For Older Adults, Many Chances to Make Learning a Lifelong Activity
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I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Mario Ritter with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. We continue our series about ways older Americans are keeping mentally active. Today, we tell about lifelong learning programs.
Older Americans who are either retired or reaching retirement age are concerned about keeping active when they leave their jobs. They know that staying physically and mentally active is necessary for good health.
It is easy for an individual to get exercise by walking, swimming or bicycling. But keeping mentally active is easier in a group. So, many programs have been created for aging Americans where they can continue to learn and experience new things.
There are many education programs in communities across the United States. More than three hundred fifty of these learning programs belong to the Elderhostel Institute Network. It is part of Elderhostel, an organization that provides travel and learning experiences for hundreds of thousands of older Americans every year.
Programs in the Elderhostel Institute Network are connected with the colleges and universities in the communities. Yet they are independent. Members elect leaders and help make decisions about what will be taught and by whom. There are no tests to take or papers to write. Anyone over the age of fifty can pay to belong. People do not have to travel to take the courses.
The Elderhostel Institute Network provides an Internet Web site where groups from all over the United States can exchange experiences. It helps organize conferences and offers advice for people wanting to start new programs.
Some community-based education programs for people over fifty-five are called Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. Many of these programs also belong to the Elderhostel Institute Network. The difference is that the Bernard Osher Foundation gives money to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes to help support them.
Bernard Osher was born in the state of Maine. He was a very successful businessman. He started a foundation thirty years ago to give money to help educational and cultural organizations in Maine and in California.
In nineteen ninety-seven, the University of Southern Maine invited older adults who lived in the area to a meeting to talk about an exciting new chance to learn. The program would offer study groups and discussions on many different subjects, but there would be no tests or grades. It would be open to people who were at least fifty years old. Organizers expected one hundred fifty people to attend. Five hundred showed up.
The program, known as Senior College, quickly became successful. In two thousand one, the Osher Foundation provided financial support that let the program expand its offerings to almost one thousand adults. The University of Southern Maine's Senior College became the first Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. A national movement had begun.
Mary Bitterman is president of the Bernard Osher Foundation. She says Bernard Osher always placed a high value on education. He had been giving financial assistance to people who wanted to continue their education but lacked money.
Ms. Bitterman says Mr. Osher became interested in supporting educational programs for older people when he visited his hometown in Maine in two thousand. He found differences among his friends. Some were inactive and depressed. Others were lively and happy. They were attending Senior College at the University of Southern Maine. Ms. Bitterman says Mr. Osher was surprised that people could gain so much by learning new things every day.
Mr. Osher decided his Foundation should support the development of more learning communities of older adults. He wanted to create Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes in as many states as possible and to be in different kinds of communities. Mary Bitterman says the Osher Foundation gives one hundred thousand dollars a year for up to four years to the programs that are accepted as members.
An Osher Lifelong Learning Institute may request a grant of one million dollars for its long term needs when it has about five hundred members and is offering college level courses. So far, seventeen of them have received the grants.
Mary Bitterman thinks that the lifelong learning movement is just beginning. Americans today are living longer. Yet she says the important issue is not how long we live but how many exciting, productive years we have ahead of us.
Ms. Bitterman says that taking part in Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes gives people energy. It confirms the importance of continued personal development. She says it lets older people feel that every day there is the possibility of learning something new that will open doors to a new life.
Kali Lightfoot is executive director of the National Resource Center for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. The center is at the University of Southern Maine.
Ms. Lightfoot says there are now almost one hundred Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes in about forty states. More than forty thousand people are members of them.
The resource center helps member groups exchange information about their problems, solutions and experiences. They do so through an Internet Web site, national conferences and a research journal.
Ms. Lightfoot says she has discovered that lifelong learners are looking to the future and not living in the past. One example, she says, is a ninety-three year old member who talks about how excited she is to be learning about Afghanistan. This woman forgets about the difficulty she has climbing the stairs to the classroom.
Thirty adults fill the hallway in a university building in Washington, D.C. talking and drinking coffee. They are having loud, lively discussions about current international and national events. They are on a short break from their class, "News in Context," a very popular offering of the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute at American University.
The class is part of the continuing education program at American University. It began in nineteen eighty-two as the Institute for Learning in Retirement. It is a new member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Sidney Steinitz is chairman of its Board of Directors. He says the name has changed, but nothing else has. Fifty courses are offered in the autumn and fifty different courses in the spring. Each course meets for two hours once a week for eight to ten weeks.
Mr. Steinitz says members decide what will be taught. They find the study group leaders or teachers. Study group leaders are experts in the subjects. Some have taught in colleges or high schools. Others have knowledge of the subject from their work. Still others have become experts by learning on their own.
Teachers are not paid. They teach because they are interested in sharing their knowledge and learning from other members. Some of the teachers are members of the group. Mr. Steinitz was a lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission before he retired. Now he teaches courses on "Great Books," a subject he loves.
Anne Wallace is executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University. She says the subjects of most courses are similar to what is taught at colleges. They include history, politics, philosophy, archeology, science and literature.
Courses taught by retired scientists about the universe, genetic research and the history of science are always popular. Other popular courses include "Understanding the Information Age" taught by a retired telecommunications engineer. "Great European Trials" is taught by a long-time lawyer. A doctor leads a study group on "Human Nature." A woman who worked at the United States Treasury teaches a course on "Ballet: Star Performers and Performances."
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University has about five hundred thirty members. They pay four hundred dollars for a year's membership. Members are able to take up to three courses in the fall and three more in the spring.
Anne Wallace says almost all of the members say they belong because they enjoy the intellectual activity. They also enjoy the new friends they make, and the community spirit they experience. Ms. Wallace says the members are what make the Lifelong Learning Institute so special.
This program was written by Marilyn Christiano. It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Mario Ritter. You can read scripts of our programs and download audio at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.