The opportunity to learn a foreign language is what drew Susan Flook, 62, to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Delaware when she retired five years ago, but as she quickly discovered “there’s a lot more here than French and German.” Like courses in using digital cameras, in art appreciation, classic films, genomics, Asian history and much more.
Steve Dombchik, 70, who says he reads at least five newspapers a day, came to Osherfor the current events and history courses, but along the way he rediscovered his interest in playing music— something he hadn’t done since his college years. He has since learned to play the mallets and is a member of the Wilmington Osher Institute’s band.
For Doris Gore, 88, Osher has been all about the arts, and this past semester she was enrolled in sculpture and watercolor courses.
“There’s no single way to characterize the Osher program or the people who come here. People can be who they want to be here. They don’t need to do anything to fit into the program because the people make the program,” says Basil Maas, manager of Osher’s Wilmington program.
The Osher Institute at UD is a vital part of life for more than 3,000 men and women over 50 who attend courses at the program’s locations in all three Delaware counties.
It’s like a college experience for older adults—but without the papers, exams and students loans. It’s learning simply for enrichment and enjoyment. As at traditional colleges, classes are offered in the arts, humanities, business, science and technology. Students get involved with a host of extracurricular activities, too, including yoga and tai chi classes; various choral and instrumental musical groups; and bridge, Mah Jongg and book clubs.
“It keeps the gray cells percolating,” says Dombchik, who takes the maximum number of courses in the fall, spring and summer sessions in addition to leading Osher’s popular Great Discussions class. “I’m at Arsht Hall [in Wilmington] five days a week, sometimes all day long,” says Dombchik, who is involved in committee work as well.
Osher got its start back in 1980 when the University of Delaware established the Academy of Lifelong Learning at its Wilmington campus to provide intellectual and cultural opportunities for older adults. The popularity of the academy led to the opening of programs in Lewes in 1989 and Dover in 2010 and a satellite site in Bethany just last year.
The Wilmington program remains the largest, with more than 2,000 members each semester. The Lewes program ranks second with some 500 members, many of them transplants who have retired to coastal southern Delaware. Newcomer Dover has about 120 members.
The academy, which is still affiliated with UD, was renamed Osher in 2010 after it received $2 million in fundingfrom the Bernard Osher Foundationand joined a network of Osher LifelongLearning Institutes that now numbers117 institutes in all 50 states.
For a flat fee (which varies by location and term), Osher members can take up to five courses per semester in Wilmington (three in Dover, unlimited in Lewes) and participate in as many extracurricular activities as they want. Financial assistance is available. The courses, which meet for 75 minutes once a week, are taught by other members bers, who receive a slight discount on their membership fee in return. Instructors include retired teachers and college professors as well as those who have developed an expertise in their field through work or longtime interest. Members also volunteer on the many committees that keep the program running smoothly.
The University of Delaware provides facilities for Osher students at its campuses in Wilmington and Lewes (the Dover program meets at the Modern Maturity Center) as well as an array of support services.
On a typical Tuesday in late fall, Arsht Hall is bustling. Many Osher students are hurrying to their next class. Some are congregating with friends in the lobby, while others have settled into the reading room with a book or magazine. The walls of the reading room, the hallways and any other available space are lined with the watercolors, oil paintings and sketches created by students.
In one of the computer labs, a dozen students in the Advanced Windows Management class are learning about the various registry cleaners available to keep their computing systems running quickly and smoothly. In another, students are creating projects using desktop publishing software.
Students are listening to opera in a music class taught by Larry Peterson, professor emeritus of music at UD. In the Woody Allen course, they’re watching a documentary about the famous actor/director.
Jeanne Hanson, 66, is playing a recording in her Spanish 101 class while students sing along to “Cielito Lindo” and “Los Elefantes.” Languages are popular at Osher, and students have quite a breadth from which to choose. In Wilmington, there are not only numerous levels of Spanish, French and German, but also Latin, Greek, Chinese, Italian and Yiddish. One of the more popular courses in Dover is Don Blakey’s Swahili class.
In one of the art rooms, Emily Reed, 71, and Cree Houspian, age undisclosed, are finishing up their oil paintings in an artists’ workshop. For both, creating art was a welcome change from how they’d spent their careers.
“My background was in chemistry,” Houspian says. “Art was a whole new area for me. Right now I’m taking courses in oil painting and watercolor, two art workshops and beginning Italian.”
Come lunchtime, students gather in the cafeteria at Arsht Hall for food and conversation. Osher isn’t just about taking classes, after all, it’s also about making friends.
“There’s a real sense of community here,” says Ruth Hochheiser, 64, a student in Wilmington. “Everyone loves being here and wants to be with one another. That’s the gift.”
Chris Blackstone, 57, agrees. “You meet people from all walks of life here. As long as you’re willing to talk and listen, you’re OK.”
Out in the lobby, an intermediate recorder class is giving a concert to an audience of dozens of their peers. Music courses and extracurricular groups are very popular at Osher, with as many as 22 percent of students participating in one or more musical activities, says Paul Hess, vice chair of academics. Add in those who take music appreciation courses and the participation rate jumps to 66 percent. In New Castle alone there is a 70-member concert band, an 85-voice chorus, a full-size jazz band, orchestra, brass ensemble, string ensemble and other smaller groups.
Hess directs the concert band. As with many of the other instructors at Osher, he is highly qualified, having spent his entire career as a music instructor at places like the University of Delaware, Lincoln University, Shue- Medill Middle School and Ursuline Academy. In addition to entertaining at Arsht Hall, as all the musical groups do, the concert band has performed with UD’s symphonic band and at local parks, churches and retirement homes.
Many of those who participate in the music groups hadn’t picked up an instrument since high school or college, Hess says. Career and family occupied their time, but once they had the chance, they migrated back to music. For others, it’s the opportunity to begin for the first time. Music is a great activity for older adults, Hess adds. “There’s a lot of data that playing an instrument, being involved with music, stimulates the brain.
Many people migrate to Osher after retirement, but for Dombchik, the existence of Osher was a big incentive to retire.
“I had already been considering early retirement. Then one day I went to Arsht Hall and saw all the available courses listed on the bulletin board there. I was more thrilled with the program than I was with my job at DuPont, so I took early retirement.”
A fellow DuPonter, Jim Higgins, 67, says that he actually began coming to Osher even before he retired, spending his lunch hours taking courses and making new friends.
Maas says he’s been told by numerous transplants to the Delaware area that the existence of Osher here was part of what led them to retire to Delaware.
The average age of Osher students is 70, but Anna Moshier, program coordinator for the Lewes program, predicts that the average age will decrease as more baby boomers retire. “As one of our members said to me, ‘We don’t want to sit at home and get old. We want to be active.’”
The energy is palpable at Osher, adds Flook. “It’s about beginnings here as much as anything else.”
There’s still time to register for the spring semester at Osher’s Wilmington and Dover sites, which begin classes Feb. 4 and Feb. 26 respectively. Most classes began in Lewes and Bethany Beach Jan. 14, but some begin Feb. 22.
For more information on the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning, go to lifelonglearning.udel. edu. In Wilmington, call 573-4417, or stop by Arsht Hall at 2700 Pennsylvania Ave. Dover classes meet at the Modern Maturity Center on Forrest Ave., 734-1200, ext. 168. The Lewes/ Bethany program is centered at the UD Lewes campus, 820A Savannah Road, 645-4111.