Classes are optional for hundreds of seniors expected to transfer to the serene campus of Berry College next summer. And, when they settle in, they plan to never leave.
But cut them some slack: The seniors in question are in their 70s and 80s.
The private liberal arts institution, which has about 2,000 mostly traditional-age college students, is leasing land on its Rome campus to a nonprofit for a retirement complex now under construction. The college also provided seed funding for the complex, which will offer independent and assisted living housing, as well as a nursing care facility.
It’s apparently a first for a Georgia college, but not for higher education nationally. Somewhat similar communities have sprouted in many states across the country to serve an aging population seeking long-term housing alternatives and enriching lifestyles. Metro Atlanta alone is expected to have about 600,000 more people over the age of 69 by 2040.
With the opening of The Spires in the summer next year, 350 senior residents will be just a third of a mile from the main part of Berry’s campus, a stroll or a shuttle ride away through new gated entrance-ways. They will be welcome to roam the college’s more than 40 miles of trails, hang out in the student center, attend school football games or concerts and take classes for free, space permitting.
When first announced, the impending silver surge unnerved many Berry students. They worried it would alter campus dynamics, as though they would always be under the watchful eye of grandparents. Suddenly, Berry’s 24-square-mile campus, considered the biggest in the nation, didn’t seem big enough.
College officials emphasized the upsides: One crucial goal is to offer students paid work at The Spires, such as pre-nursing majors helping the facility’s nurses or marketing and accounting majors getting practical experience.
Generational convergence or divergence
Retirees — the majority of whom are not alumni — already have reserved most of the complex’s 170 independent living units. The project is designed as a continuing care retirement community, with another 100 units providing additional care as needed as residents get older.
Some committed to The Spires because of robust medical care nearby, the idyllic setting and confidence in Berry’s credibility. But the opportunity to interact with a much younger generation also was a powerful draw.
“I think it helps older people think younger,” said Teb Bowman, a 77-year-old retired nuclear engineer. He and his wife plan to move from north Georgia’s Big Canoe community, where they retired to a dozen years ago.
Lynn Todino, a 76-year-old retired nurse, and her husband, a retired doctor, live on a farm in the Rome area. They know Berry well: Two nephews, a grandson and two wives of grandsons all graduated from the college.
Todino wants to interact with college students and take classes, so she’s already walked the route from The Spires to the area of campus teeming with student activity.
“We like young people,” she said. “Also we might be of benefit to students. We have history and experience that might be helpful to them.”
She said she doesn’t anticipate downsides to being around teens and young 20-somethings exploring life away from their parents. “We wouldn’t want them partying in our backyard, but we really haven’t had any reservations about that part of it.”
Oddly, one of the first changes underway reverses stereotypes of teetotalling elders and partying co-eds: Berry plans to allow a loophole in its no-alcohol-on-campus policy for the aged newcomers.
The development sidesteps one of the biggest concerns people have about moving into retirement communities: being around only other senior citizens, said Morgan Lamphere, a vice president for Greenbrier Development, a Dallas-based consultant brought in by Berry for the project.
Other retirement communities have been established on or near universities in other states. Faculty and officials with the University of Florida in Gainesville, for example, helped launch the idea for Oak Hammock, a continuing care facility with about 450 residents. Regular transportation is provided to campus, the center of which is about 2 or 3 miles away, and residents can take classes there or at a community institute based in their neighborhood.
At Berry, with a far smaller student body and closer proximity to the newcomers, some students weren’t delighted by the prospects.
It became the subject of a sarcastic episode of a student-run podcast called League of Morons.
“I get to live with old people? And go to school amongst old people? And share all my facilities with old people?” one participant said. “That’s the kind of school I want to go to!”
Said another, “It comforts me to know that in a few short years there will be people dying of old age frequently on our campus. That’s just really enticing.”
Nate Maiwald, a student government leader who recently completed his junior year, wasn’t nearly so harsh in his assessment. But he, too, had concerns early on.
“My first reaction was: Is this going to change the dynamics of the way the students interact with each other and enjoy this space in a negative way?”
Younger people tend to be more reserved around elderly people, Maiwald said. He heard from students worried Berry would struggle to attract prospective students if they noticed clusters of senior citizens on campus. They squirmed at the thought of white-haired retirees filling the stands at football games or becoming fixtures on the couches in the student center.
But Maiwald said many of the concerns faded as he and others learned more about the project.
Future residents of The Spires handed out warm chocolate chip cookies at the student center. Students learned about opportunities to work there and to network with residents who could share real-world insights about jobs and career paths.
“I’m much more in favor of it now,” Maiwald said.
“It’s designed to benefit students and lead to some really cool learning opportunities and in the end that’s really what we are here for.”
Why Berry bit
Berry is big on offering work experiences. Nearly 90% of the student body holds a job with either the university or partner organizations, according to Steve Briggs, the college’s president.
He predicts The Spires will help dozens more students work their way through school, interact with different generations and gain a broader window into professional opportunities. That fits with the ethos of Berry’s founder, the land-rich daughter of a local cotton farmer who started a school for children in 1902 that would become the college.
“Martha Berry didn’t want to ‘give’ students an education, she wanted them to have the accomplishment, confidence and satisfaction of having contributed to (‘earned’) their own education,” Briggs wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Endeavors (like The Spires) provide students with earned wages as well as a revenue stream for the college that is plowed back into scholarship support.”
Berry should earn a few hundred thousand dollars a year through the lease for the retirement community and contracts supplying services, such as technology help, he said.
That’s a relatively modest sum for a college with a $120 million annual budget. Still, Briggs sees it as a welcome infusion, even at a college with about $1 billion in assets.
Many small, private, liberal arts colleges are vulnerable to shifting demographics, fresh online competition and growing costs that may price out students.
“We are financially healthy,” Berry’s president said. But, “if you have any sense at all, you pay attention to external threats and opportunities.”
Maiwald, who will have just graduated when the retirement community opens next year, can see how it would appeal to him when he’s older.
“My friend group actually jokes that we are going to come to The Spires and relive our glory days,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s a possibility.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.