The Business Case for Intergenerational Living and Learning Communities

by Anne Doyle, CEO of Spark Living and Learning, LLC

Anne Doyle launched Spark Living and Learning to develop intergenerational living and learning communities partnering college and university campuses with senior living. Anne works with leaders of universities, senior living and healthcare companies to create partnerships to revitalize outdated models, create business synergies and develop vibrant intergenerational communities.

In my 30+ years running complex organizations in healthcare, education and government, I’ve experienced, in real-time, the changes in their respective marketplaces.

I see two sectors ripe for disruption: senior housing and higher education. Developing intergenerational college campuses will generate substantial opportunities, including new revenue and employment synergies, new purpose-driven learning cultures for students of all ages, positive health outcomes and cross-generational experiences that will reshape the organizations students join in their future careers. All this and more can help turn ageist stereotypes on their head.

Disruption In Higher Ed Provides Opportunities for Senior Living

Higher education is facing an urgent need to change its longstanding business model.

In 2020-2021, approximately 4,400 accredited colleges and universities offered four-year and two-year degrees (with closures and mergers ongoing). Over the past 20 years, the market for traditionally aged students has been declining while the older adult population continues to grow. Senior living companies are adapting offerings to meet enhanced expectations for purposeful living. These converging factors create enormous opportunities for innovation and positive disruption, changing what it means for people of all ages to thrive in a learning environment.

The facts: During the recession from 2007 to 2009, birth rates declined and continue to fall. In 2025, the college-age population will face an “enrollment cliff.” The pool of students is also shrinking because of declining demand for traditional higher educational offerings due to many factors, including the high cost of college and its perceived value, lower-cost online educational options and attractive employment opportunities.

Demographic changes are shifting the workforce: Fewer young people, immigration shifts and adults with longer lifespans are changing the nature of professional engagement in later years by retiring, unretiring and retiring again. Colleges and universities have been preparing for this shrinkage for some years by adjusting programs, offering additional graduate and certificate degrees, offering online options and enhancing degree flexibility. The COVID pandemic accelerated the need for change, resulting in heightened pressure on the higher education business model.

While some colleges and universities merged or shuttered, others are seeking new approaches.

With approximately 75 million people older than 60—each with a wide range of interests—there are many possibilities for creating new offerings to meet the interests of this curious, engaged generation.

The good news: We can create new models to take advantage of synergies between higher education and senior living. There will be more people living longer, even as lifespans in the United States vary dramatically by state and socioeconomic level.

These changes offer opportunities to offer new products for older adults across the United States in rural and urban areas and across socioeconomic strata, with attractive new ways to engage with other generations in a learning environment.

Not only is learning across the lifespan fulfilling (and useful for retooling skills for those cycling in and out of the workforce even into their ninth decade), but also the business case is also compelling: Higher education can expand its vision to serve a new growing market, and senior living can meet older adults’ expectations for meaningful intergenerational connections.

Expectations: Purposeful Living

As president at Lasell Village, the United States’ first educational retirement community, I’ve experienced firsthand how today’s older adults want to continue to contribute, learn, give back and make connections throughout life. People of every age seek purpose.

Senior living has traditionally prioritized safety, services and healthcare. As we learned during the COVID pandemic, this isn’t enough.

For older and younger students, learning together is a way to expand horizons, provide perspectives and create genuine friendships. I’ve seen the many personal benefits when 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds sit in class together, volunteer in a preschool together or participate in a panel discussion sharing immigration stories, marveling at similarities and learning from differences. The societal benefits go far beyond helping to shake up ageism, reduce loneliness, and improve mental and physical health outcomes for all ages.

How to Create a Successful Intergenerational Community

A successful campus combining higher education and senior living requires intentional development and a business plan that incorporates four key pillars.

  1. Philosophy: An intergenerational culture and a learning community open to new ideas
  2. People: Investment in learning for the entire community: employees, traditional and nontraditional students, faculty, alumni and neighbors
  3. Purpose: Commitment to a “growth mindset,” learning, exploring new ideas and pursuing what matters to each person over his or her lifetime
  4. Partnership: Governance, decision-making, risk management and a commitment to a partnership that creates value for each partner and their stakeholders

Developing an intergenerational campus requires alignment of goals, a business plan to drive mutual benefits and a commitment to flexibility and adaptation. A defined governance structure and processes to address opportunities and risks will lay the groundwork for long-term success. Operational opportunities abound.

Hiring people who embrace purposeful living, entrepreneurship and a growth mindset is essential.

Living and learning on a university campus means making room for new ideas, learning across the lifespan and broadening perspectives for all—not only for the students and residents, but also for everyone engaged on the campus, from employees and faculty to vendors. The entire enterprise becomes a learning community, inviting curiosity across the lifespan and maximizing the value to each business partner.

A Compelling Business Case for Intergenerational Living and Learning

Combining a college campus with a senior living campus makes good business sense. A “living and learning campus” can excite older adults and drive occupancy and wait lists, provide students jobs and experience with their future customers and yield financial benefits.

Many indirect synergies exist: Faculty see the benefits of older adults in the classroom and the myriad ways that multi-generational students broaden the conversation. Younger and older students develop relationships from project-based learning and informal interactions across campus. Increased alumni engagement, philanthropy and opportunities for faculty, staff and graduate students to live in intergenerational housing abound.

About one-fifth of Americans are seniors. Students will work in an economy with people older than 65. Those who live on an intergenerational campus will have a leg up. Students in nursing, exercise science, marketing, hospitality and other fields will gain knowledge and expertise by engaging daily with people who will be their “target group” when they join the workforce. They’ll use their insights to shape products and services in positive ways—and chip away at ageist stereotypes.

Opportunity for Entrepreneurial Leaders

Leaders in senior living and higher education have a chance to create new models that can revolutionize two adjacent sectors and redefine what it means to live, learn and thrive across the lifespan. Intergenerational environments favorably impact the prevailing narrative of what it means to be “old” and what it means to be “young.” New models—beyond shaking up the higher education and senior living sectors—can yield strong business results for the future.

Download Love & Company’s Senior Living Trends white paper featuring Anne Doyle’s article.

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