Aug. 4 — When people think of students and universities, they usually don’t think of seniors citizens. But research shows staying intellectually engaged and learning new skills as we age can improve quality of life and even ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
But going back to school or signing up for a class can be stressful, especially for older adults who haven’t done it in a long time.
A new partnership between a local senior living center and Washington State University Vancouver aims to remedy that by making it easier for some seniors to engage with WSU Vancouver and other educational opportunities throughout Clark County.
University Village is a senior living center being developed by Koelsch Communities in Vancouver, Washington. The 365,000-square-foot campus will include 140 independent living units and 26 cottage-style units, along with 101 assisted-living apartments. Construction began in 2021 and is expected to be completed in early 2023.
After its completion, it will be the largest senior living center in Southwest Washington.
As the site was being developed, Benjamin Surmi, director of education and culture for Koelsch Communities, had an idea: What if University Village teamed up with nearby WSU Vancouver to provide educational opportunities for residents?
Surmi is familiar with a nationwide movement of universities partnering with senior living centers to promote lifelong learning, and he wanted to bring the movement to Vancouver.
“Organizations like Arizona State University and other colleges and universities around the country are either establishing senior living campuses literally right on campus or are developing partnerships with senior living communities,” he said. “At all different levels, they are finding ways to integrate older adults into campus life.”
Making the connection
Surmi connected with multiple faculty members and administrators at WSU Vancouver, and University Village is now poised to become the first senior living center in Southwest Washington and the greater Portland area that is directly tied to a university — something Koelsch Communities calls a “Learning Campus” model.
“WSU Vancouver had already demonstrated a commitment to older adults and older learners, because they have a program in which anybody over 65 can take classes at a low cost,” Surmi said. “We showed up across the street and said, ‘Hey, what can we do together since we’re so close?’ “
University Village residents will be able to participate in the life of WSU Vancouver, and a dedicated on-site learning concierge will help them achieve their educational goals.
“If you want to write a book, a learning concierge might pair you up with someone at the school who’s into that,” Surmi said. “Or maybe a resident’s goals have nothing to do with the school, it’s about going to the symphony, or it’s about a nonprofit that they want to get back to. The learning concierge will help them connect the dots.”
University Village’s Learning Campus model will benefit WSU Vancouver students, said Catherine Van Son, a nurse gerontologist and professor at WSU Vancouver’s School of Nursing. Van Son helped organize the partnership between the university and University Village.
“In our society, we still have rampant ageism,” she said. “Because of our highly mobile society, children don’t grow up with their grandparents as often as they did in the past, so they don’t always have positive interactions with older adults contributing to society and engaged in life.”
Many students who take her Introduction to Gerontology class begin with preconceived notions about older adults; namely, that seniors have memory problems and are not active members of society, Van Son said.
“Universities have a big role to play in dispelling those myths,” she said. “It’s a win-win for both populations. They’ll both benefit from that intergenerational, positive engagement.”
The Learning Campus model at University Village could become an example for other universities and senior living centers, she said.
“It really is critical at this venture to develop more relationships like this,” she said.
University Village was initially expected to be completed this year, but supply chain issues have pushed the expected completion date to early 2023. However, 86 residents have already moved into the cottage-style units, and Koelsch Communities expects the both the independent and assisted-living facilities to be half-full at the time of the grand opening ceremony.
In addition to bringing on its first residents, University Village is also hiring people interested in serving older adults. Koelsch Communities invested $108 million into building the community and estimates it will bring more than 100 new jobs to Vancouver, including nurses, 24-hour support staff and in-house chefs.
The campus is the fourth Vancouver-area project from Koelsch Communities. Its first was an assisted-living facility, Cascade Inn, built in 1979, followed by an assisted-living and memory care facility, The Hampton and Ashley Inn, in 1993. A memory care facility, The Hampton at Salmon Creek, opened in 2013.
Koelsch Communities is headquartered in Olympia and operates 35 senior living facilities with about 3,000 residents across eight states, some of which offer assisted living or memory care. University Village is one of six additional projects currently in development. The company’s first senior facility was a nursing home in Kelso, opened in 1958.