In the summer of 1975, when five New England college campuses opened up history classes and dorm rooms to seniors, no one could have predicted that a movement had begun that would enrich the lives of hundreds of thousands of older adults for generations to come. The brainchild of two friends working in student services at The University of New Hampshire, the new program was called Elderhostel as an answer to the youth-centered tradition of learning, adventure and travel. What if older adults similarly had the opportunity to study, explore, and embark on intellectual and travel adventures?
At the time, such organized opportunities for seniors were virtually unheard of. The prevailing assumption was that seniors would not venture out, challenge themselves, or partake in active learning. The naysayers couldn’t have been more wrong; five years later the program expanded throughout the country, and the program soon included international offerings. By the 90’s, yearly tallies of participants exceeded 200,000. More importantly, beyond the organization itself, cultural expectations of seniors had dramatically shifted, with age-based stereotypes about what can and can’t be done at a certain age giving way to a new era of lifelong learning.
If this movement was so successful, what ever happened to Elderhostel? It turns out they’re still in full force, having re-branded as Road Scholar. Not all of their offerings are in dorm-style rooms and hostels anymore, and they’ve broadened their reach to Baby Boomers, but the non-profit continues to offer thousands of affordable experiential opportunities to older adults ranging from kayaking in Italy to cultural tours of Cuba to readily accessible courses at local community colleges through Life Long Learning Institutes (to find the nearest offering check out their resource network: http://www.lli.roadscholar.org/find-an-lli-near-you). They’ve also got a scholarship program, caregiver grants, and a plethora of niche offerings such as trips focused on solo female travelers.
Competitors in the senior travel space have arisen as a direct response to the ongoing successes of that groundbreaking experiment back in the summer of ’75. Today, older adults have a number of options to choose from. For one, seniors need not limit themselves to elder-focused groups, and can take part in inter-generational opportunities. Yet, for those seeking programming specifically designed to serve the needs of seniors, the options are now abundant. You can travel to Tibet, New Zealand or Peru with Smithsonian Journeys. They’ve also got programs closer to home, such as tours of an astrophysics lab in Arizona, or art tours along the coast of Maine. Check out Senior Summer School in Chicago, Vancouver or San Diego and take enriching classes, go on sightseeing excursions while saving money by staying at college campuses. Or set sail with the lifelong learning program at Semester at Sea to take classes, explore the world and mentor undergraduates.
It has been said that education is wasted on the young; how times have changed. Learners of all ages, inside and outside of the classroom, can now venture out and explore the world in unprecedented ways, thanks in large part to a not-for-profit group of visionaries that recognized the potential of America’s seniors.
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