Senior Living and the Faith-Based University

Omar Rihani of Project Management Advisors on why developers should explore this "uncharted territory."

Omar Rihani
Omar Rihani

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy identified loneliness and isolation as a serious public health concern. Murthy cited research indicating that “the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

For aging adults, this issue is especially devastating, with research from the Centers for Disease Control finding that loneliness in seniors can seriously increase their risk of depression, anxiety, heart problems, strokes and even developing dementia.

While seniors are increasingly opting to “age in place,” this trend could further exacerbate the loneliness epidemic as more older people face their golden years on their own, without a strong sense of community. But a solution to this problem may be on the horizon, as developers and faith-based universities consider building on-campus or adjacent-to-campus senior housing for alumni and local residents alike. These dedicated communities have the potential to provide many older Americans with a way to connect with each other in a dignified environment where they can enjoy their retirement years—and may even provide a blueprint for a new kind of affiliate-based senior housing in the future.

Why are seniors moving back to school?

When it comes to choosing an educational setting for this niche development category, three factors are key: a desirable location, affordability and a strong alumni network. Colleges located in areas that prospective residents find attractive—with mild weather, strong cultural institutions, robust medical infrastructure and access to nature, for example—are more likely to appeal to seniors considering a move.

Affordability is also a consideration for those on fixed incomes and secondary/tertiary cities with universities offer an attractive relative cost of living. Moreover, alumni who maintain active ties to their alma mater and former classmates are more inclined to be interested in moving back to campus.
When a PMA client and developer alumnus of one Midwestern faith-based university conducted an informal poll of his peers to gauge potential interest in a senior housing development at their alma mater, the response was resounding and enthusiastic. These proud graduates had fond memories of their college days and were already familiar with the college and surrounding area, so the idea of establishing a retirement community in that setting was an appealing prospect.

Faith, culture and community on campus

Senior housing communities at faith-based universities can play a powerful role in helping older individuals ward off loneliness and isolation. Not only can these communities deliver relationships, social structures and activities associated with the residents’ chosen faith—from religious services and sacramental life to holiday celebrations—they can also include the communal lifestyle residents might recall from their college years along with traditional elements of senior living, such as continuing care or memory care.

In addition to the spiritual and religious element, senior housing developments at faith-based colleges offer residents access to the rich academic and cultural touchstones of a university campus: art, lectures, music, and community events. For many seniors living on fixed incomes, tickets to activities like these on a college campus are significantly more affordable than they would be in a downtown metro area. Additionally, the opportunity for senior alumni to build relationships with current students helps foster a more vibrant community for everyone on campus.

Finally, senior living communities on faith-based college campuses can be a welcoming place for clergy and other faith leaders to land after they retire. At one Catholic institution in the Southeast U.S., inviting retired clergy to spend their later years on campus has benefits for both seniors and students alike. The former priests retain the sense of community and social connection they previously derived from their congregations, and in turn, their knowledge and wisdom enriches the experiences of those attending seminary.

Opportunities and challenges for keen developers

Developers who undertake these projects should expect to navigate a learning curve, as there are not yet many existing communities in this category against which to compare notes or borrow ideas. They must also confront the reality that universities are landlocked, in that available land on campus is often scarce, so projects must offset the loss of future capacity to build.

For developers willing to wade into this uncharted territory, senior housing communities at faith-based colleges can offer compelling opportunities. For example, research suggests that a strong sense of community is a powerful driver of tenant retention, and that residents will often pay a premium to live in communities with their friends. In addition, these communities may serve as a new way for academic institutions to engage older alumni, including potential donors.

As health-care providers and policymakers alike work to combat the epidemic of loneliness in America, seniors represent an especially vulnerable population. Dedicated senior housing at faith-based colleges enables older residents to build vital social ties, practice their faith, and continue to learn and grow as returning members of vibrant campus communities.

Omar Rihani is executive vice president and National Residential Sector lead for Project Management Advisors.

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