Friday, 01 August 2014 00:00

Seniors, Back in School

Written by  Edwin Malet

Staying mentally active has never been easier.

I recall cruising Miami Beach in the ‘60s. On the porches of the yet-to-be-trendy Art Deco hotels along Collins Avenue, the retirees would rock slowly, watching the traffic, dozing, whiling away the afternoon. Their minds, I guessed, at rest. Hours would melt. Until their 5 p.m. dinners were called.

Today, some are still drawn to a retirement of leisure. Perhaps a bit of golf, if they’re active. But few carry books or are bound by class schedules. Among the reasons to enter a senior community, one rarely given is to get an education. Or so I thought.


Big Decisions

Yet, many are taking a different approach to their golden years. They are getting an education. To talk with Nate Turner, a resident at White Horse Village in Newtown Square, one might think education is virtually the only reason to retire. He lists the many university speakers who’ve come to White Horse. The speakers often fill the 200-seat auditorium there!

Then Nate moves on to the “Great Decisions” programs, discussing such topics as Middle East policy and China. He also notes that White Horse plans to formalize its courses on “mindfulness,” taught by a professor from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. He estimates there are more than 40 courses offered, drawing speakers from the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore Colleges, and others. The goal, he says, is for the residents to stay “mentally alive.”

Similarly, there’s a Great Decisions Group at Tel Hai in Elverson. But education doesn’t end there. Tel Hai’s “Life Enrichment Committee,” made up of nine residents, creates a calendar of topics: World War II, basic economics, the history of medicine and others. Tel Hai staff also offer informational sessions on diet, exercise, fitness and many aspects of wellness and healthy lifestyles. Local speakers bureaus are also tapped to provide programs on local and national historical topics.

Made up of six residents, Tel Hai’s “Concert Committee” similarly provides on-site musical performances. Typical offerings have included classical, bluegrass, choral groups, classic Broadway, jazz bands and local favorites such as the Lukens Band. Professional musicians often reach out themselves based on word-of-mouth or news coverage of the programs. Here, too, attendance is strong and fills the auditorium.



There’s an especially well-educated group of residents at Kendal-Crosslands in Kennett Square. Sean Kelly, the Director of New Business Development, calls them “intellectually curious,” “engaged” and “self-organized.” In the new generation now entering the senior communities, he sees such Baby Boomers as demanding a “better way.”

Ernie Kimmel is one of these Kendal-Crosslands residents. He heads up “Monday Topics,” which meets biweekly from fall through spring to listen to lecturers and discuss current issues: Latin America, Africa, the Mideast, local history and more. He’s been “surprised at how good the questions are,” and guesses that their discussions are “not unlike a graduate seminar.”

Pat Hunt, who preceded Kimmell as chair of their committee, agrees. She says Kendal-Crosslands is “not a place to sit in a rocking chair.” She lists the other self-organized classes: music, art, pottery, drama, film and memoir writing, among others.

Maria Smith at Riddle Village in Media supervises a broad range of educational offerings and activities. Drawing resources from Neumann and Widener Universities, where several of its residents taught, it has recently offered lectures on the First Ladies, the Battle of Gettysburg, Books that Made History and other topics. This is in addition to the art, book and computer clubs, and outings to the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Neumann Symphony and the Lansdowne Symphony during the season.



Willow Valley Communities is so proud of its offerings that it publishes a catalog—“Renaissance”—and divides its offerings into three groups: Spirit, Body and Mind. The “Spirit” section of the catalog refers to webcast concerts and art exhibits. “Body” includes an unusually comprehensive aquatics program, as well as other fitness offerings. Within the “Mind” offerings, the emphasis seems to be on active undertakings: art classes, computers, camera, bridge tournaments and so forth. On closer inspection, though, they too have a Great Decisions group.

Willow Valley’s walking tours seem especially intriguing: historic plants, wetland wildflowers, autumn. But even more tempting is the Socrates Café, designed to encourage “spirited discussion about issues and topics that challenge our beliefs on contemporary society and who we are as human beings.” An ambitious goal, to say the least.

The focus is primarily on health, wellness and nutrition at Barclay Friends in West Chester. Called “Nutrition Vitality,” it’s an opportunity to learn about healthy recipes and their preparation. Recent programs have featured Raw Cacao Bliss Balls, Making Granola and Hibiscus Tea Sampling. The gardening program is also taken very seriously here, as is their creative arts program, and often involves an educational component.

There’s also a Garden Club at Foulk Manor South in Wilmington. It’s offered a class on flower arrangement. Arts and crafts also attract the residents’ interests.

This article would be incomplete without mentioning the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. There’s one location at the Widener campus at Exton; others at Temple and the University of Delaware. OLLI, as it’s called, is a series of campus-based programs—about 118 campuses nationwide participate—supported by the Bernard Osher Foundation. In general, the students are over 50. Their coursework is ungraded and courses cover everything from architecture to languages to law. The students attend for the “joy of learning.”

Clearly, there’s a movement afoot. Classes, discussion groups, art … Retirement, far from a process of shutting down, is opening up opportunities. Perhaps it’s a second chance, to pursue interests put on hold while the demands of family and career were given priority.

Life built around the Blue Plate Special is disappearing. This new stage in life used to explore new subjects, new issues, new decisions is winning out.

You could say our seniors seem to be getting younger.