Lasell Village President: Demand for University-Based Senior Living Will Only Grow
Every month, Lasell Village, – a CCRC on the campus of Lasell University in the Boston area – gets calls from other academic institutions wanting to replicate its senior living model.
Based on the demand for expanding university-based senior living and the effects those models have on residents, Lasell Village President Zehra Abid-Wood believes now is just the floor of what the sector can achieve in the future.
“I believe that universities and senior living operators are going to be looking into this more and more,” Abid-Wood said during a recent episode of the SHN Transform podcast. “It’s a major benefit not just to the residents but also to the entire community, from an educational perspective.”
Lasell Village is in the midst of expanding its own offerings in anticipation of the industry’s next chapter. The community is adding 42 independent living units and additional amenities to its 180-unit campus along with a new dining venue and community center. This comes as Lasell Village also reported over 300 households on a waiting list for future residency at the unique community.
“It’s a chance for us to really evolve the footprint of the Village,” said President Zehra Abid-Wood during a recent episode of the SHN Transform podcast. “This is my goal: to start to attract different households and different demographics and so that we can truly be as diverse as we can be.”
The project also stems from the community’s need to expand its footprint not only to capture demand, but improve and allow for wider margins instead of fighting financial hurdles with a small portfolio of units that could limit gains, she added.
“We believe that lifelong learning really does lead to a richer and more fulfilling life and in many cases a longer and healthier life,” Abid-Wood said.
Abid-Wood joined Lasell Village in February 2023. She previously worked as senior vice president of strategy and transformation at Five Star Senior LIving –now AlerisLife – and before that, she was director of project and portfolio management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Below is a summary of responses provided by Abid-Wood during the latest episode of Transform. Listen to the podcast through the Apple Podcasts library or via Soundcloud. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
On the interplay between intergenerational experiences and university-based senior living:
At its most basic, it puts older adults in contact with younger generations. It is such an oddity of history that these two age groups find themselves so segregated. Bringing them together really does benefit both groups. For most adults, the only experiences we’ve really had living in community or an early adulthood, whether it’s college or the military, or having roommates. It can be overwhelming to think about moving into a senior living community.
College living can really help reframe it not only in familiar terms, but also shift from thinking about decreasing the size of your world, to increasing opportunity and choice based on our community. Adults at the community range in age between 65 and 102. We believe that lifelong learning really does lead to a richer and more fulfilling life and in many cases a longer and healthier life. University-based senior living gives access to resources, whether it’s larger libraries, classroom-based learning, faculty expertise that meet resident passions and it gives you added opportunities no matter how you slice it.
Senior living communities can be really isolating and insular. We offer residents this shared journey of lifelong learning and experiences, not just amongst villagers, but with the campus as a whole. Our residents are really different in how they approach the university and their opportunities at the university.
We have residents that jump right in, they attend lectures and basketball games. They mentor students, they build relationships, they get really integrated into university life. We have other residents that aren’t as actively engaged. But even for these people, the connection matters. It makes a difference to their day.
Our dining room is fully staffed by undergraduates and our staff members receive free tuition at the university. We have residents taking classes and teaching classes and we have residents serving in the university-student government. We also have 15 advisory committees that are set up by villagers. So we have this synergy and opportunities to give back and live a life of purpose each and every day. I really believe that we provide an environment where our residents can thrive.
We make them feel special and important and they feel heard and seen. It’s like minded people that are living life and many are still working and while we’re still very much a senior living community, we do attract a younger, more active resident.
On the state of university-based senior living in 2024:
The last several years, Covid-19 has been such a limiting factor, and I really believe this is the year that we’re going to move beyond Covid finally, even if we haven’t left it behind. We’re very much focused on intergenerational experiences rather than intergenerational living. I am confident that neither students nor residents would be interested in the shared living model so I expect the model to bifurcate based on choices that developers and operators make around that.
We’ve spent a lot of time evolving how we craft shared experiences with a really respectful delineation of space. Our goal is to be really inclusive, not just for residents and students, but also for staff members of our employees. And how do we cross those intergenerational boundaries across all of these different stakeholder groups. But we also remain in a place where we are honoring autonomy and choice for people that don’t want that intergenerational experience. We’re always reviewing and fine tuning our model.
One gift that Covid did give us that I continue seeing evolve is the gift of technology and ease with technology for our residents. We began piloting this intergenerational mentoring program where Lasell undergraduates and village residents come together to tutor elementary school students on how to read via Zoom. They’re teaching a student how to read while our residents learn about technology from the college student. I see intergenerational living and intergenerational experiences evolving around a 360 degree approach where there’s a synergy to how people are benefiting and both learning and teaching rather than a one-way street.
On the challenges of university-based senior living models:
When you’re designing a university based senior living model, it’s really important to find the right balance between a more formalized engagement, or a more open-ended arrangement. There’s been a lot of activity in the area and every situation is really unique.
