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The View From Unretirement

May 20, 2022, 9:55 a.m. EDT

Looking to learn something new in retirement? Find an age-friendly university

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By Richard Eisenberg

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 Steven 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 Joann 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.

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