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The View From Unretirement: Looking to learn something new in retirement? Find an age-friendly university

I’m finding that one of the benefits of being retired (or, as I call myself “unretired,” because I’m a freelance writer and editor in retirement), is the free time I now have to go back to school and learn. It’s fun, good for my brain, offers a sense of purpose and keeps me busy.

I’ve recently enrolled in two online adult education classes at The Adult School of The Chathams, Madison and Florham Park (N.J.): one about the artistry of Simon & Garfunkel and the other on voice-over work. My wife took a class there on social media marketing for startups like her Mind Your Own Frizzness hair oil business.

I expect to return to One Day University, the fun, 12-year-old program created by Stephen Schragis that lets students (who are mostly 50+) hear in-person or online lectures from over 200 of the nation’s top college professors for $8.95 a month. Its most popular talks run the gamut from “Buddy Holly and the Day the Music Died” to “John Steinbeck’s America” to “Rating the Presidents.” 

What is an age-friendly university?

Lately, I’ve been especially intrigued by what are known as “age-friendly universities.” As Joan Montepare, director of the Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell University in Newton, Mass., said at a recent American Society on Aging conference panel I attended, “One area of aging that needs more attention is higher education.”

In the past few days, I interviewed Montepare — whose small liberal arts institution was the second in the U.S. to join the Age-Friendly University (AFU) global network— and several other key players in the movement, which just turned 10, to learn more about it.

As people are living longer, working longer, and aspiring to a retirement filled with intellectual stimulation and new life paths, going back to school seems like a no-brainer.

The idea behind age-friendly universities and its global network sprang up at Dublin City University (DCU) in 2012, part of Ireland’s effort to follow the World Health Organization’s age-friendly countries initiative. Its founders cited six pillars that could make universities age-friendly, and 10 principles based on them.

Those aspirational principles range from “encouraging the participation of older adults in all the core activities of the university” to “promoting intergenerational learning to facilitate the reciprocal sharing of expertise between learners of all ages” to “engaging actively with the university’s own retired community.”

Surprisingly (at least to me), an age-friendly physical environment isn’t one of the 10 core principles.

Defining age-friendly differently

In the real world, universities define being “age-friendly” in their own ways,

A 2021 study in The Gerontologist showed that administrators at an unnamed northeastern public university reported the second highest percentage of age-friendly practices there were in its physical environment, right after personnel. The lowest percentage, sadly: teaching and learning.

At the American Society of Aging conference, Celeste Beaulieu discussed the wide range of age-friendly practices she found in her University of Massachusetts research surveying 23 public and private universities across the county.

They spanned from having visible signage, maps, accessible bathrooms and handicapped parking to experiential learning opportunities to work with older adults to career services opportunities for older students to discounts for retirees.

One reason some universities have age-friendly physical environments is that they’re mandated to do so by laws like the American Disabilities Act.

Why aren’t there more age-friendly universities?

The number of age-friendly universities is still fairly small — there are now 95 around the world. Roughly 60 of them are in the U.S. (many state schools and small liberal-arts colleges; the full list is on DCU’s site), less than 2% of the roughly 4,000 colleges and universities in America. But the total figure has been shooting up.

“We’ve had exponential growth in the last few years,” said Christine O’Kelly, the Age-Friendly University Global Network Coordinator at Dublin City University.

None, however, are in the Ivy League or the equivalent.

Even MIT, known for its famed AgeLab researchers, isn’t on the Age-Friendly University list.

Nor are Harvard or Stanford, despite their esteemed and pricey programs for midlife professionals — Harvard’s Advanced Learning Institute and Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute. “Unless you’re at the top of your game in the corporate world and you have that money, [those programs are] very expensive,” said O’Kelly.

Read: Once considered on the cusp of retirement, these people are taking a ‘gap year’ after successful careers

The small number of Age-Friendly Universities is, to me, a head-scratcher considering the demand from people in their 60s to learn skills that would make them more employable.

There are also demographic trends pointing to a continuation of smaller pools of high-school graduates enrolling in colleges — the birth dearth. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the number of 18-to-24-year-olds will stay flat through 2035 or beyond. Undergrad enrollment fell 6.5% during the pandemic.

Wouldn’t having more 60-something students be smart for the economics of universities? After all, said University of Massachusetts-Boston gerontology professor Nina Silverstein, “aging is good business.”

Susan K. Whitbourne, a faculty fellow and adjunct professor of gerontology at University of Massachusetts-Boston and Age-Friendly University researcher, offered a theory about the lack of Ivies so far. Perhaps, she posited, it may be “they’re not worried about their enrollment because they always have more applicants than they need.”

Montepare had two other explanations why more U.S. universities aren’t on the Age-Friendly list: Changes in “higher education can travel at a glacial place,” she said. Also, Montepare noted, the movement is a “grass roots bottom-up approach.”

She’s right about that. O’Kelly is essentially a one-person ringleader for Age-Friendly Universities. “It takes a while to embed age-friendly practices in university,” O’Kelly told me.

Age-friendly learning and the pandemic

The pandemic’s on-campus learning restrictions have taken away a prime benefit of taking classes in retirement: the joy of being in a room with students of varying ages and the social interaction that comes with it.

Noted O’Kelly: “After the lecture, if you go for a cup of coffee, you’re able to say to the person, ‘What did you think? Was that a whole load of baloney? Did you get anything out of that?’”

There’s also the vibrancy of just spending time in a college community, plus the chance to get away from those Zoom calls. “It’s fun being on a college campus,” said Whitbourne.

Conversely, though, the growth of online classes has made it easier for some retirees to attend from home.

‘I was there’ lessons for younger students

Whether you take classes in retirement online or in person, though, you may get the opportunity to turn a lecture about the 1960s or Social Security for the younger students into something more real for them, by piping up with your personal recollections and experiences.

Silverstein fondly recalls one intergenerational class she taught. “It was so exciting to be discussing Social Security and have people on Social Security talking to undergrads who really just wanted to understand that lived experience. You can’t beat it.”

Some schools, offer specially designed intergenerational programs. Lasell, for instance, has the Talk of Ages program created by Montepare. It’s all about facilitating reciprocal sharing of expertise between younger and older students.

Montepare explained what she wanted from Talk of Ages — bringing younger and older students together with common interest and common goals “to talk about social justice, about climate change and novel experiences.” This year’s Talk of Ages discussed empirical evidence behind intergenerational teaching and learning.

In spring 2021, University of California, Berkeley’s Emeriti Academy (EA) held a virtual, celebratory gathering for its emeriti faculty members and students who’d completed projects run by EA members.

One way to reduce ageism

Programs like these also help to mitigate potentially ageist attitudes of the young undergrads.

In their recent New Map of Life paper, Stanford University professors Ilana Horwitz and Mitchell Stevens recommended colleges and universities “develop application pathways and scholarship funding specifically for adult learners, relax requirements for on-campus housing or full-time enrollment for undergraduates over the age of 25, and provide community-building and academic-support services specifically for adult learners.”

If you’d like a local university or your alma mater to become more age friendly, Montepare advised, let the school know. Retirees’ “voices are really important,” she said.

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