Seeking growth in golden years

Elderhostel: Retirees trying to keep their gray cells active are turning to a weeklong live-in program, taking classes from Shakespeare to jazz.

August 03, 1999|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

It's not a typical vacation -- a week in a college town studying the history of comedy and the art of math.

But 25 years ago, Evelyn and Murray Amster vowed to keep their gray cells active during retirement. Since then, the Cranbury, N.J., grandparents -- she's 85, and he's 87 -- have traveled to dozens of cities throughout the nation attending Elderhostel programs to learn about various subjects.

"We're always looking for outlets for furthering education stimulation," Murray Amster said. "We don't like to sit at home, staring at the four walls."

Last week, they attended their 85th weeklong Elderhostel session, this one sponsored by Towson University at a local hotel.

The nonprofit Elderhostel program, based in Boston, caters to Americans who are living longer and have more time and money to take advantage of educational opportunities. Americans have a life expectancy of 76 years, a significant increase from age 47 in 1900.

Founded in 1975, Elderhostel provides affordable opportunities for older adults to continue learning. The program serves 270,000 people a year worldwide who take classes on topics such as Shakespeare, photography and the history of Yellowstone National Park.

"We have to keep them active and keep their minds active," said Gayle Hassid, Towson University's Elderhostel coordinator.

"Their primary goal is to learn."

Towson University runs two of Maryland's 19 Elderhostel programs, attracting 35 to 50 people for each program during the spring, summer and winter sessions.

This year, the university opened its second program in Annapolis, held at the Historic Inns of Annapolis, said Nicci Bojanowski, Towson University's director of programs for older adults.

She said Elderhostel operates through colleges because it helps fulfill the institutions' missions to create more programs for older adults. Participants pay $390 a week, which covers tuition, extracurricular activities and room and board.

Participants in the Towson program stay in the Ramada Inn in Towson and travel to the Inner Harbor or take in a show at F. Scott Black's Towson Dinner Theatre after classes.

The university's next programs will begin Sunday in Annapolis and Sept. 12 in Towson.

"It's a chance to meet new friends, to visit a new part of the city or country in a safe environment," Bojanowski said.

Last week's program offered classes about the criminal justice system, the history of jazz and biographies of famous older adults. Instructors come from the university's staff and the community. The program uses community instructors because the university cannot always provide a full staff, Hassid said. Instructors are paid $375 for the week.

Bill Messenger, a music teacher, taught the history of jazz and said his Elderhostel students have been his most interesting.

"These people ask intelligent questions," he said. "They have a reservoir of knowledge."

Murray Amster comes by his reservoir of criminal justice knowledge honestly. He's a former prosecutor. But he said he learned from the criminal law class because of the diverse ideas that his classmates and teacher offered.

"The ideas that come forth we sort of bounce off each other," he said.

Gloria Virgile of West Hempstead, N.Y., said she and her husband, Lou, attend Elderhostel programs because they offer more than a typical vacation by adding educational and social opportunities.

"In order to fill a hole within you, you have to find a way of adding something to your life than just play," she said.

Evelyn Amster, a retired piano teacher, agreed, saying she and her husband will enroll in Elderhostel classes as long as they can.

"It's more interesting to keep learning than it is to stay at a plateau," she said.

"Even if you are reminded of what you used to know, that's important, too."

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