‘Lifelong learning at its finest’: As an institute moved online, a 90-year-old student dutifully followed

OLLI members during a group trip to the Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford. (Courtesy OLLI)
OLLI members during a group trip to the Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford. (Courtesy OLLI)

Advanced age always carries a risk of isolation. And pandemic restrictions only made that more of a concern.

But hundreds of “lifelong learners” have found a social lifeline through a local educational resource — one worth the trouble of setting up Zoom at home for.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston is one of 125 such centers in operation across the country. Three others are affiliated with other Massachusetts institutions: Tufts, Brandeis and Berkshire Community College.

The institutes — established in 2001 by the Bernard Osher Foundation — aim to serve adults over 50 with a wide array of academic courses. History is always popular, but participants also love classes on the arts and food, and gather together for local field trips.

One of the institute’s most enthusiastic participants is John Cheney of Rockland.

The 90-year-old has participated in the program for the last 10 years. “The thing that amazed me about it is it challenged me mentally to do things that I never thought of doing: just being able to write poetry,” Cheney said. “Or to fall in love with the opera — which was never part of my growing-up experience” on the South Shore.

All of that learning came with a social component, too, Cheney said: “In addition to the courses, I’ve made a tremendous amount of new friends.”

When the institute was forced to suspend its in-person classes in the spring of 2020, all of that was put at risk.

But Cheney, like many of his classmates, had good reasons to embrace the temporary transition to remote learning.

Now largely confined to a wheelchair, he no longer drives, and relies on his wife to occasionally bring him from his home in Rockland to in-person courses at UMass Boston, or at the institute’s off-site locations at the public libraries in Braintree and Hingham.

Cheney still misses the “camaraderie” of in-person classes he used to attend more regularly. And at his age, he said, “to master the intricacies of the computer is itself a challenge.”

But the remote alternative, he said, is a lot more convenient — and sustains vital social connections to classmates and teachers: “You can see them, you can chat with them. … We can exchange all kinds of interesting concepts and ideas.”

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute members gather for a remote course offering. (Courtesy OLLI)
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute members gather for a remote course offering. (Courtesy OLLI)

Hundreds of Zoom trainings

Institute director Jim Hermelbracht and his staff held over 350 training sessions on how to use Zoom to help members make the virtual leap. Even still, enrollment declined — from 1,100 before the pandemic to around 660 now. “The thought of online learning wasn’t appealing to a lot of folks. Then many didn’t have the technology — the access to email, or even a computer at home,” Hermelbracht said.

Nevertheless, the director sees the past three years as a success story. The retention of most members, he said, felt like “lifelong learning at its finest: not only learning new knowledge, but also a way to learn new skills.”

Meanwhile, Cheney has become an evangelist for the hybrid educational work of the institute. “My physical container may be deteriorating, but if I can keep this pea-brain of mine functioning, then I feel as though I’ve accomplished something,” he said.

Cheney now serves on the institute’s volunteer committees for outreach and curriculum. (The institute loves him back; for his 90th birthday this fall, fellow members and staff surprised him and his wife at their home.)

Hermelbracht and the outreach committee have already laid out a goal for 2023: to build their membership back up to 1,000 members — nearly its pre-pandemic high.

That could mean expanding to new community groups and learning sites, including inside the city of Boston, Hermelbracht said.

Meanwhile, Cheney says, the group is sending a holiday mailer to former members who unenrolled during the pandemic: “It’s just a simple letter, [saying] that we have not forgotten about you, and we hope you will consider rejoining in the new year.”


Headshot of Max Larkin

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin was an education reporter for WBUR.



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