February 1, 2007
Educational programs help seniors fulfill postponed dreams
Retirement brings with it the promise of time to pursue interests and passions postponed due to work and family pressures. But many retirees discover that fulfilling a dream requires replacing the old work-a-day discipline with a new structure.
Regardless of age or physical condition, intellectually curious seniors have many opportunities in the Los Angeles area to participate in an educational program that fits their needs in an enriching, stimulating and affordable environment.
In the Los Angeles area, lifelong learning programs such as PLATO, SAGE and OASIS each provide a framework for mature men and women in search of new challenges and new friendships with like-minded people. These college-based programs vary widely in their approach, so selecting the organization best suited to your needs and aspirations is important.
The PLATO Society of UCLA is the best known and most prestigious of learning programs for seniors in Los Angeles. PLATO, an acronym for Perpetual Learning and Teaching Organization, is an independent, self-financed program under the auspices of UCLA Extension.
Founded in 1980, PLATO has a membership of about 420 men and women, mostly in their 60s and 70s. Several members are significantly younger, like the woman who left PLATO to have a baby, while others are older, like Seba Kolb-Tomkins, who answered the mail for Eleanor Roosevelt's syndicated "My Day" column.
PLATO is not a lecture series and features no instructors. Instead, the program offers what it calls "study/discussion groups," or S/DGs, which deal with a wide range of subjects.
Each group generally features 14 participants, and a different member is responsible for making a presentation and leading the discussion during each weekly meeting. Among current PLATO members are former lawyers, doctors, teachers, professors, psychotherapists, journalists, business executives and artists, as well as a one-time ballerina and a flight attendant. Regardless how accomplished they were in their careers, "members leave their titles at the door" and are addressed by first names only.
The curriculum is planned by a coordinator and a co-coordinator -- any PLATO member willing to devote the time and energy can become a coordinator -- and the subjects are limited only by the members' interests. Topics can range from astronomy to zoology.
Among the 26 different subjects currently offered are "A Matter of Opinion," which examines the way the media influences national policies; "Middle East Quagmire: Part I -- Zionist Thought"; "Shakespeare Then and Now," comparing the original plays with their treatment in films and musicals; and "Natural-Born Killers," which studies earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
PLATO follows the UCLA academic calendar, which is divided into three 14-week semesters. A new selection of S/DGs is offered each semester, although some of the more popular topics may occasionally be repeated. There are no formal requirements for membership in the PLATO Society beyond intellectual curiosity and a willingness to devote the time necessary for meaningful participation. Annual dues are $425, and members may audit UCLA classes with the permission of the instructor.
For many members, PLATO plays a very significant role in their lives. A retired advertising executive who lost his wife to cancer said that PLATO saved his life, and a former Philadelphia broadcaster said, "It provided access to like-minded people when we first arrived in L.A."
Although not intended to be a social organization, PLATO has also helped a number of single and widowed members to establish new relationships. In addition to the groups, the society offers a variety of special programs and benefits, such as monthly lectures from distinguished speakers such as LAPD Chief William Bratton; Frank McCourt, author of "Teacher Man" and "Angela's Ashes," and L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahoney.
An annual conference regularly addresses a topic of vital concern (this year PLATO is scheduled to examine the state of health care in America), and a special three-day retreat at an off-campus residential setting during spring break provides society members with an informal learning experience.
The PLATO Society is located at 1083 Gayley Ave., adjacent to the UCLA campus in Westwood. For more information, visit uclaextension.org/plato or call (310) 794-0231.
Seniors who are most comfortable taking classes with professional instructors may find OASIS to their liking.
OASIS is a national educational nonprofit founded in 1982 by educator Marylen Mann and Margie Wolcott May of the May department store family. The program is currently available in 27 cities nationwide.
In Los Angeles, the chapter is sponsored by a variety of partners, including Jewish Family Service (JFS), the city of Los Angeles Department of Aging and Encino-Tarzana Medical Center.
Centers are located at the Westside Pavilion Macy's and Pierce College in Woodland Hills, offering classes like "Conversational Hebrew," "The Book of Genesis," "Darfur: A Genocide in Slow Motion and a Call to Action for the Community," "Wish You Were Here: A Panorama of Jewish Resorts, Vacation Spots and Travel" and "Meet Howard Rosenberg: Pulitzer Prize-Winning TV Critic," as well as travel programs and courses in arts (digital photography, poetry), fitness (tai chi, lawn bowling, Polynesian dance) and business (mutual fund investing, preventing fiduciary elder abuse).
Satellite locations include the JFS Valley storefront in North Hollywood and Jewish Family Service's Pico-Robertson storefront.
"We take OASIS to the community for those who can't come to us" said Claude Klein, JFS' OASIS director.
While membership in OASIS is free, modest fees ranging from $16 to $38 are charged for participation in classes, each taught by professionals, experts in their respective area. OASIS members may enroll in courses or take individual classes at USC Emeriti College for $5 per class. The OASIS travel program offers tours to Williamsburg and Washington, D.C, Spain and major Canadian cities.
OASIS members tend to be active, older adults, mostly women in their 70s. According to Irene Serata, a long-time ballet teacher and veteran member, "OASIS became one of the highlights of my later years. They're a wonderful group of people."
For more information, call (310) 475-4911, press 1 and then ext. 2200.
In 1987, the SAGE Society was founded under the aegis of CSUN. SAGE, an acronym for Study, Activity, Growth, Enrichment, is based on the pattern established by PLATO but is smaller in size, with 170 members, and less rigorous in the demands placed on its members. The SAGE program consists of three 10-week and one seven-week session per year, and is based on participation in study/discussion groups. Among the 14 subjects currently offered are: "Famous Violinists of the Past & Present," "Supreme Court Decisions" and "Censorship: It's Not Just Book Burning!"
Like PLATO, SAGE also offers occasional colloquia, an annual retreat and field trips to area museums, parks and libraries.
There are no prerequisites for SAGE membership. The annual fee is $225 for individuals and $400 for couples. Discussion groups meet in classrooms at the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & St. Charles in Granada Hills.
For more information, visit exlweb.csun.edu/sage/ or call (818) 831-5064.
Peter L. Rothholz, who headed his own Manhattan-based public relations agency, now lives in Santa Monica and East Hampton, N.Y., and is a frequent contributor to Jewish publications.