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Osher Lifelong Learning: The New Retirement

Program keeps retirees engaged in their community.

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Michael Barone, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report, speaks on April 7 to America & the World class at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

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Osher Lifelong Learning Institute meeting.

The new face of retirement has senior citizens staying in their communities and opting for a life where they might become a volunteer, get involved in the community, or even choose to go back to school.

"The growing number of older adults means the growth of a significant pool of talent in our community — as employees, entrepreneurs, volunteers, and community activists," reads the Fairfax County Committee on Aging’s 50+ Action Plan.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), which is affiliated with George Mason University, a non-profit Institute that offers retirees and senior citizens the option of going back to school and taking university-level courses with peers. Formerly a historic home, the Tall Woods building located off Roberts Road just off the GMU campus, is now a second home to senior citizens who want to keep an active mind through classes, clubs, and special events.

"It would be a reassuring thing to know that there are fun things out there you can get involved with and not just sitting at home knitting or whatever the stereotype might be," said Thom Clement, OLLI executive director and former principal at Bull Run Elementary.

WHEN THE INSTITUTE was established in 1991, then known as the Lifelong Learning Institute, it had only 15 members. In 2004 the Institute received a Bernard Osher Grant and now has two other locations — at George Mason Loudoun and Lake Anne in Reston — with about 850 members.

Retirees come not for a degree, a career opportunity, or a resume, but for what Clement describes as the joy of learning.

"Sit down before class, and the seat mate on your left will be a former infantry officer, talking about the poetry seminar he’s teaching next semester," said Paul Howard, member of the OLLI board and chairperson of the Technology Committee. "The woman on your right will be chatting about a strategy discussed in yesterday’s Investment Forum."

OLLI members can choose from practical courses such as economics and finance or based in interest such as conversational French and "Lifewriting your Monologue." Though history classes tend to be very popular, the interest in current event classes is so large they have to rent out space from a local church to accommodate.

"YOU CAN’T have a successful community if one segment of the population is not engaged and having good reasons to be there; people will move away," Clement said. "The folks that are here could have easily chosen to stay here because they like the community and they like things like OLLI that you couldn’t have in a non-college town where they wouldn’t have the academic support."

In addition to transportation, health care, housing, and services, the 50+ Action Plan that strives to incorporate senior citizens into the Fairfax County community talks about integrating retirees into a social community.

"The benefits [of OLLI] start with the mental stimulation and expand to the social integrations," said Pat Carroll, OLLI’s president of the Board of Directors. "I have expanded the number of friends and acquaintances."

Being part of this community means giving back, and OLLI keeps its end of the bargain by offering $2,000 scholarships to GMU students and having members serve on a variety of university boards. Clement explains this sense of reciprocity is important because OLLI is a non-profit institution that relies on volunteers from the GMU faculty and the Fairfax Country community to come and teach classes.

Though the teachers do not receive a salary, Clement says most of the teachers feel they receive other non-monetary benefits such as an engaged audience that keeps them on their toes and students who bring an entire life of experience. Of course, one of the other benefits is the absence of homework, which both students and teachers can appreciate.

"It’s funny, because if there is a teacher that assigns homework, our members will say ‘she’s tough,’" Clement said. "It’s popular though, because they like to be challenged like that."

OLLI members pay an annual fee of $350 that gives them access to over 250 courses offered in four terms over the course of the year. Summer classes are often taught in one sitting to accommodate vacation schedules. Registration for summer term is still open and registration for fall term will be in late August.