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Mirabella residents plugged into ASU campus life

From musicians-in-residence program to entrepreneurship and mentoring, senior community right at home

September 14, 2021

Before it was built, the Mirabella at ASU community promised not only a beautiful living space but also the opportunity to take advantage of everything that Arizona State University has to offer.

Nine months after moving in, the residents of Mirabella at ASU are fully engaged with students on campus and in their own building. They’re taking classes, attending sports and cultural events, and giving back by mentoring and teaching.

Lindsey Beagley, director of lifelong university engagement, works to integrate the residents with ASU experiences.

“If they want to be engaged on campus, our goal is to remove as many obstacles as possible,” she said.

“That’s the innovation — not prescribing retirement, but saying, ‘You have a lot to give, so let us find a way for you to contribute to the community.’ ”

Mirabella at ASU, a high-rise complex at the southeast corner of University Drive and Mill Avenue in Tempe, has 239 independent-living apartments and 59 skilled nursing, memory care and assisted living units. The community has an indoor pool and wellness center, physical therapy gym, theater, art museum, event and lecture hall, game rooms, salon and spa, dog park, valet and underground parking, and four restaurants.

All of the Mirabella residents are 62 and older — except for some of the newest ones. This past summer, four students from the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre moved into the building as “musicians-in-residence.” They’ll live there rent free through the academic year in exchange for weekly performances and interactions with their neighbors.

The program is unique, Beagley said.

“We scoured the country for musicians-in-residence programs at life-care communities to see if there was a blueprint from which we could start. And really, there wasn’t anything that approximated what we had in mind,” she said.

“So we had to use our imagination to think about what was possible when we have a community here on campus that’s across the street from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.”

The musicians-in-residence performed for their new neighbors at a recent “meet-and-greet” event in Mirabella’s Lifelong Learning Auditorium.

Ty Chiko, who is the coordinator for the musicians, is working toward a doctorate in voice performance. He applied for the residency because he was intrigued by the concept.

“I grew up in the Bahamas in a house with 13 other people, and my grandmother was the head of the household,” he told the residents.

“She taught us a lot about community. Not only was she taking care of us, she was taking care of others, cooking for the neighbors and her siblings.

“When I heard about working in a senior living community, I thought I could have many grandmothers in one place. And being in a community where people don’t want to stop learning and growing is something I’m also passionate about.”

Chiko, who is a faculty associate in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, is teaching 20 ASU voice students this semester. He also is conducting the choir at Mirabella as one of his weekly interactions.

“That’s turned out to be one of my favorite things to do,” he said.

The other musicians-in-residence are Alfredo Bonilla, who is pursuing a doctorate of musical arts in bassoon performance; Michelle Kim, who is studying for a doctorate in collaborative piano, and Abby Sherrill, a master’s student in music therapy.

Kim told the residents that she sometimes finds it hard to believe that she’s living in Mirabella.

“It’s amazing to be here because as I was doing my master’s degree, the practice room faced Mirabella, and I saw the building being built up from scratch. I thought, ‘What a beautiful building!’ I never thought I would be living here.

“I’m really looking forward to the intergenerational relationships I can build here.”

Heather Landes, director of the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre, said the program very much aligns with the school’s mission.

“One of the pillars of our school is community engagement, and the musicians-in-residence program at Mirabella at ASU fosters just that,” Landes said. “It is critical that our students understand the importance of engaging with the communities around them and learn to communicate about music with passion and energy. To us, community engagement also involves reciprocity — we look forward to learning from Mirabella at ASU residents through intergenerational musicmaking and teaching.”

Samuel Pena, community engagement coordinator for the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, said the musicians’ experiences will be interactive.

“They’ll think each week of how to design musical events that match the needs and desires of this community,” he said.

Mirabella residents have free and reduced-price access to more than 650 concerts a year, including productions, ensemble concerts and recitals by guest artists, faculty and students as well as performances at ASU Gammage. They can participate in several musical ensembles on campus, some of which don’t require auditions.

The goal is for the enrichment to go both ways, leveraging the Mirabella residents’ skills and experience to benefit ASU’s students. Several of the community members have already become teaching assistants, mentors, project evaluators and guest speakers. Other ways they’re engaging include:

  • A group of residents has been hosting an intergenerational conversational Spanish group with students.
  • Seven residents signed up to participate in an ASU study researching how social robotics can be used to address loneliness, isolation and depression.
  • Barrett, The Honors College matched 20 students with Mirabella resident pen pals to build intergenerational connections over the summer. 

The intellectual stimulation of being in an academic setting with young people was a big draw for many of the Mirabella residents, including Kelly O’Keefe.

“We’d been looking at similar living circumstances for a number of years, and Mirabella was just exactly the right combination of geography, climate and the really unique factor of the association with the university,” said O’Keefe, who is a retired physician.

This semester, he’s a mentor to students in an entrepreneurship course and will be a faculty associate in the College of Health Solutions.

O’Keefe has valuable experience to share. Before he was a pathologist, he was a college professor.

“I’ve been involved with education at the university and postgraduate levels for many years, even with medical students and residents,” said O’Keefe, who moved from California.

He enjoys working with young people on new approaches to problem solving.

“There’s a particularly collaborative and team-oriented approach among young people, and ASU really brings that out in their students, and is bringing some of us at Mirabella into that collaboration.”

Dick Ruff and his wife, Janet Spirer, chose Mirabella for the ASU engagement as well.

“It was the fact that it was not a superficial affiliation, but a substantial affiliation,” he said.

The couple owned a consulting business that worked with large corporations such as Apple and Microsoft. Before that, he worked in the U.S. Department of State and at a large university.

Now, Ruff is eager to share his wisdom for ASU students who are interested in entrepreneurship.

“I can help students who are thinking about going into the world of work. What is it like working as a consultant versus working for the government? I’ve done it, so it’s not theoretical,” he said.

“It’s a privilege to have an opportunity at this stage of the game to meet with faculty and work with the students.”

Top image: Kelly O'Keefe, a resident of Mirabella at ASU and a retired physician and college professor, works with ASU students in an entrepreneurship class in the Student Pavilion on the Tempe campus Aug. 30. “There’s a particularly collaborative and team-oriented approach among young people, and ASU really brings that out in their students, and is bringing some of us at Mirabella into that collaboration,” he said. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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