Elderhostel living: Going back to school to retire

In 1971 Marty Knowlton filled a backpack full of clothes and began a 4-year walking tour through Europe. Using the youth hostel system of staying in low cost housing, a cheap railroad pass, and his feet, he experienced the informal education experience of a lifetime. When he returned to the states he meet up with David Bianco, who at that time was the director of residential life at the University of New Hampshire, and shared his experience.

David wanted to find a way to use the campus facilities during the summer and Marty wanted to find a way to create low cost, less formal educational experiences for people. In the summer of 1975 over 220 participants descended upon the University of New Hampshire campus and the Elderhostel was born. By 1980, Elderhostel’s had expanded to all 50 states, with over 20,000 participants. Today this systems of informal learning has expanded to 150 countries. These experiences combine travel with education, creating an educational experience driven by the idea learning by doing, we now call experiential learning.

The value of lifelong learning, both through social and intellectual engagement, can be found in the battle against Alzheimer’s disease. Today, every 67 seconds someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s with over 5.3 million Americans of all ages currently suffering from it. At a cost of $226 billion annually this expense is expected to rise to $1.1 trillion by 2050. Research has shown that a balance of healthy foods, exercise, and living with less stress are key components of preventing the occurrence of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. This same research identifies the high value of consistent brain stimulation through social and intellectual action.

Elderhostels were created on a university campus as a way to provide unique hands-on learning experiences for participants of all ages. University campuses, recognizing the needs of our aging baby boomers, are now piloting campus retirement communities. They have set up full functioning villas on campus for retirees. Residents have access to campus facilities such as libraries, fitness facilities, while also getting discounted tickets to sporting events and campus food services. Some campuses are also offering reduced tuition to take courses while others are offering free instruction.

The pioneers of these campus retirement communities are Penn State, University of Florida, and University of Texas at Austin. Others have created unique living experiences adjacent to their campuses such as the University Commons in Ann Arbor, allowing aging adults to have all the services available on campus, yet allowing for a bit more serenity than what you would experience on campus.

Our society places a very high value on knowledge and expertise. Often when individuals retire, they take this acquired knowledge with them, ceasing to share it with others for mutual benefit. Dementia occurs when an individual ceases to stay active intellectually, socially and physically. Campus retirement communities bring the ideas learned in Elderhostels to future generations. Interaction with young students through these adjacent communities is a unique way to pass on this valued acquired knowledge, while still enjoying the activity of the mind and soul in retirement.

Steve Patchin is director of career services at Michigan Technological University.