Supporting an active, learning senior community


Grand Rapids Community College offers a host of programs for older learners, ranging from classroom settings to exercise programs. Courtesy GRCC

West Michigan academic institutions are not only providing educational opportunities for traditional students, business professionals and workforce training solutions, but also offering lifelong learning programs to meet the intellectual needs of older adults in the community.

Although each program has its differences, institutions such as Grand Valley State University and Aquinas, Grand Rapids Community, Calvin and Hope colleges are reaching out to those who are interested in continuing their academic learning later in life.

Aquinas College’s well-known Osher Lifelong Learning Institute recently received a $1 million endowment grant from San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation in recognition of its sustainable growth. For close to 40 years, the program has provided pre-and post-retirement educational opportunities to adults 50 and older, and is part of a network of roughly 119 campuses across the country.

More than 1,500 people participate annually in Aquinas’ OLLI program, engaging in more than 160 classes in science, history, philosophy, culture, food, math, current events, religion and political science.

Similar to the OLLI Program, GVSU provides an educational outreach program for adults 55 and older through its Center for Adult and Continuing Studies’ Grand Forum, according to director Judy Palmer.

“I think Aquinas has a neat program, because if (adults) want to learn more about a subject, they can go and take more classes that go into detail,” said Palmer. “We keep talking about getting together with OLLI. They are using the same faculty and professors. Our setup is just a little bit different: You learn general information about a topic in 90 minutes, have lunch, and then talk about it.”

Approaching its 20th anniversary, Grand Forum was established in 1995 as part of GVSU’s continuing education department, which is now known as the Center for Adult and Continuing Studies. Funded by the university, the $105 annual membership fee is allocated for programming and bringing in speakers. Geared for older adults to provide an opportunity to maintain their education, Palmer said the program was designed for a small group to foster social networking and engagement.

“It was started because Grand Valley didn’t have a program like that,” said Palmer. “Aquinas had theirs and Calvin had one, and Hope College has one. This is Grand Valley’s version of an older learners organization. It is three weeks in February, three weeks in May, and then three weeks in September. We meet twice a week, so it is kind of intense for those three weeks, and then we take a break.”

Grand Forum’s programming includes presentations and discussions by professors, experts and business leaders on a broad array of topics, including art, music, history, current events, nonprofit organizations and medicine. Members also can participate in offsite trips to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon, Grand Rapids Public Museum and Stratford, Ontario.

Upcoming speakers and events in February include: Louise “Punky” Edison, director of West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology; Ron Pesch, historian; Anne Berquist, executive director of Opera Grand Rapids; and a tour of the pirates exhibit at Grand Rapids Public Museum with a discussion by David Stark, GVSU professor of history.

“It’s really a variety. I think they really get a lot out of it,” said Palmer. “I just think they really enjoy being educated and keeping active with that. It is a neat program.”

Another lifelong learning program in West Michigan is offered by Hope College for alumni through its Alumni Association. Classes are $330 per credit hour and range from financial accounting, public presentations and exercise physiology to expository writing, introduction to music and literature.

Calvin College also provides classes and field trips for both alumni and non-alumni who are 50 and older. After an annual membership of $35, each course is an additional $20. The Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning is one of more than 400 Learning in Retirement Institutes affiliated with the Elderhostel Institute network.

Originally established in 1996 with a pilot program of nine courses, CALL has grown from 230 participants to more than 1,900 members who live within commuting distance.

While Calvin’s program focuses on developing a community of active, learning seniors, Grand Rapids Community College’s Older Learner Center focuses on three major areas to benefit community members: life enrichment for seniors in the community, caregiver resources and support groups, and health education and exercise programs.

Developed in 1998, the Older Learner Center originally focused on outreach educational programs for community members to help them age well in their homes based on a three-year grant from the state of Michigan.

Mike Faber, associate director of the Older Learner Center at GRCC, said after the three-year period, the state gave the center another two years of funding to look at meeting other needs in the community, such as life enrichment resources and noncredit learning.

“We have programming for grandparents who are trying to raise their grandchildren,” said Faber. “Anyone is welcome, but we are trying to reach those with the greatest need, and a majority of our grandparents are living near or below poverty level and trying to raise their grandchildren.”

The Older Learner Center offers lifelong learning and enrichment opportunities for adults 45 and older, including a computer basics series, “grandparents raising grandchildren” training and luncheon, Senior Leadership Grand Rapids, a reading club and a life history club.

For Kent County residents 60 and older, there are a number of health education programs available at GRCC, including aerobic exercise, strength training and an Arthritis Foundation aquatics program.

Lisa Freiburger, vice president for finance and administration at GRCC, said serving older adults at the Older Learner Center is accomplished in a variety of ways.

“Health education and physical exercise is a huge piece of that. A lot of literature shows that as you age, if you maintain physical exercise, it helps with overall well-being, physical and mental functioning and independence,” said Freiburger. “They have caregiver support programs that offer information resources and helping caregivers to maintain independence of the older adults they serve.”

Although GRCC receives federal funding through the Older Americans Act, Faber said the Area Agency on Aging in Western Michigan is the center’s primary funder and partner. The center’s health education programming is funded through the Kent County senior millage, which benefits residents at least 60-years-old and is administered by the AAAWM.

“All of the programs funded through the Older Americans Act or Kent County senior millage have suggested donations. We don’t turn away anyone who can’t afford it,” said Faber. “We usually collect about 40 to 50 percent of the suggested donation. It builds funds back into the system that allow us to do more in the community around these issues.”

With roughly 500 unique senior visitors a year and approximately 3,000 total participants, Faber said the Older Learner Center has been successful over the years with consistent engagement.

“We have some great participants, some great programs, and it is a real privilege,” said Faber.

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