Illustration of graduates throwing caps into the air
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It’s back to school season for residents of a Virginia retirement community, with a program that could serve as a national model for senior living providers.

The Virginian Scholars program is launching this fall at The Virginian in Fairfax, VA, to provide its residents opportunities for personal growth and improved cognitive health.

Former Executive Director Andrew Carle, founder of the graduate curricula in senior living administration at Georgetown University, came up with the idea before the COVID-19 pandemic but said he just recently got the program up and running. Although senior Iiving residents have access to life enrichment activities within their community, the scholars program extends that beyond the walls of the community.

The program allows residents to earn credit hours for health and wellness activities, both within the senior living community and through outside educational organizations. Residents can take classes, workshops, fitness and special activities programming, and they can attend lectures through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, the Lifetime Learning Institute of Northern Virginia Community College, and online education platform MasterClass.

There are no tests or grades, but Carle said that residents have incentives to participate. Residents can make the “dean’s list” by completing 100 or more credit hour activities during each of four “semesters” each year. A graduation ceremony at the end of the academic year will celebrate magna cum laude-level “graduates” — defined as completing 500 or more hours, summa cum laude graduates who achieve 400 hours, and cum laude graduates who reach 300 hours. 

The resident who puts in the most hours will be named valedictorian and will receive a $1,000 scholarship to use toward rent.

“We’re not only partnering with actual universities and colleges; we’re giving them an opportunity to achieve levels of distinction,” Carle said, adding that residents who want to attend classes or lectures in person will be bussed to those locations. “Why not let them be students again?” he said.

A recently released report from the World Economic Forum Global Health study showed that taking part in “an intellectually, socially and physically active lifestyle” may help fight off cognitive decline and dementia.

Carle said The Virginian is a natural place to launch a scholars program because six of the top 10 highest educated counties in the nation are located in northern Virginia. His background in academia and senior living, he added, provided a way for him to combine both worlds.

“So this is really a perfect fit for a population that values learning and would love to show their grandkids you are never too old to make the dean’s list,” Carle said. “It’s also sending a message to the younger generation that aging is not what you think it is — you never have to stop learning and having fun. That’s a great message for everybody.”

The Virginian is paying for the program in the first year, with the idea of enticing residents to participate with “scholarships” for memberships to MasterClass and the local lifelong learning programs.

Carle encouraged other providers to partner with their local colleges and universities to formalize lifelong learning programs and “take it to the next logical level.”

 “Everything we try to do is about pushing the industry to another level,” he said. “I think it can be used as a model for a lot of places. Anybody can do this by partnering with their local university with a lifelong learning program.”