200 for a 2,700-square-foot, two-bedroom penthouse with a den. There’s also a monthly fee ranging from $4,195 to $5,570 that covers utilities, housekeeping, dining at four onsite restaurants and amenities that include a health club with an indoor pool.
Separate floors are dedicated to assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing. Residents can audit classes and access the university’s library. When a resident dies, 85% of the initial fee is refunded to heirs. Skip the refund plan, and your initial and monthly fees are lower. The project is sold out.
Oak Hammock at the University of Florida in Gainesville, with nearly 400 residents, charges initial fees of $200,000 to $700,000. Monthly fees for standalone villas and apartments range from $2,700 to $7,900. A 904-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment has an initial fee of $298,000 to $537,000, depending upon how big a refund you want for your heirs when you die, and monthly fees of $3,623.
Included are onsite dining options, utilities, weekly housekeeping, a fitness center and assisted living and nursing care. All Florida residents over 60 can audit public university classes for free, and Oak Hammock runs a shuttle to campus.
Lasell Village, on the campus of Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts, was the first community to require residents to be actively working their brains and bodies. Its 225 full-time residents must do 450 hours a year of “engagement,” meaning classes at the university alongside undergrads or within the village, or volunteering and the like.
Entrance fees range from $455,000 to $1.5 million, and monthly fees start at $4,045 for a 640-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. If you have a spouse or partner, there’s an additional $50,000 entrance fee and additional monthly fee of $2,015. The community has openings.