It’s not unusual for senior living communities partner with local schools and colleges to offer their residents educational programming, but one forward-thinking provider is taking the idea a step further and turning into a “university” itself. The educational initiative has increased resident engagement in programming with very little overhead — and the provider believes that the initiative could come to define its brand.

Village Concepts, which operates 15 independent living, assisted living and memory care facilities across Washington state, has turned some of its residents into “university” students working toward a “degree.”

The new program is “going to define the company,” according to Tracy Willis, director of corporate development at Village Concepts. To her knowledge, a similar program has not been done anywhere else before.

Willis first pitched Village Concepts University idea to the company a couple of years ago, she told SHN. There are a few aspects of the program that make it appealing and able to be readily implemented, she noted, including little need for additional capital or outside partners to get it off the ground.

Notably, a program like Village Concepts University can be implemented easily, even without a university partner. Some CCRCs have partnered with local universities on education-related initiatives. Nurses at Clark Retirement in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, have participated in the instruction of nursing students from Grand Valley State University.

Village Concepts University, on the other hand, adds an educational component to the company’s pre-existing activities programs. This makes the initiative low-cost, Willis explained.

To earn a “degree” from Village Concepts University, residents take a variety of classes, ranging from general education classes in history and business, to electives on topics like physical fitness and film. Some classes are led by visiting instructors and others are resident-driven or self-taught.

Students earn credit for their music appreciation class, for example, by listening to a live musical performance and writing up a mini-review afterward. Sometimes visiting musicians give a talk before their performance as well, Willis said.

Each class is worth between three and nine credits, and residents must earn 60 credits to “graduate.” The curriculum, outlined in a course catalog similar to those found at real universities, also involves an internship and a senior project.

After graduation, residents can serve as mentors or tutors for others in the program, Willis said.

Fulfilling Ambitions

Willis said she felt inspired to create the program by her grandparents, who expressed an interest in learning in their later years. Like many seniors, neither of her grandparents had the opportunity to attend college, as military service interrupted plans for higher education—and it wasn’t as common for women to attend universities during that era, as well.

Willis also noted the distinction between educating, inspiring and engaging, as opposed to simply entertaining. “We want to keep it fun and light,” she said of the program.

Two Village Concepts communities are currently offering in the program: El Dorado West in Burien, Washington, and Country Meadow Village in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. As of Sept. 22, more than 100 students were enrolled in Village Concepts University, Willis told Senior Housing News. Village Concepts has more than 1,400 residents companywide, according to its website.

Willis said Village Concepts will benefit from the program because it is “branding a whole new idea.”

“The idea of integrating the formalized university model with activity programs is unique,” said Stuart Brown, COO of Village Concepts. “VCU is our solution to unifying our programming and engaging residents.”