Florida university reaches out to seniors

Posted: Tuesday, March 12, 2002

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ham Hutchinson is reveling in the past and loving it.

For two hours every Friday, he can be found in a college course called ''History of the United States: 1945-1963.''

What makes the class even more attractive to the 89-year-old Hutchinson is where it is held. He never has to leave the comfort of his retirement village to find a mental challenge.

When officials at the University of South Florida decided to reach out to seniors, they offered the 10-week course at the University Village Retirement Center. One hundred and twenty-five students signed up -- five times the number expected.

Enrollment surpassed many campus classes.

''It was gang busters,'' said Lee Leavengood, assistant director at the university's Institute on Aging. ''We were amazed at the response.''

The class meets in an auditorium, where pushed against the wall are wheelchairs and walkers.

''It keeps your mind active. You get tired of just reading novels,'' said Hutchinson, a 1934 Penn State graduate who retired from the ship building industry in Chester, Pa.

''Most of us here think of history as before the Spanish American War and they talk about history after World War II,'' he added.

Shown on a large screen on stage are videotaped lectures of the war years, consumerism of the 1950s, racial integration, class structure in America and national politics during the terms of presidents Harry S. Truman through Lyndon B. Johnson. Discussion groups follow.

Although the USF campus is only a few miles away, taking a course there would be inconvenient for 87-year-old Flossie Uzenoff. The retirement center has bus service to USF and the school offers separate registration for seniors. But Uzenoff uses a walker and a cane to get around and would find it difficult to manipulate the campus.

''This is a great opportunity. We're so lucky,'' said the retired high school Spanish teacher and one-time government foreign service worker.

At 84, Lucy Futhey had another reason for taking a history class.

''I'm attracted to the course because I've lived through it,'' said Futhey, who comes from a college-educated family dating back to her great grandparents. Her late husband taught at USF's College of Business.

University Village is an upscale progressive care retirement complex for 600 people ages 60 and older. It offers apartments for independent living through nursing home care.

The average age is mid-70s. Couples account for 60 percent of the population, which is mostly retired professionals.

The complex is owned by Westport Senior Living Community of West Palm Beach, which partnered with USF to take the college-level humanities course off campus and into a retirement home.

''It's based on a fundamental belief: 'Use it or lose it,''' said Bruce Rosenblatt, a marketing director. ''We want to stimulate people in many ways and mentally is one of them. The people who live here are well spoken, well educated, well traveled, current and have opinions.''

The course was put together with a $13,600 grant and offered under USF's tuition-waiver program, a 20-year-old statewide program allowing senior citizens to take regular college courses free on campus on a space available basis.

The course was adapted from a popular class offered younger students on campus. Fifty students enrolled last fall.

''This was a good way to reach out to those who cannot come,'' Leavengood said.

''It meets the need of people who want to continue to grow and to learn and inspires them to continue doing that. It also helps us to understand how we can meet future needs of seniors,'' she said.

Graduate students put together a workbook and trained peer volunteers to lead discussion groups. The course has drawn the disabled, those slowed by age and others who find the setting convenient.

The university's Tampa campus is surrounded by four counties where the mean age is over 55. The area has one-third of Florida's skilled nursing facilities and a growing number of assisted living facilities and continuing care communities.

After this program ends in March, USF will offer ''Art of the Western World,'' which was previewed last semester at Freedom Village, a retirement community 45 miles south in Bradenton.

In the meantime, the university will evaluate the distance-learning history course, the response and feedback to develop future courses.

''There are no downsides in encouraging people to remember and relive events they helped shape,'' said Kathryn Hyer, director of USF's Training Academy on Aging and principal investigator for the course.

When the class breaks into smaller groups of about 25 people each, seniors share their experiences of bygone days and discuss whether they agree with how events are portrayed to younger students.

Abner Firestone, 87, joined the second class on Feb. 1 after a neighbor came back from the first session raving about the course. It took just one class and Abner, a retired American Airlines executive from Glen Cove, N.Y., decided he would be a regular.

''We were recalling what we went through -- most of what we had forgotten living in a place like this where they take care of maintenance, serve you meals and offer you a swimming pool,'' he said.

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