Back to school (2)

Don Lawson didn’t move to Guelph, Ont., with the idea of learning about Russian culture. But, within a few weeks of arriving at the Village by the Arboretum retirement community last summer, he found himself attending a 12-lecture series on Russia at University of Guelph, his alma mater, where he studied animal husbandry 40 years earlier.

Perhaps merely having to cross the road for lectures had something to do with his going back to school.

Lawson is, in fact, in good company – older Canadians aren’t just flocking back to school, they’re actually moving into retirement communities built on university land. It seems a natural: people are drawn, not just by the learning potential, but by the unparalleled range of activities found in college towns.

“Hardly a week goes by we don’t get information about a concert or a drama series at the university,” says Lawson, 65, sitting by the fireplace of the Village Centre lounge, a room not unlike a university common room.

Two hours drive south, in Ithaca, N.Y., Petra Hepburn, and her husband, Richard, are soaking up Latin American studies at nearby Cornell University. The fact that Ithaca is a university town (and Richard’s fath went to Cornell) was a big reason why Richard, 66, and Petra, 64, moved to their new community two years ago.

Yet while the two communities could hardly be more different, both offer hints about retirement living trends unfolding in North America.

Arboretum – named for the university’s wonderfully varied tree collection, threaded with hiking trails – is a well-executed example of a conventional Canadian retirement community. Its residents, nearly all over 60, live in bright, attractive bungalows lining wide streets, and enjoy the luxurious facilities at their clubhouse, including a beautiful pool and exercise room. The proximity to the university – residents pay land rent which helps support the university – “is a plus, a bonus,” says Lawson, a retired superintendent of education whose wife, Mary, also enjoys the proximity to the university. Many village residents sign up for the university’s open-to-all weekly Third Age lecture series, held in a handsome pavilion amidst the trees.

EcoVillage in Ithaca, in total contrast, is a multi-generational example of co-housing – a movement that started in Denmark and which is steadily catching on in the U.S. A quarter of the 60 residents in its first phase are past 50, but there are also families with small children. The ethos, as you might guess, is living in an environmentally sound manner. “We were concerned about overconsumption in our society,” says Richard Hepburn.

“We take pride in the fact that 30 households here manage with only two washing machines.” Residents, if they wish, can share a meal at the Common House three nights a week, prepared by a volunteer kitchen crew. In direct contrast to the Arboretum, the homes at EcoVillage are tall, with small rooms to take up the least amount of land.

Both schemes have what some might regard as flaws. An article in the Guelph student paper, The Ontarian, criticized the village for being a closed community with a gatehouse (though the “gates” are open during the day, and, typically, Mary Lawson says it gives her “a safe feeling”). At EcoVillage, residents admit there has been tension over children. For example, with kids present, there are few opportunities for conversation at the communal meals. They’re now discussing single family-to-family meals, with more chance for interaction between young families and surrogate grandparents.

University of Guelph gerontologist Joe Tinsdale says college town retirement is still “a niche market,” although, with more seniors enthusiastic about latter-day learning, “it’s still an undeveloped market.”

Pat Bowman, 74, moved to Arboretum last year from Burlington, Ont. She’s a prime example of the potential customers Dr. Tinsdale talks about.

As with so many of the village residents, Bowman has a busy schedule. When this writer flagged her down for a chat, she was on her way to choir practice in the big ballroom at the Village Centre – where she also goes for exercise classes, Scrabble and a variety of other activities. She also attends Third Age lectures every week, on everything from child development to politics. When her husband died 25 years ago, she decided after six months that her friends probably had heard enough about her loss. “I decided to get on with the job of living,” she says. She learned to handle her own financial affairs, took career advancement courses at Ryerson University, and travelled to Ireland, Greece and elsewhere on extended Elderhostel learning holidays. “This,” she says, “was the lifestyle I wanted. No long, lonely apartment corridors. I want to live here until my dying day.”

Across the border, at Eco Village, Sandra Manella, 64, is equally satisfied with her new lifestyle.

“I lived in a beautiful old home in Philadelphia, but it was an isolated life,” she says. She learned about EcoVillage when her son and daughter-in-law moved to Ithaca with their two children. But it was the lifestyle, not the thought of following them, that appealed most. “As soon as I put my foot on this land, I knew this was the place for me,” she says. Rather than buy, she chose to rent, and is sharing a house with another woman.

Mingling with younger families, hearing the sounds of children on the street, “is a beautiful experience,” she says. “I don’t think it’s very healthy to be segregated by age.”

Manella’s pleasures include rising at sunrise to walk around the village and its pond (where she swims in summer). “I feel I have found a balance here,” she says. “It’s an incredible place to raise children – and an incredible place to grow old.”

At Guelph, Bill Tossell, 73, who used to teach crop science at the university (he’s one of a number of retired teachers in the village), often attends talks at the Guelph-Waterloo Men’s Club, a going concern with 350 members – and a waiting list. His wife, Jean, spends her days pursuing interests such as choir practice.

Tossell only has to venture across the street to visit with old colleagues at the university and to use the library, and belongs to a computer club and a walking group.

“We used to live only a mile from here,” he says. “But the house was too big, and I didn’t want to have to look after the outside.” Now they can go to their cottage in summer, secure in the knowledge that, back home, the grass will be cut and the flower beds tended by the village groundskeepers.

Shirley McNaughton got her taste for a university town after visiting her son and daughter-in-law in a college town in Pennsylvania. “It’s so exciting in the fall when the students come back – there’s so much going on,” says the 68-year-old, who was working on her Ph.D. when she and her husband, Bob, 76, moved into Arboretum. Having the university library handy was a big plus. She’s also joined up with the local branches of two national organizations, the Voice of Women and the Council of Canadians, not to mention teaching the choir’s tenors to read music. Other interests lure the McNaughtons to Toronto, an hour away, a couple of times a week, “but this is so nice to come home to. Toronto is too big for us now,” she says.

In Ithaca, which Utne magazine described as the most enlightened town in America, two Canadians, Rod Lambert, 50, and Julia Morgan, 44, and their two young children, Timothy and Benjamin, are now enjoying the type of co-operative lifestyle they failed to find in Canada.

When living in the country near Georgetown, Ont., they tried to launch their own EcoVillage, but the hurdles were many, and they finally found it easier to move to the already-established Ithaca community.

“You need to have everyone mixed in together – just like a village,” says Morgan. “We even have surrogate grandparents for our children.” They enjoy concerts at Cornell, but what attracts them to Ithaca is the fact that, “it’s a liberal town, with a natural food co-op, organic produce and vegetarian alternatives in the restaurants.”

So which is best – EcoVillage or Arboretum? The answer is, of course, whichever best suits your needs and interests: the Arboretum model offers a superactive lifestyle for older people with a special appeal for those who want to continue learning; EcoVillage is for folks wanting closer community involvement with people of all ages – and with a careful eye on the environment.

One thing’s for sure: Both are valid options and represent the kind of retirement living choices Canadians should be getting, and are in fact seeking.