'All kinds of ways to grow older'

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PITTSFIELD — The majority of its members may be 65 and up, but the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College will be celebrating its 25th anniversary of supporting active adult learning and living in the Berkshires.

Better known as OLLI, it's a membership-fueled organization featuring forums, classes, volunteer opportunities, special interest learning and social groups, and other ways for "people 50 years old and better in the Berkshires," to stay engaged and intellectually stimulated in the region.

"We're exploding the stereotypes of aging," said OLLI at BCC Executive Director Megan Whilden. "Also, the studies show that when people think that getting older is bad, they feel that. But there are all kinds of ways to grow older, all kinds of things we can do."

To kick off this month's anniversary festivities, more than 30 artist-members and their fans gathered throughout the weekend at the Welles Gallery in the Lenox Library to commemorate the 10th annual OLLI Art Show — its largest collection of works and artists yet.

And on Thursday, OLLI will present a University Day of talks, workshops and activities titled, "Living Longer, Living Better: Changing the Culture of Aging." More than 120 people are already registered to attend, Whilden said. The event will be simulcast to WBUR-FM's CitySpace in Boston and to Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, making the topics accessible to almost anyone in the commonwealth.

According to the most recent state public health indicators, residents on average are living to 80 years and 8 months, which is about two years longer than the national life expectancy rate. In Berkshire County, while the youth population has declined, 40 percent of the population was 50 years of age or older according to the 2010 census. By 2030, 60 percent or more of residents in Berkshire communities will be over the age of 50, according to population projects published in 2015 by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

"Once you're over 65, you're lumped into the same category, but we all age differently," said Katherine Kidd, an OLLI member who heads the coordinating committee for the more than 20 "national and local trendsetters" for positive aging are scheduled to appear at University Day.

These speakers, which include acclaimed "anti-ageism advocate" Ashton Applewhite, will cover four main aspects of living well while growing older: civic engagement, aging in place at home, health care and social participation. Applewhite is the author of "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism," which dispels the myths that aging leads to "depression, diapers and dementia."

"OLLI's University Day will expose us to cutting edge ideas about how to take advantage of our extra years, about how institutions can be reshaped to serve older adults better, and about how elders can continue to contribute to their communities," Kidd said.

The ticketed event, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Berkshire Community College, also will feature a new photographic exhibit, "Creative Aging: 65 and Better in the Berkshires," displaying 25 portraits and biographies of local older adults, put together by a team of senior writers and photographers.

In the afternoon, the Voices ensemble, composed of participants ages 57-94, will perform narratives on aging.

"We're going to read pieces of prose, poetry and there will be people singing and talking about what aging means to them on a personal level as well as talking about ideas we hope for as we get older," said Will Singleton, an OLLI board member and instructor.

Active and aging

Singleton, 75, of Pittsfield, will take part this fall in a class on today's "hot topics," exploring the pros and cons of capitalism. He's previously facilitated another hot topics class on the pros and cons of affirmative action.

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"We want to encourage more older people to get involved and come to OLLI. One of the things we would like to do is to help people see OLLI is not just for people who have Ph.D.'s, but see OLLI as an opportunity for growth and enlightenment in the sense of learning more about different topics. This is a place where everyone can come and sit, listen, participate and learn," he said.

Whilden said she sees organizations like OLLI, the Age Friendly Berkshires initiative and Community Networks for Aging in Place being not only a social asset but an economic driver for the country.

"We can reach out to members' kids to encourage them to move here too," she said.

For newly elected OLLI President Barbara Lane, who has come to the Berkshires from Brooklyn, N.Y., the natural beauty and cultural opportunities have always been a draw to visit the region. She and her husband, Ed, first visited in 1969, and in the early 2000s, became "weekenders," she said.

It was during those visits and talking to newfound Berkshire friends that the couple was introduced to OLLI's preceding organization, the Berkshire Institute for Lifelong Learning, or BILL, which was founded in 1994.

"We joined it just to be supportive of it," she said. "I think we did go to one or two lectures, but I just felt it was something to support more than anything."

Lane, now 72, said she has always had a love for learning, and has always been interested in being involved on community boards and causes, from soup kitchens to being a court-appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children. Joining OLLI since moving to Stockbridge full time a few years ago, was a natural choice, she said.

"We, and so many friends our age, spend so much time thinking about how we can make our retirement a creative, stimulating and intellectual experience. We're always looking for ways to use the skills we've obtained over a lifetime in some kind of constructive way," she said.

Lane has taken a couple of courses related to women authors in recent years, and said the conversations generated within the classes keep her mind active.

"I love the fact that it was all the good parts of going to school, just being able to learn without having to worry about some blue book parable essay exam. I'm so terribly impressed with the lecturers themselves and the people we were meeting, which is half the enjoyment to me being an OLLI member," she said.

This spring's activities included an OLLI Volunteer Leadership Academy and presentation by CNN's chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta at its annual meeting. This fall's course offerings range from "The Housatonic River: Its Beauty and Challenges,' taught by a veteran leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club and Housatonic Valley Association, to "Great Decisions," a look at international policies and conflicts taught by a 26-year diplomat of the U.S. Foreign Service.

OLLI recently published a cookbook based on member-submitted recipes, and Lane said she hopes to establish new intergenerational programs and partnerships within the coming year.

"People in their 30s, 40s and 50s are going to be 55 and 75 sooner than they think," Singleton said.

"Knowing that you don't have to sit at home, that you don't have to wait for a crisis to get involved in city council activities, that you can get up and go to a meeting is important," he said. "Getting involved in activities makes you a better person, I think. You learn while you're giving back."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6239.


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