CATALYST v24n1 - Sharing Memories: Actualized Education for the 50+ Population

Volume XXIV, Number 1
Winter 1994

Patricia McIlvain
Sharing Memories, Inc.
Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

Joseph St. George
Sharing Memories, Inc.
Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

Today, in this country, a statement like Actualized Education for the 50+ Population is probably an oxymoron, especially if one is using actualized as it is defined in Mazlow's Hierarchies. At most colleges, particularly community colleges, programs for older adults are becoming an important and growing part of the course offerings. Many colleges and universities do an outstanding job of providing educational enrichment and exposure to new activities for older adults and are rightfully proud of their Lifelong Learning, Emeritus, or Seniors programs. There are extensive offerings and large numbers of students enrolled. But if we were to characterize the large majority of these offerings they would be inward oriented. The focus is on the individual, on her or his pleasure and happiness. Very few of these offerings parallel those provided to undergraduates and continuing education students who are expected to take courses with the objective of using their new skills to achieve significant goals in their lives.

We do not mean to denigrate anyone; but, we would like to list a few offerings from one college catalog--one that is not too atypical--and ask you to think about the focus. Are the offerings inward focused to the individual's pleasure and well--being or outward focused to the individual's role in society?

The Living Body: Fun..damental Biology Adventures in Self--Discovery; Travel Smart; American Artists Speak; All About Computers

In all probability, your college offers classes like these, plus yoga, golf, bowling, and bridge. They are probably excellent courses. But, our question, the thrust of this piece, is should colleges like yours consider a different approach to education for the 50+ community? Should you design programs to train 50+ adults to undertake significant new activities, new roles, new responsibilities? To make them look outward at what they can contribute? To feel a responsibility to make ongoing contributions to their communities and society?

You are experts at training 18-- to 22--year--olds to take a responsible place in society. You are also experts at retraining adults to take expanded responsibilities or start new careers. You actualize education for both of these groups. Why are your objectives so different for members of that 30% of the U.S. population who are 50+, who are physically able, who have valuable experience, and who, all too often, are idle?

The changes we are suggesting are based on our observations, and our experiences over the past two years with a course offering, a product, called Sharing Memories. Sharing Memories is a program designed to get older adults to use a personal computer as a vehicle for writing memoirs, family histories, biographies, or similar material with the final objective of producing bound books for distribution among family members. It requires a commitment to spend months or years to achieve a result that will benefit their children, grandchildren, other family members, even libraries and historical societies.

We do not claim expertise in gerontology or education. However, we have developed a certain number of insights since we are dealing with 50+ people and educational institutions from coast to coast. Some of what we have learned from this is hands--on experience, street smarts if you will, combined with some concepts that seem to be emerging, may be helpful to you in judging how to work with the 50+ population.

Demographics of the 50+ Population
As a starting point some statistics may be useful. Within the 55+ population segment people in between the ages of 55 and 74 total 39.3 million. They are 15.6% of the total population. [1] This group is twice as large as the undergraduate pool and, as everyone knows, it is growing rapidly. Looked at another way, the US 55+ population is twice the size of the entire population of Canada. [2]

Since we are going to spend much of this piece discussing people in this 50+ population segment, it may be valuable to discuss how they are characterized. Are words like old, ill, idle, poor, pensioners, nursing home, retirement community, golf, bingo, drunks, intellectually confused or, economic drag on society often associated with them? Do words like these define how government and politicians perceive them? How business perceives them? How other population segments perceive them? How educators perceive them? Is this how they perceive themselves? What is reality in this demographic segment?

These older people are good prospects for cruise lines, for nursing home,s and for mausoleums. What about education? Are educators giving to, and getting the most from, this 50+ group? Are they worth more serious educational cultivation, or is it just charity work? In the context of Mazlow's Hierarchies, does it make sense to actualize education to 50+ Americans, to offer them challenges, to train them for new "careers"? Look at some additional data about this group and compare it to the stereotypes. Once again, there is probably nothing here that is new to you.

Poverty - The media, politicians, and the advocate groups certainly make it appear that old folks are living in poverty, hanging on by a thread and constantly dependent on government handouts and charity. Right?

