For People Over 55, the World Is a Classroom Through Elderhostel

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I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.  Today we begin a series about ways older Americans are keeping mentally active.  We tell about Elderhostel, an organization that considers the world its classroom.

The American Census Bureau estimates that more than seventy-five million of the three hundred million Americans are baby boomers.  Baby boomers were born between nineteen forty-six and nineteen sixty-four.  That was when the birth rate in the United States rose sharply, or boomed, after the end of World War Two.

Every day in two thousand six, almost eight thousand baby boomers turned sixty years old.  They are at the age when they are beginning to think about retiring from their jobs.  They are wondering what they want to do with this new period in their lives.

Policy makers are concerned about the problems government must try to solve because of the rising percentage of older Americans.  Each year fewer people will be working and paying into the Social Security System to support an increasing number of retired people.  Medical costs are rising sharply.  More housing is needed for older people who cannot care for themselves.

Most people who have already retired, or are about to, have other concerns about growing older.  They do not want to sit at home and slowly die.  They know to stay healthy they need to keep active – not just physically but mentally.

Private groups and non-profit organizations are meeting this need.  They offer many kinds of programs for aging Americans to keep their minds active.  Experts say these programs will expand and change as baby boomers join them.

Different kinds of continuing education programs exist now in all areas of the United States.  For example, colleges let older Americans take classes at a reduced cost. Museums, cultural organizations and non-profit groups offer many educational experiences, especially for retired people.

Older Americans can learn new skills or improve old ones through schools that offer classes in art, photography, writing, handcrafts or languages.  And hundreds of thousands of people over the age of fifty-five take part every year in educational and travel programs offered by Elderhostel.

It was nineteen seventy-five. Marty Knowlton, a former teacher, had recently returned to the United States.  He had spent four years walking through Europe. He had enjoyed all the things he saw and did. He had enjoyed sleeping in the low-cost hotels for young people, called youth hostels.  And he had noted that many older Europeans seemed more active than older Americans.

Mr. Knowlton thought there should be ways older Americans could remain active and continue to learn after retiring from their jobs.  He shared stories of his travels with David Bianco, an official at the University of New Hampshire.  Mr. Bianco suggested the university create an "elder hostel."  The name became the idea for a program for older people providing exciting learning experiences in simple but comfortable places to stay.

In the summer of nineteen seventy-five, five colleges in New Hampshire offered the first Elderhostel programs to two hundred twenty people.  The idea was an immediate success.  Five years later, twenty thousand people took part in Elderhostels in all fifty states and most of Canada.

Many different subjects were taught in the Elderhostels -- from history to nature to music to art.  People stayed in rooms at colleges, motels or cabins.  The cost of an Elderhostel included all meals, a place to stay and teachers or guides.  The model remained the same as Elderhostel grew.  It now is the largest non-profit education travel organization for adults over fifty-five.

Elderhostel now offers more than eight thousand programs a year in the United States, Canada and more than ninety other countries.  More than one hundred sixty thousand people take part every year.  Their average age is seventy-two.  One man who is one hundred three has taken part in more than one hundred Elderhostels and is still going strong.

People go on Elderhostels for different reasons.  Nancy Gallagher of Silver Spring, Maryland, has gone on thirty-nine Elderhostels.  The first one she and a friend tried was a cross-country skiing trip in Vermont.  They liked the activities and the people a lot so next they went to a music program at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.  And they just kept going.

One year, Nancy Gallagher and her friend flew to New Mexico and went to three different Elderhostels while they were there.  Another time they flew to Europe for one Elderhostel in Florence, Italy and a second one in Paris, France.  Recently she went to an Elderhostel that followed the path taken in eighteen-oh-four by the North American explorers, Lewis and Clark.

Carol Honsa of Washington, D.C. recently went on a two-week Elderhostel to explore national and state parks in California.  It was her third Elderhostel.  She says about thirty interesting and lively people were part of the group.  Most of their time was spent outdoors learning while experiencing the beauty of the parks.

Ms. Honsa says the people she has met in Elderhostel are serious about learning.  So, she says, it is important that the leaders are knowledgeable and that local experts such as geologists and naturalists also talk to the group.

An Elderhostel changed the lives of John and Brenda Bell.  They lived for many years between two big cities on the East Coast.  Mr. Bell was interested in astronomy.  They both liked to watch birds.  Yet it was difficult to see the stars or find many birds where they lived.

Mrs. Bell says they went to Elderhostels about birding and astronomy in different areas of the United States.  They visited places they would not have gone to on their own.  And they met people who shared their interests in learning and having a good time doing it.

Then Mr. and Mrs. Bell went to an Elderhostel program in the small town of Fort Davis, Texas.  He found it perfect for observing the stars.  The area was so far from big cities that the sky was very dark at night.  She liked the warm climate and wide-open space.  So they returned to the East Coast, sold their home, and moved to Fort Davis.

Elderhostel develops its programs in cooperation with more than five hundred independent educational and cultural organizations.  They include colleges, museums, scientific research centers, performing arts centers, and national and state parks.

Traditional Elderhostels were held in one place and two or three subjects were taught.  One example was an Elderhostel held years ago at Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico.  People made pit- fired pottery, heard from Native American storytellers and learned about Spanish history in the Southwest.  In recent years, most non-travel programs center on one subject.

Elderhostel has developed many other kinds of learning experiences.  Intergenerational programs are for grandparents and their grandchildren.  Adventures Afloat programs are held on ships.  Active Outdoor programs combine learning with sports such as horseback riding and bicycling.  Individual Skills programs offer older adults a chance to learn new skills such as painting, cooking or pottery-making.

Adam Hurtubise is director of public relations for Elderhostel.  He says Elderhostel began a new program in two  thousand four because of requests from baby boomers.  It is called Road Scholar.  Some of these programs are trips to unusual places such as Bhutan or Antarctica.  Others are five- to seven-day programs in one place.

Mr. Hurtubise says many baby boomers do not plan to completely retire.  They want to work part-time.  So they want shorter programs that are more intense.  They want a high level of activity and learning in a shorter period of time.  He says they also want more free time to learn on their own and fewer people in a program.

Mr. Hurtubise says Elderhostel is always developing new programs.  It is creating different kinds of learning experiences to meet the demands of the growing number of older Americans.

This program was written by Marilyn Christiano.  It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein.  You can read scripts and download audio of our programs at our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com.  Listen again next week for another EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: For People Over 55, the World Is a Classroom Through Elderhostel
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