Tip #307: Lifelong Learning for the Elderly on Campus

“Be a lamp, a lifeboat or a ladder.” Rumi

There are many ways for more mature learners (a much better descriptor than “elderly!”) to get or stay engaged with formal academic settings. This benefits everyone involved.

Take a Weekend Class: I first became aware of these weekend classes over thirty years ago when my Uncle Nat and Aunt Sylvia went around the country taking these classes, most likely under the auspices of Elderhostel (now Exploritas).

Here is a sampling of the weekend classes offered through Exploritas:

Institute for Continuing Learning, Young Harris College, Georgia
Simply Spanish

Learning in Retirement at Iona College, New Rochelle, New York
Computers for Intermediates

Learning in Retirement Association (LIRA) University of Massachusetts, Lowell
A Day of Latin music from the Caribbean and South America
Sculpture Trail: 25 Years of the Lowell Public Art Collection

Lifetime Learning Institute, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale, VA
Wildflower Walks in Spring

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Exploring Cinema

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Coastal Carolina University, South Carolina
German for Travelers – Writing Your Treasured Memories – Grant Writing 101-
Memoir Writing Workshop

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Planets – History of Pittsburgh – Morality and Medicine – Media and Politics

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University S. Florida, Tampa
Day trip to Annual Re-enactment of “Dade’s Battle”
Day trip to Hidden Treasure: Graphicstudio at USF
Sunday at the Opera: “Puccini’s Tosca”

Audit College Classes: At many public universities and community colleges, auditing is free for seniors when there are empty seats in the classroom. You may have to wait until the last minute to find out, but free is free. Give your local college a call and ask what their auditing policy is for seniors. Everybody wins. You learn for free, and the rest of the class learns from your life experiences, for free.

For example, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, if you are 60+ years of age and a Wisconsin resident, you can apply as a Senior Guest auditor and audit classes for free. If a course is a special fee course charging non-standard tuition, senior guest auditors must pay whatever fee is associated with that class.

Attend Community Colleges: New community college programs are gearing courses and venues to focus on senior and retired community members. Paired with this, many community colleges offer substantial education discounts.

For example, Terra Community College, in Fremont Ohio, offers free tuition to individuals 60 and older. The older students participate in courses under non-credit agreements and are only responsible for the costs of lab fees, books, and any other course supplies.

Get Involved with Lifelong Learning Institutes under Academic Umbrellas:

The Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR)

Limited to 500 to keep it a manageable and close community, HILR is a peer-learning membership organization that is self-governing. Members develop their own curricula (50 courses each semester), teach each other and learn from each other, all for the joy of it. This is learning for its own sake,” says Dean Michael Shinagel, who founded HILR in 1977: No grades, no degree at the end.

In 1977, the HILR was one of a handful of lifelong learning institutes sponsored by colleges or universities, which provide classroom space, library privileges, and an academic umbrella for a self-governing membership organization. Today there are more than 500 such institutes, and that number is growing.

Berhard Osher Foundation

Since 2002, lifelong learning institutes on 73 campuses in 30 states have received multi-year $1 million-plus grants from the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation, which has as its goal 100 lifelong learning institutes, at least one for each state. The list under the Exploritas weekend classes indicates how successful this has been.

“The lifelong learners here and in the national Osher network are the embodiment of ‘positive aging,’ with the emphasis on strengths rather than deficits,” says Kali Lightfoot, executive director of the Osher center at the University of Southern Maine. “They are intellectually curious, looking to the future rather than dwelling in the past, and convinced they can make a difference in their own and other peoples’ lives. When a 93-year-old tells me how excited she is to be learning about Afghanistan instead of telling me about the obvious difficulty she has walking upstairs, I feel that our lifelong learning network is doing something right. Or when a 50-year-old discovers in class that the 93-year-old has much insight and intellectual strength to share.”

Osher Institute for Learning in Retirement at Duke

“When you retire, you need a place to go to, or, as one of our members said, a place to go home from,” says Sara Craven, director of the Osher Institute for Learning in Retirement at Duke (OLLI), which started in 1977 with 42 members and now serves 1200 people. Hands-on study is popular: There is a chorus, a band, a small chamber group, even a recorder group. Recent popular seminar topics: Churchill and FDR, both taught by a retired physician; East Asia taught by a former diplomat; and biotechnology presented by a former professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The PLATO Society of UCLA

When members join, they make a commitment of two to three hours a week. A different member each week gives a 20-minute presentation (ideally a written outline, with provocative discussion questions, is handed out two weeks in advance). A study group coordinator puts in 40 to 50 hours a semester.

The Renaissance Society

Part of the pleasure of peer learning is the richness of life experience. John Andrew, president of the Renaissance Society, founded 20 years ago at California State University at Sacramento, recalls a “Great Trials” seminar on the trial of Nelson Mandela when a member who had been born in the Netherlands and raised in South Africa shared her memories of life during the apartheid regime and the time of the Mandela trial.

Odyssey of the Mind

At York County Senior College in Maine, seven students aged 62 to 83 took an “Odyssey of the Mind” program using brain teasers and exercises for creative problem solving. In May 2005, this team won first prize in a ‘Laugh-a-thon’ at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in Boulder, CO, becoming overnight celebrities among the thousands of student contestants. (Their skit was about a ‘seasoned’ citizen who robs a bank so she will be sent to a federal penitentiary and not have to worry about taking care of herself financially as she gets older.)

“At the end, the audience stood with gales of applause and lots of teary eyes,” says Fern Brown, their coach, “and the kids embraced the seniors. A major premise of Odyssey of the Mind is that creativity can be taught. We learned that it can be taught-at any age.”

This is just a small sample of the lifelong learning opportunities for mature learners that are affiliated with academic institutions.

Next week, we will continue our discussion of lifelong learning with an introduction to TED.

May your learning be sweet.

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