Lifelong Learning Offers Intellectual Stimulation for one Senior
“When I was president, I got letters saying ‘You saved my life,'” recalls Lilyan Spero. Spero was not the president of a state-of-the-art hospital or the leader of a powerful charity. She saved lives by offering opportunities-educational opportunities. With the help of several other dedicated citizens of Fairfax County, Lilyan Spero founded the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University.
OLLI offers members the opportunity to take a wide variety of courses to further their education without the pressure of degree requirements or grades. OLLI was founded on the idea that retirees crave-and need-continued intellectual stimulation, as well as the social interaction that a school environment provides.
OLLI is Spero’s self-described “baby,” and she is thrilled to “leave it to the community.” However, she is quick to point out that the work of establishing the Learning in Retirement Institute (LRI) was difficult, and its success is due primarily to one woman, Kathryn Brooks.
Brooks’ brainchild began modestly. In her work with the Area Agency on Aging, Brooks became aware of the LRI at American University. While visiting with Spero and her husband, she mentioned the idea of founding the same type of institute in Fairfax. In order to make the program a success, the founders knew they needed to find a local university to sponsor it.
From the beginning, George Mason University was the logical choice for the partnership. Finding funding and support for the nascent program was more difficult. It took nearly five years, but Brooks ensured that the institute became a reality. Spero recalls, “Kathryn Brooks was incredibly resilient. She deserves all the credit.”
Three years after its founding, Spero served as the president of the Institute. The position offered an interesting insight into how the program functioned as a part of the community. Spero knew that she and her peers had created a program that offered an important contribution to the quality of life for seniors in Fairfax. She knew that retirees were attending courses at the Institute in increasingly large numbers and that strong friendships were forming among students. She did not know they were saving lives-not until her mailbox filled with poignant letters.
Spero explains, “A lot of the students wrote to me to say that OLLI had saved them. They had spent their lives working hard at their jobs and their marriages, many had even spent years caring for an ailing spouse. When the job ended or the spouse passed away, they realized that they had no remaining ties to the community; they were alone. OLLI provided the stimulating environment and social ties they so desperately needed.”
Socialization continues to play an important role in the success of the program. Members know OLLI as a place to meet people who are intellectually motivated and have similar interests. More than anything, Spero says, “Members know that OLLI is a place to have fun and make friends.” She goes on to note that the “social room” where students spend time between classes is always one of the most crowded spaces in the building.
Since its inception in 1991, OLLI has seen tremendous growth. The amount of courses, programs, and special events continues to expand. Spero cites the continued growth of the active, well-educated older adult population in Fairfax County as the primary reason for the impressive success of OLLI. That, and the fact that OLLI is “a terrific place that serves a terrific purpose for the community.” As one of OLLI’s permanent board members, Lilyan Spero’s rescue operations continue today.