There certainly are poor Americans in the 50+ group, as there are people in every segment of the population. But, 1990 Census data says 49.6% of the 55- to 64-year-olds have incomes in excess of $25,000 as do 22.5% of the 65+ group. Actually, there are more than 12 million 50+ people in this country with incomes in excess of $50,000.

Net worth is total assets minus total debt. The Census says the median net worth of the 55 to 64 age group is $292,500. The 65- to 74-year--olds' median net worth falls off to a mere $278,300 while the folks in the 75+ group are all the way down to $194,500. This means that 50% of each of these groups have a net worth that exceeds the amounts quoted here. Stated slightly differently, AARP's Modern Maturity magazine calculates that the 50+ group constitutes 35% of the U.S. population but they control 43% of the country's disposable income.

While most of you are burdened with mortgages, car payments, and balances on your Visa Cards, the 50+ group has little debt--almost no payments to make. Seventy--five percent have no debt at all. [3] Consider: How many people do you know who are helping support poverty stricken parents? By contrast, do you know anyone whose 50+ parents are helping them financially--helping make a down payment on a house or helping pay for a grandchild's college education? Which group do you think is larger? It certainly appears that the stereotype that the older population is poor is far from accurate. And, if that stereotype isn't accurate how many others are true?

Very few of the 50+ population are in ill health. While AZ, AK, FL, NC, SC, and other states have pumped up their economies by attracting these older folks, very few of them live in nursing homes and retirement communities. There is no evidence that they are mentally impaired. Some of them play golf and too many of them drink too much. We'll come back to this last item a little later.

The stereotypes regarding old people have been around for a thousand years or more. If, as it appears, these stereotypes are wrong why are they so pervasive? In the first place, they were not always wrong. For most of the millennia since mankind became "civilized," many of the familiar stereotypes were true. They were based on a largely agrarian society--where life expectancies were shorter--where there was no such thing as retirement or social security--where people who no longer worked were, indeed, frail, ill, and very often an economic burden on families and society. (Prior to "civilization" when we were hunter--gatherers, if you could no longer contribute your share you were turned out to die. You must remember stories about the fate of old people among some Native American societies, even a few hundred years ago.)

The change in demographic reality is a key point of our treatise. Until very recently, many of the stereotypes were true. The new reality of older people is, comparatively, very recent. Basically, the change in the 50+ group is a post WWII phenomenon and to some extent perception has not caught up with reality.

Characteristics & Self-Perceptions
What is the new reality? Today, by age 55, or shortly thereafter, many Americans are "retired." Two thirds of the population retire by age 65. The median age for retirement is 60.6, which means that half the population retires earlier. [4] Some of these people retire willingly and happily. Some retire reluctantly, unwillingly. Many of these retired people still have as much as one third of their lives to live. Healthy, alert air line pilots have mandatory retirement at 60. Many corporations and governments require or seek retirement at 62 or 65. Early retirement programs make the news every day as organizations reduce expenses by getting rid of higher paid older employees. Actuarial calculations result in the costs of insurance programs, health plans and benefit programs being higher for older employees.

To quote Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post,

"Government policies herd anyone over 65 into a protected class, taxed lightly and discouraged from working." [5] It is probably this kind of thinking and policy that conspires to push older people out of the work force and continues the myth of poor, ill, frail "old" people.

A gold watch, a farewell party, and off you go. If you are in the 50+ age bracket new jobs are usually very hard to find--if you want a job. No one wants to employ you. Interestingly, the more successful you have been, the more important the position you have achieved, the more difficult it becomes to find comparable post 50 employment.

One day you are an active contributor to an organization and to the economy. The next day you are embarked on a new life--a life of leisure, lots of leisure. Relax, travel, play golf, enjoy the grandchildren, and maybe drink a lot.

But, maybe the grandchildren live hundreds or thousands of miles away. How much golf can anyone play? All day, every day? Even rich folks usually can't afford to travel all the time and maybe, just maybe, they get bored. Think of the "Mall Walkers" phenomenon.

