UGA promotes lifelong learning for older adults

Relearn. Rethink. Or learn something entirely new.

That’s the basic premise behind the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Georgia, or OLLI@UGA, an outreach program through UGA’s College of Education open to any local adult learner over the age of 50.

OLLI members can take classes in a range of topics, such as cardiovascular health, climate change, drawing fundamentals and estate planning. Groups go on learning-focused trips close to home, like the High Museum of Art, or head abroad for trips highlighting geology or world-famous gardens. Members can even be a part of informal groups for ongoing activities like gardening or pickle ball.

Led by two staff members and a small army of active volunteers, the program matches the expertise of UGA faculty (both current and retired) and local professionals, with older adults craving a new outlet in their retirement years. This year marks the group’s 20th year providing education to older adults in the Athens area.

“OLLI is one-stop shopping for intelligent, social and cultural activities,” said Tom Kenyon, the newly elected president of OLLI@UGA. “If you can’t find something that interests you at OLLI, you’ve never read our program or looked at our special interest groups.”

Kenyon and about 30 other members recently gathered for a screening of “Human Footprint,” a National Geographic film that’s part of a “Summer Freebie” series, a new event for OLLI. The academic year ramps up this fall with a diverse selection of courses. It’s these offerings that make each Osher Foundation-sponsored program unique, said OLLI Executive Director Katy Crapo.

“It’s what we offer-the structure, the pricing, etc.-that makes us different,” she said, noting that there are 118 OLLI programs around the country. “We attend a conference with other OLLI members and we joke that we’re a group divided by a common language.”

Getting its footing

OLLI@UGA gets its name from the Bernard Osher Foundation, which in 2000 began examining education programs across the country designed for older adults. Two years later, the foundation began granting $100,000 to programs in California for older adults and, once established, an endowment of at least $1 million to sustain it over the long term. Soon, this model became national; today there is a foundation-supported OLLI program in every state.

But UGA’s program began even earlier. In 1994 it was known as Learning in Retirement and housed at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education. Run entirely by volunteers, the program later moved to River’s Crossing and became an outreach program of the College of Education, sharing classroom space, offices and tech support with the college. This partnership was instrumental in attracting the attention of the Osher Foundation, which requires its programs to be affiliated with a university. The foundation also has its sponsored programs take on the Osher name and offer educational activities for adults over age 50 as well as volunteer opportunities.

In 2009, OLLI@UGA received its first Osher Foundation grant of $100,000, and another $100,000 came the following year; it was enough to hire Crapo and an administrative assistant. Then the program acquired its biggest boost to date-$1 million endowments in 2011 and 2013. Now on solid financial footing, OLLI@UGA can focus on its depth and range of classes.

A new kind of student

The format of many classes provides older learners an opportunity to delve into topics they’ve always been interested in or to try something new. A membership is $50 a year, and courses range from $5-$8 per session.

Marie Abercrombie is typical of many members. She says her classes represent a hodgepodge of topics, like the classes she recently took on using computers. “That’s what I like about OLLI-the variety,” she said. “I’m taking more technology (topics)-we don’t get enough of that in this stage of life.”

Another member, John Rudy, has taken classes in current events, political science, economics and literature. The things he likes best about the courses? “The instructors,” he said.

And not only do OLLI members have access to top-notch educators, but the teachers get students that come to class because they want to learn.

“Everyone is here because they want to be here,” Crapo said.

Even the teachers can branch out of their traditional course of study. For example, Betty Jean Craige, University Professor Emerita of comparative literature and former director of the Jane and Harry Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, teaches a class on animal cognition with her African grey parrot, Cosmo.

Craige herself takes more than two dozen classes each semester.

“They can be classes in history, ecology—I took a class in harmonica, a class in wood carving, balsamic vinegar and olive oil, classes on environmental issues,” Craige said.

As the former chair of OLLI’s Curriculum Committee, Craige said she and her all-volunteer team were on the lookout for the top teachers to teach the most interesting classes.

“My philosophy was, you recruit the best teachers you can find and they will give outstanding classes,” she said. “Exciting instructors who will teach exciting classes.”

A strong partnership

OLLI strives to make adult learners feel confident to try something new, Crapo said. Teachers lecture outside their comfort zones, while new topics come from someone simply offering to share their expertise. And the partnership with the College of Education keeps the program supported through in-kind donations, allowing it to effectively use its endowments and grants.

And with so many active volunteers, OLLI@UGA also supports 27 special-interest groups that meet on a regular basis outside of the regular class schedule. This fall also kicks off a new brown-bag lunch series among OLLI’s course offerings.

The partnership even extends to the community as a whole, as OLLI adds another bonus to retiring in Athens and gives seniors ample opportunities for educational activities.

“We have people who retire here for a lot of reasons, but most of the people who are joining are just moving here,” Crapo says. “Many are UGA grads moving back to Athens. Others have children or grandchildren here. There’s really something for everyone.”

For more information on OLLI, see, or come to the OLLI open house Sept. 19 from 1-3:30 p.m. at Central Presbyterian Church, 380 Alps Road, Athens.