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'Senior' on Campus Exercise Their Minds - 2002-10-27

Senior citizens are the fastest growing segment of American society. In response, retirement communities have sprung up around the country, mostly in southern states where the climate is mild year-round. Many of these newer communities are located next to golf courses, and have swimming pools and tennis courts for active retirees. Chad Bouchard takes us to a retirement community with a different twist. Not only is it located in a part of the country that enjoys all four seasons, but its residents have more opportunity to exercise their minds than their backhands.

The Meadowood retirement community is built on the site of an old 13-hectare farm, in the shadow of Indiana University's Memorial Football Stadium. Forty-one years ago, IU's Chancellor Herman B. Wells conceived of a place where retired professors and administrators could spend their twilight years. His dream was finally realized in 1983.

Under new ownership since 1989, the community has been opened to anyone over the age of 55 who is attracted to the Meadowood lifestyle. The senior village of 88 small homes and a three-story apartment building now provides two full-service beauty salons, a well-maintained library, and nearly 240 cultural, social, and educational events each month.

The lobby and dining rooms inside the main building are buzzing with the activity of retirees and staff. Fall colors and decorations festoon the front hall, and senior citizens make little social orbits on their way from the dining room to lectures, committee meetings, recitals, and back to their apartments.

Staff members are preparing tonight's Oktoberfest buffet, which spills over with leafy garnishes and the earthy smells of German cuisine. Maxine Cooper has been living at Meadowood since 1997 with her husband and sister. She says it's not possible to attend all of the events all of the time. "This month we don't know how to fit (in time for) every symphony and ballet and recital, we have several recital programs coming here this month, four in fact, and we have three symphonies and two operas and a ballet, you have to look at your calendar every day to make sure you're not missing something," she says.

Ms. Cooper's sister Virginia Wightman says the community's Marketing Director is responsible for creating the magic of Meadowood's atmosphere. "Mark Kraner is the marketing guy, but he also organizes these fabulous parties, and takes people on trips like a tour director, and takes care of all these little old ladies like they were all his mother," she says.

Tonight, Mr. Kraner moves among staff and residents, checking the food arrangements, and adjusting decorations like the director of a cruise ship. "The key is getting people involved. This is a community made of a lot of people, a lot of personalities, a lot of backgrounds," he says. "After all, this is their life, and I feel like I'm kind of like the Pied Piper. I'm the one who creates and makes this happy life and so its up to me to keep them happy and keep them entertained and I play my flute and they march.

Maxie Schnice, who spent a good portion of her life in Texas, says she looked at places to retire all over the country before deciding on Meadowood. She says the close relationship with the IU Music School was an important factor.

About 25 percent of the monthly offerings at Meadowood are musical. Students often perform for the seniors before they hold formal recitals for their professors. "I think Meadowood is unique, because of the people it has, so many retired college and university professors makes for an interesting, stimulating environment," says Ms. Schnice.

Meadowood is unique in another way. Through an innovative arrangement with the IU Department of Continuing Education, residents can also take part in classes and discussion groups that are held at the Meadowood campus.

Do you remember how Poe describes the windows in the house? Eyes. Like vacant eyes, right?.....Like dark, or vacant eyes. Vacant, ah yes. I like vacant and I like windows. But where does the red light through the windows come from? That's a good question. I don't know, it's sort of this ghostly red. In the end it's the moon. And in the end he talks about the red light. But that was the moon...."

On this blustery October evening, a dozen residents have met in Meadowood's art gallery to participate in a class on American short stories. Tonight, IU graduate student and associate English instructor Craig Owens leads a discussion on Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."

"....Right, which could be the moon rising up through the empty window panes..."

He says he learns as much from the students at Meadowood as they do from him. "Their sense of history, their sense of the flow of time, and the evolution of historical events is so much more solid. It doesn't just go back further, the students in this class, the participants in this class have a historical sensibility that is not tied down to the present moment," he says.

Like Craig Owens, many of the Meadowood staff members are also IU students, who say they have a special bond with the residents.

"It seems like we're all their grandchildren, and I have 150 grandparents too, so its really easy to talk to them and they love to talk to you too."
"They're just crazy about IU. They all ask us what kind of classes are you taking...they just love us...they like to have young people around and they want to know what the difference is and tell us stories."

Jeanne Madison, director Of IU's Continuing Studies Program, says a number of other colleges have looked at the strong relationship between Indiana University and Meadowood as a model for their own programs. "University communities have become prime targets for retirement communities for that exact reason," she says. "When I think of all the people I've met doing this programming, especially the retirement community, is that people feel they live fuller, more vital lives if they keep their minds active."

"I think it's better. Because you don't have to study for an exam, and it's even more relaxed and carefree. Best time of your life. And you can go and you don't take exams or pass or anything and you can choose. Haven't failed one yet," says Ms. Wightman.

Studies on aging have shown that a more active lifestyle, engagement in the community, and intellectual stimulation can help seniors live happier, healthier lives. Meadowood residents see the truth of that every day.

Cooper: "Well it's food for your soul. And it really just enriches your life so much."
Schnice: "See very few in a rocking chair here, very few."
Cooper: "That's true. I don't think there are rocking chairs around, are there?"
Schnice: "I haven't seen a rocking chair. I've got two rocking chairs in my bedroom. Well, they're the only ones I know about."

Officials at universities such as Harvard and Duke want to start programs for seniors, and they have been watching the success story of Meadowood unfold. As America's population ages, these university-centered retirement communities will give senior citizens more opportunities to keep learning and participating.