What impact does this change in their life have on their self-perception? On their mental health? On their physical health? Maybe some of the stereotypes we discussed earlier, stereotypes that don't seem to be based on fact, are the ones that many older people have of themselves or at least feel that others have of them. If much of the leisure the 50+ population is "enjoying" is forced, maybe it helps explain the fact that the most common disease of the older population is alcoholism. Is drinking the escape mechanism of otherwise healthy, bored, people who don't have enough to do?

A classic example of the impact of retirement is seen in the "high powered" Type A executive or manager who is used to being so busy he or she never had time to cultivate hobbies and interests outside of work. Forced out at age 55 or so, many may not survive even a few years of retirement. Without purpose and focus in their lives, the change literally kills them.

Alternative Lifestyle Options
Obviously, generalizations fare dangerous, and are never completely true. Just as not everyone in the 50+ group is poor or ill, neither is everyone in the group "out to pasture" and bored. Not everyone stops being active and making contributions to society. There are numerous examples of "retired" people who are anything but retired. Here are a few examples that came to mind:

Fritz H. - Fritz was a successful corporate attorney who retired at 65. Within a couple of years, he was deeply involved in the Nature Conservancy. He had skills, intelligence, experience, time, and enthusiasm. He made significant contributions, gained national recognition, and had a great time. At 80 he has begun to slow down.

Marguerite H. - Marguerite raised eight children and still had time to do volunteer work. When the children were out of the house, mostly, she had more time available. Today she spends full time running the volunteer program for a significant hospital. Marguerite is a mere kid in her early 60s.

John P. - John spent his commercial career marketing toys. After a conventional retirement he became a consultant to toy marketers. John has cousins in Lithuania with whom he maintained some contact through the Cold War years. Today, he spends a large part of his time in Lithuania helping those people learn to live and prosper in a market society. John is 70+.

Paul G. - Paul spent his career in a manufacturing company. He was retired at 65 to a well-earned life of leisure. Despite many interests and hobbies he was anything but a happy man. Because his family came from Czechoslovakia and he had some familiarity with the language, he accepted a three-month assignment to help companies in the Czeck Republic convert to and survive in the market economy. He has been there almost full time for two years and is having the time of his life. Paul is 68.

Patty G. - Patty lived a very active life as a housewife and mother and was chairman of the Garden Club, the Hospital Thrift Shop, and all the things women did before two career families were common. She decided at age 55 to return to school and has received her Masters in Drug and Alcohol Counseling to work with families of alcoholics. Patty is 60.

Larry S. - Larry spent his career in the foreign service, most of it overseas in some of the most difficult areas of the Cold War confrontation. Encouraged to retire at age 60, he returned to college, got a Masters in Education and is teaching history in a southern college. His students get the benefit of experience and insights that exist in no books. Larry is happily active with the knowledge that he continues to contribute to our country. Larry is 65.

Perhaps these people are exceptions. We have selected them because each of them has consciously elected to undertake an entirely new career after "retirement." Certainly, they are all self--motivated. For none of them is additional money a significant objective. For all of them, the real consideration is the need to continue to be contributing members of society.

The central question, the focus of this treatise is, Can we, should we, try to make people like Fritz, Marguerite, Paul, Patty, and Larry the standard rather than the exception? Would individuals benefit from a change like this? Would the country benefit? Would your colleges benefit? What would happen in the U.S. if, on average, people in the 50+ age group came to believe that, after they retired, they were expected to give something back to society, to pursue activities not primarily to produce income but to make a contribution? While they might do it with somewhat less intensity than when they had pursued their former careers, they would continue to contribute. What would be the impact?

Is it possible that having millions of experienced, motivated, able people spending time trying to contribute something to the world around them might become a gigantic revitalizing force? After all, as Ann Smith, president of the National Association of Foster Grandparents said, "Older people are the only increasing natural resource in this country." [6]

A Possible Course of Action
Is there an opportunity for institutions of higher education to make a major contribution to a conceptual change? If you actively pursue the concept of actualization in education for older adults could you become a critical element in such a social revolution?

