Central Oregon seniors keep learning

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute provides classes, discussion

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat


Published Mar 7, 2014 at 12:11AM / Updated Mar 7, 2014 at 06:03AM

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Visit osher.uoregon.edu or call 800-824-2714 to learn more about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and see a schedule of classes.

About 30 people squinted when Burt Litman turned the lights up at the end of a video lecture on nutrition, heart disease and cholesterol he played on a large TV inside a classroom at the Bend River Promenade Mall’s University of Oregon Center.

“Supplements are not candy,” Litman said as he echoed a point the video’s speaker, Baylor University professor Roberta Anding, made during her talk. “They are not regulated, they can have side effects and they should be used with caution.”

Drawing on his experience as a former researcher with the National Institutes of Health, Litman continued his weekly lecture series by talking to the group about the benefits of taking baby aspirin and eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids, such as grass-fed beef.

“So much disease in this country is the result of poor nutrition,” Litman said as he explained why he decided to teach the class. “My hope is that we’ll have at least 30 people who are better informed (about what they should eat) and can make the right choices.”

For more than a decade, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has given Central Oregon residents who are 50 or older a chance to continue their education by taking noncredit courses about history, science, art and other topics that interest them. The program has created a community of learning that its backers — the University of Oregon and the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation — say plays a crucial role in keeping these older students engaged and healthy.

The classes

Before he started his nutrition course last month, Litman taught a handful of multi-unit discussion and lecture courses with the Osher institute that touched on climate change, comparative religion and impressionist artists.

Other courses being offered to the institute’s members — each of whom pays $120 a year in dues — this spring will look at the Battle of Gettysburg, Winston Churchill’s legacy, the history of the universe and the world’s greatest geological wonders.

“We always want to do something new,” said Jeanne Freeman, a retired marketing professional from New Mexico who has been coming to the institute’s courses since she moved to Bend in 2008.

She also serves on the institute’s program committee — a group of members who set each term’s course schedule and recruit teachers for each class — and did a special “Armchair Traveler” presentation last year about a trip she made to Israel and Jordan.

Freeman said she came to OLLI because she is deathly afraid of developing Alzheimer’s disease and “will do my best to keep it away” by keeping her brain as active as possible. But behind this health-related reason lies the simple fact that Freeman has made a lot of friends through the institute and ended up marrying the man who took her to her first class.

“(OLLI) rescued me when I retired,” said Barbara Jordan, a former mental health therapist who was drawn to the OLLI program several years ago because it gave her a chance to meet people who had a variety of interests.

Jordan is now a regular attendee at the institute’s various lectures — particularly those that touch on history such as the Gettysburg and Churchill talks — and also drops by a few of OLLI’s Thursday morning writing workshops, Tuesday morning book clubs and the round-table luncheons the program holds at the Pine Tavern on the first Tuesday of every month.

These activities, which keep the institute’s members actively engaged in their community, are just as important as the program’s classes, said David Blazevich, the senior program administrator of the Bernard Osher Foundation’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute grant program.

The community

During a March 4 round-table luncheon at the Pine Tavern, Jerry Roslund talked about how a series of banking regulations created after the country’s economic downfall would have made it impossible for him to manage the small real estate investment firm he started in the 1960s and has since passed down to his two children.

He continued in this vein until Linda Shaw, a retired school teacher, interrupted him and said that “if it wasn’t for the bad people who took advantage of the system” the government wouldn’t have had to create those regulations in the first place.

“Our members aren’t opinionated at all,” joked Harlie Peterson, a retired test pilot who sat between Roslund and Shaw and watched their argument progress as if it had been a televised debate.

Like Jordan, Peterson has been coming to the institute since it was known as the Silver Sage Society. The University of Oregon started the program in 2003 but changed its name one year later to recognize an endowment it received from the Bernard Osher Foundation. Jordan now makes about three or four trips to Bend from his home in Sunriver to attend its classes and events.

“Almost all of the people you see here are people who want to continue to advance their knowledge,” said Peterson, who seemed content to simply watch the discussions his fellow diners had about Ukraine, Peter the Great and the battle tactics the Persians used in their war against the Greeks. “Invariably, there will be someone in a class who has a PhD in the subject and knows everything about it.”

Blazevich, with the Bernard Osher Foundation , said these types of discussions and the communities they create are the reason his organization gives money to the University of Oregon’s program and the 116 other Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes that are based out of colleges and universities across the country.

“It’s within these communities that (our members) interact with other people and stay connected to the world around them,” he said, explaining that without these connections older people run the risk of falling into depression and experiencing the negative health consequences that come with it.

One recent study conducted by the University of Chicago found loneliness and depression among older people are so serious that they can actually increase a person’s chances of premature death by 17 percent. This rate is nearly twice what a person would experience if they were obese and about the same as what a person would experience if they belonged to a disadvantaged socio-economic group.

Blazevich said that in addition to creating these communities of learning, the institute’s overall structure also helps its members stay active in their retirements by giving them a chance to pursue a topic they may have been interested in before they started their career or one that is brand new to them.

“Older adults are seeking meaningful experiences like these,” he said, explaining that nationwide the Osher institutes boast more than 122,000 dues-paying members, a number that already at this point in the year is about 10 percent higher than the program’s total membership last year.

Blazevich said he expects this trend to continue as more and more people are learning about the Osher programs and signing up for its courses. He’s also no stranger to the fact their enrollment should swell even more when the baby boomers — the youngest of whom are turning 50 this year — start looking for ways they can stay active and engaged.

“Certainly demographics is on our side,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, mmclean@bendbulletin.com