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WNC Business

Providing education and opportunities for retirees

Oct 07, 2023 01:51PM ● By Randee Brown

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Asheville was originally founded in 1988 as the NC Center for Creative Retirement. The program was established by former University of North Carolina at Asheville Chancellor Dave Brown, who noticed a significant influx of retirees moving to Western North Carolina and believed that this program could attract more people to the region.

In 2013, the program changed its name to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute after receiving endowments from the Osher Foundation. Philanthropist Bernard Osher, who grew up with active and engaged older adults at a Senior College in Southern Maine, started the first OLLI there in the early 2000s. While his goal was to establish at least two OLLIs in every state, there are currently over 125 OLLIs across the country, all of which are linked with universities to provide programming for older adults.

The Director of UNCA’s OLLI, Catherine Frank, PhD said there were more than 2,400 participants pre-pandemic, and in the summer of 2023 there were about 1,850. Operating fully online for an entire year opened up a “world of possibilities” that are still developing, including allowing some people to continue taking courses as they travel. She also said this program works as an economic development tool in many ways.

“Ninety-five percent of OLLI members have relocated here from other areas, and many have no long-term ties to the region,” Frank said. “People choose to relocate here because it’s beautiful and Asheville has a rich culture for its size, and there is excellent healthcare readily available. These people are buying houses, eating out, attending craft fairs and music and theater shows, all of which help to drive the economy all year long.”

Frank also highlighted how retirees moving to the area contribute to age diversity, creating a sense of inclusivity for older adults. “I moved here from Chapel Hill where it felt like you were old if you were over 25,” Frank said. “It feels good to see older adults active and engaged in various aspects of the community.”

OLLI offers a variety of classes and courses including topics like liberal arts, yoga and tai chi, history, and literature. There are also a variety of programs that help older adults become active in their communities as well as create meaningful friendships including College for Seniors, Leadership Asheville Seniors, and Fab Fridays.

Leadership Asheville Seniors was designed to create an interest in giving back from mid-career professionals who want to learn about the community and figure out how to contribute. Going into the 37th year of this program, Frank said there is not a nonprofit in town that hasn’t seen a volunteer from this group.

“They serve on city and county boards, on boards of various organizations, and participate in a variety of other ways,” Frank said. “Our members participate in RiverLink, Energy Savers Network, Guardian ad Litem, Habitat for Humanity, Asheville City Schools, and Manna Food Bank just to name a few. This is not only giving people a sense of purpose in their second half of life; they are really the unsung heroes and contributors in our communities.”

Unique to Asheville, this OLLI has offered and is working toward reinstating its Life Transitions programming. Held annually through 2020, an article in Parade magazine on the NC Center For Creative Retirement and these programs received more than 5,000 letters from interested individuals across the country. They created a Creative Retirement Exploration Weekend which attracts about 150 to Asheville annually and discusses issues in retirement including relocation to WNC and other locations.

Exploring Continuing Care Retirement Communities is another program offered by OLLI. This five-week program helps retirees navigate the wide range of retirement community options in the region and determine the best decision for that step when it becomes desired or necessary.

The Gift of Time program helps to normalize conversations about end-of-life considerations. This successful program helps to give people a sense of control and understanding of how to get advance plans in order as well as how to initiate conversations with family members about this phase of life.

“These programs are in place to reduce the fears surrounding retirement and aging,” Frank said. “These people are not withdrawing; they are learning how to use their time and their talents on their own terms. We are aware that many of our members are included in a privileged group of people who are mindful about how they spend their time, and we are working to think of ways to make these programs possible for everyone in this age category.”