Our Sharing Memories course is, to some degree at least, actualized education. It asks older adults to learn new skills, and deal with new technology, to undertake a significant project--to write a book that will preserve heritage and roots for their families. It represents an effort that could last for years. Sharing Memories represents a current example of education directed to the concept that older adults have a responsibility to continue to contribute to society. It is the area in which we have first-hand experience. We have been at it almost two years. What have we learned?

First, we haven't had writer's by the thousands storm our doors. So far, lots of people don't want to make the necessary effort. Many of them believe no one will care. Some don't believe they can do it. Almost no one we have talked to has expressed the concept that it is their responsibility to undertake this endeavor for future generations. However, there is a significant group that is responsive. We are working with many, many people who are old only in years--one is 89--who are busily writing and are focused on an endeavor that may be meaningful a hundred years from now.

Second, the perception of "poor old people" has led to the automatic assumption that Senior should get things free or at big discounts. "Oldsters" have been convinced it is their due. They should get a discount at the local hardware store, a discount that a 30-year-old with three kids and a big mortgage will not get. But, as many of you know, there is a down side to this

paternalistic approach. It may seem very humanitarian and make wonderful politics, but. . .

In Virginia, seniors may take college courses free, on a space available basis. What is the impact? It is almost impossible for a VA college to offer a course directed to seniors since they cannot charge for it. In other states the situation is similar, if not quite as drastic. As a result, courses for older people cannot carry their share of the cost and are severely restricted, or the first to go, when cuts are mandated.

College funding and priorities are directed to full time, degree-seeking students. That is perfectly reasonable. We certainly want to give the 18 to 22 year olds every chance to get the skills they need. This is also true for the people taking continuing education credit courses. Assets go to courses that train students for real purposes--getting jobs, enhancing careers, generating revenue--actualized education. Noncredit is nice but...

As a result, Sharing Memories is not being offered at some interested community colleges because noncredit courses have no access to personal computers. While this can be defended as logical, it is not much help to seniors who want to actualize, who may want to do family histories, a biography, learn to use a computer, save their tales for future generations.

We have seen a positive side, with some real successes. Colleges from the tip of Florida to the coast of Washington are offering Sharing Memories successfully. The number of colleges offering the course grows every semester and the responses from students are exciting. Older people are writing books and publishing them for their families. This particular example of actualized education for older citizens does work when it is given the opportunity and is properly presented. It is enriching the lives of the people who take the course by enabling them to focus on doing something for later generations. It is also doing more.

The Sharing Memories program, young as it is, has attracted a great deal of media attention. There has been national coverage. Colleges that offer the course report significant press response locally. Is it because everyone is amazed that "old codgers" can write a memoir? We think not. We believe that spokespersons, the press, and the public are beginning to reassess the image of the older generation and society's expectations of these people. Maybe some of the 50+ group are reassessing themselves as well. We may be viewing the beginning of a significant social change. Look at a few examples:

Betty Friedan has certainly received a great deal of attention for her new book, The Fountain of Age.

Bernard J. Samuelson, again, referring to the aging Baby Boomers stated, "We can't afford to have such a huge portion of our adult population dependent and unproductive." [7]

Matilda White Riley, Boettner Research Institute, "...if the twentieth century has been the era of increasing longevity, the twenty--first century will be the era of social opportunities for older people to age in new and better ways. [8]

Mr. Samuelson. "Most older Americans should not pass abruptly from 'work' into 'retirement'. It isn't good for them or the country. They resent being forced into enforced retirement and society, we need their experience. [9]

Yes, maybe there is a change in the wind.

What Makes it Difficult to Attract 50+ Students
to Actualized College Courses?
The fact that we may be seeing the beginning of a major social change doesn't mean that older people are rushing, like lemmings, to join the parade. Today, many may not see themselves as needing to learn or be active. They have finished making contributions to society, society doesn't "want" them any more. Sixty four percent consider themselves alienated from the power structure. [10]

Many do want to learn new skills. Sixty one percent of seniors are learning to use computers [11] and often these are the most popular courses for people in this age bracket. But society hasn't given them something to do, a contribution to make, with their newly learned skills.

