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Retirement communities for the PhD set

The soon-to-open Academy Village points out how more seniors areputting emphasis on continuing education.

During his lifetime in academia, Henry Koffler saw countless bright minds pushed into retirement with a lot left to offer.

Wouldn't it be smarter, Dr. Koffler reasoned, to bring them into a single community where their collective wisdom could still be put to good use?

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His notion took a big step towards reality recently with groundbreaking on The Academy Village, a $70 million, 168-acre development in the mountain foothills of Tucson's east side.

It is part of a retirement trend that sets itself apart from shuffleboard courts and golf courses. Experts have known for some time that it's important for the elderly to keep physically active, but they are increasingly coming to see mental activity as equally important. As a result, a growing number of retirement communities are putting a greater focus on continuing education.

"There's much more of an emphasis on fostering an environment that allows people to continue learning and growing and experiencing for as long as possible," says David Schless, executive director of the American Seniors Housing Association in Washington. "That's a totally different mind-set than we've seen in this country."

Toward that end, the 264-home Academy Village will feature a library, computer facilities, and classrooms, and provide residents with lectures and seminars on everything from humanities to international economics. They will be encouraged to volunteer their time to area schools, to research programs at the nearby University of Arizona, or help out wherever else they're needed.

In addition, the village will provide continuous on-site health care, with graduated levels of assistance for people who need it.

But being a part of this community doesn't come cheap: Single-family homes start at $190,000, with more elaborate models topping $340,000. And membership in the Arizona Senior Academy is mandatory, with an initial fee of $1,000 and monthly dues of as much as $600.

But the high price tags attached to this community, and an initial marketing strategy that focused on university hubs such as Boston, New York, and San Francisco, drew charges that the village would become an elitist bastion for well-heeled intellectuals.

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While geared to people of similar interests, Koffler stresses that the community is open to anyone 55 or older who can afford it. "We've tried to clarify that we're not trying to exclude anybody," he says. Volunteerism remains a critical part of his vision. "We're not assembling people simply to serve themselves."

A former president of the University of Arizona, Koffler plans to be among the first residents this spring. He'll be rubbing shoulders with scientists, doctors, and at least one Nobel laureate.

Also among that initial wave are Arthur and Mary Code. A prominent astronomer, Dr. Code was part of early efforts to place unmanned telescopes in space. He and his wife moved to Tucson, a top astronomy center, after he left his long-term teaching post at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1996.

Since then, Code has completed a research project at the Kitt Peak Observatory west of Tucson, and now works as an unpaid adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. He and his wife are eager to call Academy Village home.

"Being an astronomer, this was the perfect place to come, a way to retire without retiring," he says. "And I like the idea of my neighbors being academics. I love to give lectures, to attend lectures, and working with graduate students. I think that all was a part of Henry Koffler's thinking."

Mary Code agrees. The retired social-services administrator now volunteers as a court advocate for minors.

"This community just fit our interests," she says. "The continuing health aspects are important too, as we move toward needing further care in the future. It's all right there on the same campus."

Such communities are flourishing, and will continue to do so, because they offer so many pluses for retirees, experts say.

"They provide support for people who will experience changes in ... their health status. And the communal atmosphere is an added benefit," says Neville Strumpf, director of gerontological nursing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "When people have roles that give them a sense of purpose and keep them mentally active, it directly contributes to their health and well-being."

That notion isn't lost on Francis Ogilvie, a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology oceanic engineering professor. While a record East Coast snowfall drove he and his wife west in 1996, Dr. Ogilvie says the Academy Village concept kept them here.

Already, the couple has attended several village-sponsored lectures and met many of their future neighbors. "We loved the notion of a retirement community that didn't center on people playing golf," he says. "This sort of thing isn't for everybody, and I suppose in a way, that could be considered elitist. But we enjoy it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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