Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is a health club for the aging brain



It is well known that aging is accompanied by varying rates and degrees of cognitive decline. However, neuroscience research has found that by staying physically, socially, and mentally active and engaged, we are able to mitigate or even reverse decline.
Here in the Twin Cities, we are fortunate to have a resource that offers highly participatory lifelong learning, as well as strong camaraderie and engagement. Best of all, it’s convenient to access from every corner of our metropolitan area.
The University of Minnesota Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, better known as OLLI, is a respected and vital part of the University’s College of Continuing and Professional Studies. Aimed at people over 55, everyone is welcome to join and participate.

Here’s a bit of history:
In 1977, Bernard Osher, business leader and philanthropist, founded his Bernard Osher Foundation to improve the quality of life by supporting higher education and the arts, funding colleges and universities across the country, with a focus on particular for students in reintegration. Investing significant funds through generous endowments, the foundation supports 125 lifelong learning programs on university and college campuses across the country, with at least one grantee in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. . Created in 1995, UMN’s OLLI has been recognized as an “exemplary lifelong learning program” by the foundation.
Despite the upheaval caused by the pandemic over the past few years, OLLI has managed to pivot and cope. There have been a few changes. The main office recently moved from its former location at the McNamara Alumni Center on UMN’s East Bank to its new home at Coffey Hall on the St. Paul campus.
OLLI’s new Director, Dr. Kathleen (Kate) Schaefers, also brings extensive experience, leadership, vision and passion to the position. We caught up virtually with Schaefers, a licensed psychologist, leadership coach, and educator, who served as AARP-MN’s Volunteer State Chair and a founding member of Nexel Collaborative, a consortium of higher education institutions exploring ways to to bring seniors back to campus. Schaefers graciously answered our questions:

OLLI has been called a “health club for the aging brain”, with extensive research devoted to how intellectual and social enrichment helps counter cognitive decline. What do you think of this as the new incoming general manager?
Healthy aging is more than physical. It’s about staying active and engaged, physically, mentally and socially. Staying curious and open to new learning opportunities is good for our brains, but also for our well-being as we age.
OLLI offers opportunities to learn and stay mentally sharp, but it’s so much more than that. As a learning community, OLLI members develop deep connections with others who share a passion for learning. OLLI members actively participate in discussions, explore common interests, contribute their talents and plan joint travel experiences. The Bottom Line: When we participate in learning activities that fully engage us, that invite us to actively participate and engage with others, we benefit on all levels.

What prompted you to take on the position of OLLI? What do you bring to the table?
I am inspired by people in my life who approached their later years with a sense of curiosity, determination, generosity, and joy. Each of them embraced life as learners and teachers, mentors and novices. They are my role models for living life to the fullest at any age. I find kindred spirits within the OLLI community, and I am honored to play a part in helping this community thrive.
I’ve spent the last decade of my career focusing on ways to harness the talents of an aging population for the greater good. As an educator, program administrator, researcher, and writer, I have focused my efforts on engaged aging, lifelong learning, and community building. Additionally, I am part of a network of people and organizations who see the potential in our aging population.

What impact have the last years of pandemic and quarantine had on our OLLI program?
Like everyone else, OLLI had to pivot in no time to convert our programming to virtual. We have moved from delivering 100% of our programming in person to delivering 100% online. With over 60 classes per term, that was no mean feat! We needed to train our instructors on how to teach in this way and help our members become familiar with using Zoom.
We were all so isolated, especially in those early days of the pandemic. For our members, who were part of a high-risk group, this was especially true for them. We had to creatively explore new ways to connect our members. We are proud of how OLLI has helped our members during these troubling and lonely times. We were a lifeline for our OLLI community.

During my time as an OLLI Instructor, there was a lot of talk that membership fees, now up to $300/year, are prohibitive for some Minnesota seniors. Is there anything offered to help defray costs and/or to subsidize less well-off citizens?
I’m so glad you asked! OLLI offers scholarships to help defray the costs of those in need, through the Miriam B. Seltzer Scholarship Fund. We welcome applications for this scholarship and will help make OLLI accessible and affordable for anyone who wants to join.
It’s also important to look at what you get for that annual fee. With four terms and over 60 courses offered each term, members have access to a plethora of learning opportunities. Additionally, members can join special interest groups and take advantage of other offers. There’s a lot of value that comes with an OLLI membership.

Tell us a bit about yourself: Childhood. School years. Education. Profession. Private life.
I grew up in a tight-knit community on the south side of Chicago. With seven children and a disabled father unable to work, money was scarce. Yet despite these challenges, we have thrived, in large part because of the support of our neighbors and our community. This first life experience anchored me and taught me the value of being part of a community.
In college, I had two majors: math (because I thought it was practical) and psychology (because I was fascinated by the field). On a whim, I applied for graduate school at the University of Minnesota and miraculously got accepted, so that’s what brought me to Minnesota. I fell in love with Minnesota and quickly fell in love with my husband, so the rest is history. We have been married for 34 years and raised our two daughters here.
I am trained as a psychologist (my doctorate is in counseling psychology), with a large part of my career in higher education: developing curricula, launching programs and supporting employees while they navigate leadership and career transitions. I have expertise in still careers and the intergenerational workplace.
My career is not a straight line and I am grateful for that. I’ve made career choices along the way that have taken me in directions I couldn’t have foreseen earlier in my career. I sometimes followed my heart and my instincts, and that opened up a world of opportunity for me.

As OLLI enters its spring term, what would you like our readers to know that we haven’t covered?
OLLI offers something for everyone – we have courses in arts, science and technology, social sciences and interdisciplinary fields. From the art of ancient Greece to the stories hidden in our genes, we offer a range of options each term (you can find our full OLLI course guide on our website). Our courses are delivered by an exceptional cadre of instructors who bring the topics to life for OLLI learners.
The OLLI community is welcoming! We have special interest groups that allow members to connect around their passions, like enjoying movies, sharing music or games, or even writing memoirs. There are many opportunities to meet people and develop new friendships through OLLI.
You can join OLLI at any time. We run four terms per year, with the Spring 2022 term beginning March 21. Our website is https://ccaps.umn.edu/olli

Author’s note: Classes and events have always been held throughout the metro area, but due to COVID-19 protocols, most offerings are now online. With Spring 2022 classes just getting started, there’s no better time to feed our hungry brains.
Good learning!

Susan Schaefer is a widely published freelance journalist, creative writer and poet. His articles appear in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, PBS’s online magazine, Next Avenue, Next Tribe and beyond. She was a columnist and editor for the Southwest Journal in Minneapolis and Minnesota Good Age magazine.


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