We have often encountered a reluctance to commit. There is interest in doing family history but the task is perceived as too much to undertake. Or, "I have all these papers; but, I can't be bothered to go further," or, "I don't know how to get them into something meaningful, I need help with the organization and writing."

How Colleges Attract 50+ Students to Sharing Memories
To date we have found that the colleges that do the following have had the greatest success attracting students to our "actualized" courses. They have used special articles in newspapers featuring "new" courses, describing the course and the end result--a specific reward for the person and others in society. We provide them with a complete Press Kit to facilitate this process. Broadcast media are also very responsive. Once local interest has been generated, each class offers new opportunities for "human interest" stories.

Utilizing historical societies, genealogical groups/societies, even clubs and libraries to spread the word about a Sharing Memories course has proved very beneficial. It is a typical example of taking the promotion to where persons interested in a particular topic might be found.

As a whole, Sharing Memories demonstrates that, properly handled, a program that actualizes education for older adults can work and can produce results. But, Sharing Memories is a drop in the bucket. Alone, it will never "actualize" the 50+ population. If there is to be a significant social change there will need to be much, much more.

And so, the critical question.

Should Colleges - Your College -
Consider an Actualized 50+ Focus?
Education has always been seen as a primary vehicle for intellectual and social change. It appears that, today, colleges and universities have an opportunity to make an important new contribution. First, colleges have the chance to help society's and government's perception of the 50+ population by demonstrating a new reality. There is the chance to effect the recognition by the citizens of the U.S. that people in this age group have many active, healthy years left in which to continue to make significant contributions for the good of us all; and, that the 50+ group has the "responsibility" to continue to make contributions that provide ongoing benefits for and to mankind. Education can change the perceptions of the population, over time, about those who are 50+ and older.

Second, you have a golden opportunity to begin offering courses, and possibly curricula that will bring about the changes suggested. There is a need for innovative courses that allow 50+ individuals to take their knowledge and use it outside of the classroom for the benefit of others.

These people, just as teenagers and other students, gain support and encouragement from "peers" and an instructor--from a classroom environment. This support is a unique attribute of educational institutions like yours. You can give the 50+ group an opportunity to select among options, learn new skills, and practice skills before continuing on their own.

There may be excellent opportunities to work with government and social organizations to develop community-wide programs and get grants and funding that target social contributions and emotional wellness among the 50+ group by means of actualization through education. Industry would also probably be willing to support courses on actualized retirement, focusing not only on the conventional learning about financial and health aspects, but also focusing on the psychological and sociological aspects of continuing to be an active contributing member of society.

Perhaps you can create a new "transition" tract involving education for people leaving the work force. This might be started with a concept such as "meaningful volunteering." AARP in its Closeup article of the August--September 1993 issue, indirectly makes the point for "educating" a person for volunteerism. Your program could start with helping the "soon to be retired" identify their areas of interest, gain positive perceptions of their self--worth as retirees, identify areas in which particular skills are needed, and take courses providing the skills needed to fulfill these roles.

A combination of these activities would, conceptually, be colleges truly actualizing education for the 50+ group.

If enough colleges undertake such a new approach, it will mean that we have changed our perception of the 50+ population; we have recognized their and society's need for them to continue to be contributing citizens; and, we have taken important steps to change rhetoric into action--Actualization.

And, perhaps, Sharing Memories will have played a tiny part.

[1]1990 U.S. Census. Total U.S. Population 252.7 million.

[2]Fact Book on Aging. Elizabeth Vierck.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]The Washington Post, Nov. 25, l992. Column by Robert J. Samuelson, Aging, Economic Aspects. pA17, col.3.

[6]Butler, F.F. (June/July, 1991). ____________ a Natural Resource. Aging Today, the Bimonthly Newspaper of the American Society on Aging, 12(3), 11.

[7]The Washington Post. Nov. 25, l992, pA 17, Column 3.

[8]Boettner Lecture, 1990, Aging in the Twenty-first Century. Matilda White Riley. pA 3.

[9]Samuelson. Ibid.

[10]Vierck. Ibid.

[11]Vierck. Ibid.

Tracy Gilmore