Facing the Lifelong Learner: Financial Planning for Retired People

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Three months ago, I became the Executive Director of The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University. Within days of starting the job, I realized that after 30+ years in education and training, this was the first community of pure learners I had ever experienced. In past jobs, there was always some exterior motivation for learning – grades, career advancement, skill enhancement, attaining a license or certification, etc. Here at OLLI, the motivation is learning for the sake of learning-and socialization. Students clearly delighted in enhancing their education and sharing their new-found knowledge with others. I was face to face with the lifelong learner.

Before my association with OLLI, I did not reflect much on retirement. Neither of my parents lived long enough to retire. In my experience, retired people were “old.” They were individuals who, as a function of reaching a specific age, disappeared from the workplace, usually after a nice party. Now I belong to a community of almost 700 retirees who are anything but “old.” Over the next decade, things are going to get even more interesting; the Boomers are coming!

Seventy-six million individuals born between 1946 and 1964 will begin reaching their 60s next year. These individuals are, as a group, better educated than their parents. They will live longer and be more active. Life expectancy in the U.S. currently averages almost 77 years. The over 65 population is growing at a rate almost twice as fast as the rest of the population. In Fairfax County, individuals 65 and older will increase from 8.4 percent of the population in 2005 to 12.6 percent of the population in 2025. The term “young-old” is now being used to identify the blurring of chronological distinctions as the general health of these individuals improves.

However, many Boomers will not have the financial resources for full retirement and will have to either delay retirement or seek part-time employment. A significant number will have to deal with the return of adult children to the “nest” following divorce or job loss, raising children from second families, or caring for aging parents who themselves are living longer.

Learning in Retirement

In spite of the challenges faced by Boomers as they enter their sixties, a significant percentage of retirees will continue to seek out opportunities for socialization and intellectual growth. This demand is concurrent with the evolution of attitudes on aging. Not too many years ago, the general belief was that education was wasted on older adults. Now the prevailing view of “old” age is as a time of creativity and productivity.

Hand in hand with this attitudinal change has been the development of academic programming for senior learners. The Code of Virginia provides that, on a space available basis, Virginia residents sixty and older may register for and attend up to three non-credit continuing education courses per year.

Seniors and Baby Boomers will find a wide variety of educational opportunities available to them in the D.C. Metro region. These range from the craft and hobby courses available at most local senior centers to the certificate and degree programs offered at the region’s colleges and universities. While senior centers and community centers provide social opportunities, they often do not sponsor purely intellectual programming. College courses provide academic content, but without the social contact sought by the senior learner with individuals their own age.

Learning in Retirement Institutes (LRIs) provide a unique alternative for seniors seeking education and socialization in a single environment. Originated in the early 1960s, these organizations have proliferated nation-wide and have seen tremendous growth locally. Benefits for LRI members are myriad. LRIs contribute to personal growth, increased self-esteem, feelings of empowerment, and enhanced service and contribution opportunities according to research conducted by Charlene Martin in 2003.

The number of LRIs has grown to several hundred in the U.S. since their emergence in 1962. Unlike institutions of higher education, LRIs are member-driven organizations. They offer short courses, taught by volunteers, who are often members. Special events, travel opportunities, and social activities are the hallmark of many programs.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University (GMU), OLLI for short, is one such LRI. Along with the programs at American University, in Arlington, and at Northern Virginia Community College, OLLI meets the needs of adult learners in the D.C. Metro Area. The OLLI at George Mason began life as an LRI in 1991. It received its first Bernard Osher Foundation funding in June 2004.

Bernard Osher, a California philanthropist who founded the Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977, conceived the idea of a nation-wide network of lifelong learning institutes. Since his first grant in 2001, Osher has funded over seventy institutes in 31 states and the District of Columbia, which bear his name. His goal is to fund at least one Institute in each state.

The normal Osher funding pattern is to make three sequential grants of $100,000 each, followed by the award of a $1 million endowment to those programs deemed to have long-term promise. The OLLI at George Mason University has received its endowment gift one year early. This award was made, in the words of the Osher Foundation, “because the progress you have made since receiving the initial support from the Foundation is seen as outstanding.”

The OLLI Program at GMU

The OLLI at George Mason, unlike most other LRIs, operates as a stand alone non-profit organization. Most other LRIs are components of university departments, most often Continuing Education. The OLLI at GMU has programs in two locations: its Tallwood Campus near George Mason, and a satellite location in Reston-Lake Anne. Plans are in the works to offer programming in conjunction with Fairfax County Community Centers. Offerings in adult residential communities and via distance learning technologies also are being studied.

Here at OLLI at GMU, we offers 26 weeks of programming a year divided into four terms: Winter (4 weeks), Spring (8 weeks), Summer (6 weeks) and Fall (8 weeks). Courses are offered in a variety of areas, including history, international studies, current events, languages, literature, art, drama, music, economics, finance, philosophy, ethics, religion, science, health, and technology. In a typical eight-week term, over sixty individual courses are offered, in addition to special events and clubs. Courses are taught by a combination of members, GMU faculty, and experts from the multitude of academic institutions and associations in the Washington, D.C. area.

Beginning in 2006, OLLI will offer a program of Friday informational sessions, movies, and other events. Our relationship with George Mason University also allows members access to a wide variety of intellectual and cultural offerings. Finally, like many LRIs, OLLI has begun an international travel program.

LRIs have a variety of pricing models. Some have a low registration fee and then charge by the course. A second model features one fee and then allows a member to take as many courses as he or she might wish. The OLLI at GMU follows this latter approach, with a fee of $290. OLLI members take, on average, five courses a term.

The Future of Lifelong Learning in the Northern Virginia Area

Individuals are living longer lives; they are healthier and more active than their parents. While many will have to continue to work in some manner, intellectual stimulation will be a goal, either in formal settings (schools, learning in retirement institutes) or through self-directed learning. Lifelong Learning Institutes, such as those in the Osher Network, are in a position to meet current needs, as well as to facilitate the effective utilization of technology to meet future needs.

In the near future, look for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University to offer more programming in satellite locations such as active adult, independent living, and retirement communities in Northern Virginia. In 2006, the Institute also will begin a series of studies to determine the market for and utility of affordable distance learning technologies to deliver educational materials to learners unable to participate in on-site programs. Finally, we will be seeking strategic alliances with community centers, libraries, public schools, and other involved local organizations to increase the efficiency of educational service delivery to senior residents.

Richard B. Chobot, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University.

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