In many cases, the models are purely social in nature, and it might be enough to just be co-located together. In our case, what we offer is a very robust educational and engagement model. So that’s a little bit more nuanced. We have to think about the competencies we need to build we have a dean of education and an entire education department, we have our own course book and our own curriculum, it’s really important to also when you think about the programming side, to have the right framework in place that’s going to allow relationships to thrive and provide that structure, but also giving them the space to evolve in their own way.
It’s not a one-size fits all so in our case we really strive to find that right balance between structured and unstructured intergenerational programming. Senior living and higher education are two really different industries. They have different rhythms, different objectives, different regulations. So when you start to bear institutions that are so specialized, there’s a lot of trade offs that pose challenges.
So when you look at ease of use of technology, when you look at expectations around the student experience, it’s very different for undergraduates versus residents. So all of these are challenges. They’re just opportunities, I guess, rather than challenges, but all of these are things you need to think about.
On how university-based senior living affects residents:
We have an incredible group of residents with lots of stories. One great one is that last year we conducted an intergenerational module that paired our immigrant residents with international students at the university. Our residents felt a really powerful connection to those students because they were facing challenges that our residents had faced in their youth coming to this country.
They were able to solve that problem for the students and it’s a very powerful example of the 360-degree synergy that we were able to offer. We had a resident that was on hospice but was very focused on not missing a single day of his literature class. He died between two sessions of the upper class and was active until the last session he attended. Another resident had a fall and ended up in a skilled nursing facility and when I went to visit her all she could talk about was making sure that she got into the right classes for spring registration. It really keeps them focused and they’re excited about classes. A resident who was really excited to take a ceramic class but she was nervous about her mobility restrictions. Afterwards she shared just how marvelous it had been. We find all these situations that are being created that allow people to come together.
On Abid-Wood’s journey in senior living so far:
My gateway to senior living was really through technology which is not a very traditional route. I’ve also worked in health care, real estate and hospitality. I fell in love with senior living right off the bat the first time I entered a community in 2010.
If I had to pick two words to describe myself, they would be connection and innovation. I truly believe that the highest and best use of my time is to help build connections between the team members and residents, staff and students and the greater community. Innovation and transformation have always been my fuel and I thrive on leading organizations through change. I did that at MIT and I did that at AlerisLife.
Lasell Village is truly a place that blends both passions for me and it challenges me in a completely different way than any other role I have had. My biggest shift has been in perspective, sitting at the corporate office in a multi-unit world and defining brilliant strategy is different than trying to form strategy while you’re also the boots on the ground and an incredible level of resident engagement always keeps me humble.
I am really lucky to have an environment that allows me to straddle both worlds and it’s a great experience having been at the corporate level and the operator level. I now have the luxury of understanding the end to end functioning of an organization is important. As an industry, we really haven’t cracked the nut of how to operate in a multi-unit world. Senior living is very much a highly custom, highly personal business and what decisions are made and where. It’s a tough nut to crack.
On new growth plans and projects in 2024:
In the near-term, we have an expansion project we are going to be breaking ground on this fall. We’re going to be building an additional 42 independent living units and additional amenities, a new dining venue and new community center to be able to offer our services and our experiences to more older adults. We are also looking to reframe, update and upgrade our continuum of care. That’s something that most CCRCs have struggled with, especially post-pandemic.
We made the decision to down-size our SNF but really focusing on our residents and investing in more supported living for our residents. The focus being really on continuing to offer residents choice based aging. We’re also looking at day programs currently only for our own residents but starting to offer more structured, educational and learning engagement experiences for residents who aren’t able to take classes anymore.
Bigger-picture, every month we receive inquiries from higher education institutions from around the world that are really interested in replicating our model and I believe that universities and senior living operators are going to be looking into this more and more. It’s a major benefit not just to the residents but also to the entire community from an educational perspective. We are actively looking to see how we can share our model and offer the joy of learning and discovery to more older adults.
The additional units will ultimately be incredibly accretive to us financially and it’s a chance for us to really evolve the footprint of the Village. This is my goal: To start to attract different households and different demographics and so that we can truly be as diverse as we can be.
Smaller colleges are now seeing the same opportunity and so I see the model growing in the future and what’s going to be really important for the organization approaching this is to identify the framework that they want to use, what their own special brand of magic is. I think a pitfall is thinking of senior living as a real estate business and if you think about it as a land and building on land and monetizing an asset, it’s really hard to create that magic.
My goal is really to continue to strengthen our foundation and build this incredible place up even more. We’re embarking on a very significant expansion, and a difficult climate with residents that are very concerned about construction happening in their backyard. We have amazing residents who are our best ambassadors, and we have really strong team members. And what we don’t want to do is stay stale. We want to keep growing and keep learning and keep making mistakes, staying on top of the top trends.
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