As college commencement season concludes and young undergrads leave campus to begin their adult lives, it’s an opportune time to talk about age-friendly universities. Turns out, that phrase is not necessarily an oxymoron.
In fact, the age-friendly university movement is beginning to take hold.
There are now 51 colleges and universities around the world that are part of what’s known as the Age-Friendly University Global Network. They range from mammoth Arizona State University to tiny Williams James College in Newton, Mass. in the United States, and include schools in Europe, Asia and Canada.
Eight years ago, there were none. No Ivy League schools have signed up yet, though (more about that momentarily).
What Is an Age-Friendly University?
Exactly what is an age-friendly university? Well, that depends on the institution.
“How it’s interpreted on every campus is different from university to university,” said Christine O’Kelly, the project coordinator for the Age-Friendly University Global Network, who’s based at Dublin City University in Ireland. “We’re not prescriptive.”
To become an Age-Friendly University, a school just needs to endorse the 10 principles that Dublin City University came up with when it launched the initiative in 2012 — an outgrowth of the World Health Organization’s and AARP’s age-friendly cities movement. (You can read the principles below).
The age-friendly university idea and its principles grew out of the Age-Friendly New York City initiative during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in the first decade or so of this century.
Ruth Finkelstein, a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging who spearheaded that and is now director of Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College (New York City’s first Age-Friendly University), recalls: “We identified two main objectives: One was to make a directory of all the offerings in the New York City area that were available to older adults in colleges and universities and that would be searchable. We did that.
“The second was to identify the principles of an age-friendly university,” she added.
Dublin City University President Brian MacCraith took things from there, revising the principles and launching the Age-Friendly University Global Network.
The Age-Friendly Silo
A school doesn’t have to adopt all 10 Age-Friendly University principles, though, and doing so can take time.
“If you stopped students at Lasell and said, ‘Did you know the school is age-friendly,’ some would know and some wouldn’t,” said Joann Montepare, director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell College in Newton, Mass. “There’s some work to be done to make it part of everyday living.”
The idea is to avoid thinking of “age-friendly” like a silo, with say, just one campus program for older students or one for people in midlife aiming to find meaning and purpose.
“There are impressive universities doing things in different ways based on their strengths and because they are different places,” said Finkelstein. “Just like age-friendly cities.”
And being an age-friendly university means not just thinking about older students, but also about older faculty and staff, alumni, donors and community residents.
How Schools Become Age-Friendly
The 51 Age-Friendly Universities have chosen to forge their own paths to become more inclusive. Sometimes, that’s started with figuring out what they needed to work on.
At the University of Manitoba — the first Canadian Age-Friendly University — older adults acting as “citizen scientists” collected data with an app-based program. Their task, said Michelle Porter, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre on Aging, was “to take pictures of elements on campus that are supports or barriers to being age-friendly.”
Now, the school is working on some of the issues the citizen scientists raised: such as the need for better signs (both outdoor and in the underground tunnels for harsh winters), better snow clearing and better water drainage.
And the University of Manitoba has created an Age-Friendly University website with “information all in one place,” Porter said. “We’ve offered free tuition for people sixty-five-plus for a long time, but to find that information — it was kind of buried.”
Thinking About All Ages on Campus
And, Porter said, her university is working harder to think about people of all ages on campus. That requires a culture change in higher education institutions, she noted.
“There is a perception that everything we design at a university is for the young, and able-bodied, healthy individuals,” Porter said. “When people are selecting furniture for a building, they think, ‘What would people in their twenties like?’ as opposed to thinking: ‘We have older employees and students coming to courses and visiting the campus. We need to accommodate them.’”
Infrastructure can be a huge barrier in making some universities age-friendly. Academic buildings were often created decades ago with many staircases and no elevators.
“Making buildings disability-accessible is extremely challenging,” said Finkelstein. “But it’s beyond shortsighted to not start dealing with that problem. I think time’s up for that.”
Measuring Success at ASU
Becoming an Age-Friendly University seemed like an obvious choice at Arizona State University, said Richard Knopf, director of the Arizona State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and a professor in the school of community resources and development. That’s because his school’s charter, he noted, “talks about measuring our success not by who we exclude, but by who we include.”
Knopf said ASU has been hatching intergenerational programs “where older adults are side by side with traditional students in classrooms and doing projects like going overseas with the Peace Corps.”
All the professors I spoke with who are part of their school’s age-friendly initiative agreed that the only way it can work effectively is through buy-in from the administration and across disciplines.
“If you don’t have that, you end up with gerontology programs and a few people caring deeply, and it just goes nowhere,” said Knopf.
Why No Ivy League Schools?
Which brings things back to the Ivy League. Why haven’t schools like Harvard, Penn and Cornell signed up?
“I suppose it’s because this is quite new,” said O’Kelley. “I suppose we need more evidence.”
And, she added, schools like Stanford, MIT and Notre Dame “are doing their own programs, so they may not see the need to join us.”
Stanford and Notre Dame offer encore career-type curriculum. As Next Avenue wrote about encore career courses, Stanford has the Distinguished Careers Institute and Notre Dame offers the Inspired Leadership Initiative.
With 5,300 colleges and universities in America and more than 20,000 around the world, the number of Age-Friendly Universities is still tiny. But that may not be true for much longer, especially since more than 700,000 people 50 and older now attend college in the U.S.
The Future of Age-Friendly Universities
“There were twenty-five Age-Friendly Universities a year ago and that’s doubled. So I think we’re entering an exponential growth phase,” said Finkelstein. “With age-friendly cities, there were thirty, then forty, then fifty, then a hundred, then two hundred, then four hundred. I would say that in five years — if there is infrastructure to permit this — there will be several hundred Age-Friendly Universities.”
As Montepare noted, can colleges afford not to be age-friendly?
“How can universities send students out into the world when demographics are changing at such a rate and they [the students] don’t know anything about it?” she asked. “We’re doing a disservice to students if we don’t integrate this more.”
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- My Year at Stanford’s Institute for Midlifers
- The Move to Make Colleges More Age-Friendly
- Why Are There So Few Age-Friendly Cities?
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