Audrey Fielding has been a Temple University student for the last three years. She takes the bus from her apartment to Temple's Center City campus, and during the summer semester, her class load included "The Confluence of American and American-Jewish History." That course, like others she takes, is limited to seniors only — that is, senior citizens.
Fielding is a member of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Temple (or OLLI at Temple, as it's come to be known). Temple's program, which began more than 30 years ago, is one of many options for area seniors looking to expand their educational horizons. Whether it's continuing-education courses at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers or the more formal setting of a college classroom, back-to-school time is almost as big a deal for the senior set as it is for the junior set.
"What I found here was such informality — and really good people," said Fielding, who admitted that she'd walked out of her first two OLLI courses because she was disappointed by them. She said that she'd expected a more traditional college-style course, rather than the informality she's come to love.
There are no tests or required readings in almost all such classes, and the teaching staff and students are one and the same — all teachers are members of the program, said director Adam Brunner, and that volunteer leadership structure is composed of any number of backgrounds, including former attorneys and businesspeople, as well as educators.
Moreover, only a few courses require pre-registration, and students are free to float from class to class throughout the semester, allowing them the opportunity to sample everything from "Eastern European Cinema" to "African Genesis and the Hebrew Heritage" and beyond.
OLLI members can handpick from about 140 classes offered annually, and they can attend as many as they want, explained Brunner, adding that members can also audit regular Temple classes as well, though only a few seem to wind up doing that.
With more than 700 members — and a recent recipient of a $100,000 grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation, OLLI's namesake — Temple's program is a big name in lifelong learning. But it's definitely not the only game in town.
Online 'R Us
Online learning has simply boomed in the past several years.
For example, the online learning program at Gratz College in Melrose Park enrolls roughly 200 students, about 15 percent of whom are senior citizens, according to Ronni Ticker, director of online and distance learning there.
Ticker said that older online students were often "ready to do something more serious and explore things in an academic sense, as opposed to a continuing-education sense."
She emphasized that while many continuing-education classes aren't done for a grade, Gratz courses are, "so it's a very different mindset."
The online courses are structured similarly to campus courses, including a 15-week semester, textbooks, required readings and class discussions.
"What's different is that we have an online forum," said Ticker. "Everybody has to be on it multiple times during the week, and it's like a bulletin board. The professor poses certain questions, and the students and professor discuss those questions. There's a class discussion, and there can be 50 to 200 postings throughout the week, but you don't ever have to be online at any particular time."
While a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project said that 35 percent of Americans age 65 and older use the Internet, online learning is ideal for people like 79-year-old Gene Hoffman, of Maplewood, N.J.
"I was going to take a course at Columbia to get a master's degree in Jewish studies, but I can't be going to Columbia twice a week," he said. "I don't want to fight the traffic, and I don't want to take the time. At this stage of my life, I don't want to make those commitments. Here [Gratz online], it's simple — you've got to do your work, but you can do it without pressure."
At Drexel University's Judaic-studies program, intergenerational ethnic education is one of the program's specializations, emphasized associate director Kathy Carll.
While events throughout the semester bring seniors (and community members) into contact with Drexel undergrads, Carll also said that specific classes are designed to merge the different age groups. One example was last fall's "Sex and Love in Jewish Literature," which brought a dozen undergrads together with a dozen community members to discuss themes in the work of modern Jewish writers, such as Philip Roth and Rebecca Goldstein.
Carll said that while many of the programs are designed with Drexel students in mind, they also reach younger learners, including one past program that linked up Drexel students not only with the older members from the JCC Stiffel Center in Philadelphia, but with children at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.
While formal institutions are the traditional places of learning, plenty of education is going on in area senior centers. Many have outreach programs that invite speakers to engage with the residents, such as the partnership between Martins Run and the Gratz College Community Lecture Series.
"I think a lot of seniors don't really think to themselves, 'I'm going to go take a formal class,' " said David Nevison, associate executive director for planning and development at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. "I don't know the degree to which they thought about formal post-high school education years ago, so for a lot of them I think learning starts in smaller chunks and then grows to more."
Nevison said that many centers now offer arts programs, which can sometimes be a jumping-off point for other interests — whether in the same field or something else.
"A lot of these people may well have been blue-collar workers who weren't exposed to those things during their lives and didn't really have time to explore them," he said. "Once you allow people to explore, some really take off from there, and some people are just satisfied in a limited dabbling of them."
Location, Location, Location
Understandably, location is key for many seniors — a point not lost on Linda Hershman, lifelong learning coordinator at JCC Klein Branch in Northeast Philadelphia.
"Their friends are here, they can take a variety of classes, have lunch here, and then in the afternoon we have social clubs," she said. "For a lot of people, this is the place to come; it's like family."
The Klein offers a number of educational programs geared at seniors, including two monthlong Passport to Learning sessions, and three semesters of Lifelong Learning.
Other activities are also offered, including individual classes (some of which come at no cost at all, due to PCA sponsorship), as well as various clubs and trips outside the area.
Berte Freedman, 85, keeps busy there, though she couldn't do it without their help.
"I don't drive, so I'm limited, but if I'm going to the JCC on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Friday is a day I need off," she said.
Freedman gets to there with the help of SEPTA's Customized Community Transportation service, which provides transit for seniors and the disabled.
She said that the Klein makes her reservations for her, and as such, she got a more than 75 percent discount on her ride, which she said helps people like herself, who live on a fixed income.
Cost is also a concern, particularly for many seniors who live within strict means.
To that end, organizers of programs directed at seniors try to do all they can to keep the costs at a minimum.
While OLLI at Temple offers essentially unlimited educational opportunities in return for a $240 annual fee, and the JCC rates vary by the course, the Gratz online program, which offers a master's degree, runs around $1,000 per class, though a much lower fee is available for senior who wish to audit.
A 2000 AARP Survey on Lifelong Learning found that "older learners prefer methods that are easy to access, require small investments of time and money to get started, and allow them to begin learning immediately."
That same study also said that those folks preferred learning through "direct, hands-on experience," and were most interested in learning to raise their quality of life, build on current skills and maintain their health.
The bottom line is that old age simply isn't what it used to be.
"For many of our members, the chance to keep learning is so important," stressed Hershman. "They don't want to sit down and just watch television.
"First of all, they're not sitting alone; they're with other people with like interests, which is very important. And it's stimulating."