Retirement community on college campus built for elderly learners

Posted: Tuesday, December 05, 2000

NEWTON, Mass. -- Gertrude Barker comes to Spanish class with her homework tucked in the front cover of her book, extra pens stored in her purse, and her hearing aid turned up to its highest level.

Barker, 83, lives at Lasell Village, a new retirement community on the campus of tiny Lasell College in suburban Boston, where residents are required to take at least 450 hours of classes a year.

Unlike other programs that offer classes for the elderly, ''villagers'' are enrolled at the 800-student college itself and learn side by side with traditional 18-to-22-year-old students.

''If you're not obligated to be somewhere at a certain time, it's easy -- especially when you're my age -- to just sit around and say you've paid your dues,'' Barker said. ''But being here makes me feel young again.''

Precisely the point, said Paula Panchuck, dean of Lasell Village.

''People here don't want to start a stimulating lifestyle, they want to continue it,'' she said. ''Some may think of retirement as an inactive time, but that's not what these people want.''

The concept of putting a retirement community on a college campus has been done before, but enrolling the residents in classes -- and holding them accountable for attending -- is new, she said.

The idea is for the seniors to truly become life-long learners. Most of the residents were either academics, artists or teachers before retiring and still have the itch not only to learn, but to teach, share and experience as much as they can -- while they still can.

And Lasell College students also benefit, both by having an intergenerational mix in their classes, through internships at the village, and by tutoring residents on computer skills.

''I just taught a woman how to use e-mail,'' said Heidi Lewis, a 21-year-old sociology major. ''Now her grandchildren think she's hip and cool. Just being able to do that was a huge thing for her.''

The village opened in May after nearly a decade of planning. College officials came up with the idea as a way to build up the far side of the Newton campus, which is zoned for educational use.

All but seven of the 162 apartments have been sold, and another 16 people are on a waiting list. Residents purchase the units and a membership to the community -- which start at about $125,000 -- and 90 percent of what they pay goes back to their estate when they die.

''We really weren't surprised by how quickly we filled up,'' said Jim Wingardner, executive director of Lasell Village. ''Learning helps keep people mentally alert, and we are committed to having our residents continue learning.''

Villagers, as they are known on campus, are not required to take exams, receive no grades and are given more leeway than most students if they miss class for health reasons.

But teachers say despite the special advantages, the seniors take the classes more seriously than their younger classmates, always hand in their homework on time and almost never miss a class.

Spanish teacher Maria Rogers says she doesn't even mind that Barker does her homework in an unsteady scrawl on tiny notepaper from a drug company, because the work is always done with such care.

''I always almost lose it because the paper is so tiny,'' Rogers said. ''But she is so dedicated and such a good student. She clearly wants to learn.''

And the learning doesn't stop there. The village itself is built with a classroom and art studio or greenhouse at the end of each building wing, giving residents a place to run classes of their own, bring in guest speakers or simply meet to play cards and chat.

The village also has a beauty salon, cafe, general store for kitchen supplies, and a Town Hall for residents to gather for meetings.

Ruth Saldinger, 74, takes Tai Chi every Tuesday morning in her building. Ping So, a tiny 63-year-old from Hong Kong, leads the class.

The slow, even movements are tough to master, Saldinger admitted, but she has trained herself to practice every morning and already has noticed a difference in her balance and control.

''It's something I always wanted to learn,'' she said. ''I've seen it in the movies and on TV, but I never had time before.''

The same is true for 81-year-old Mary Eliza McDaniel. Initially skeptical about selling the Lexington home where she had lived for 51 years, she decided to come to Lasell after hearing about the opportunities she would have to learn and stay active.

A petite, fit woman with thick white hair, McDaniel still plays tennis every day and volunteers at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center.

''I had to downsize and I didn't want to,'' she said. ''At first it was overwhelming. But now I'm getting used to it. It's starting to feel like home here.''

Aaron and Helen Wasserman agreed. Originally from Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., the couple moved to the village in July to be closer to their children.

He is taking a class on the history of jazz, she signed up for the history of fashion. Both have papers due soon.

''We visited other retirement homes and they were so disappointing and sterile,'' said Aaron, 83. ''There the only activity is to go watch TV, or on a good night, play bingo. Here we need to keep calendars, we're so busy.''


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