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Elderhostel Organization Grows, Changes as More People Enter Golden Years - 2003-05-25

Traveling has long been a favorite pastime for retired Americans, but many are now combining traveling with learning. Each year, some 200,000 people attend Elderhostels around the world. The educational programs can last a day or several weeks, and they cover topics ranging from folk art to cooking to wilderness recreation.

The Peabody Institute trains some of the world's most talented musicians. But the Baltimore, Maryland conservatory also hosts a series of music appreciation courses for Elderhostel guests. On a recent day, instructor Amy Parks offered insights into John Williams' theme music for Schindler's List, the award winning film about the Holocaust.

"His music does the subject justice and the film justice as well. It's very simple," she explains. "It's almost all strings, you've got some harps, you've got a violin solo, and woodwinds on occasion. There's no brass, there's no percussion, there's no bombast. There's nothing overwhelming about the music. It would not be suitable for this picture."

The music of John Williams was one of three courses offered by the Peabody Elderhostel that week, all related to Broadway and movie theme music. Robert Winston traveled from Saint George, Utah to attend. This was his eighth Elderhostel.

"It's a good chance to see different parts of the country and the world and at the same time have a useful time while you're here, learning and enlarging your understanding," he said.

And instructor Amy Parks, who also coordinates the Peabody Elderhostel, points out that the classes are a learning experience for her as well.

"A lot of them have personal experiences they can share with me that really supplement the things I know from a musician's perspective," she says. "Often they've met people I'm talking about, or they have personal experiences. They can remember things I'm discussing, for instance, important premiers of works some of them attended. And it can be really enlightening for me to hear what it was like from their perspective at the time."

Elderhostel offers nearly 10,000 programs in more than 90 countries each year. People living anywhere in the world can enroll, although a knowledge of English is usually needed. Spokesperson Cady Goldfield says Elderhostel joins with a wide range of groups -colleges, museums, symphony orchestras and environmental organizations to sponsor the programs.

"You could go to Japan and study Japanese culture going back to the late Edo period to modern times, or you might go to Central Europe and learn about Slavic cultures," explains Ms. Goldfield. "You could stay right in the United States and study ecology. We also have programs where the participants learn physical skills such as how to hike, ski, paddling a canoe, riding horses. The whole purpose of the program is to allow people who are over the age of 55 to continue to use their minds, and to reach out and try new experiences, and also to share their own passions and interests."

Elderhostel began in 1975, after an educator and social activist named Marty Knowlton traveled extensively through Europe.

"One of the things that impressed him the most was that in a lot of the communities in northern Europe, they had institutions called 'folk schools,' where the elders of the community could teach traditional crafts and ways, says Ms. Goldfield. "He was also impressed by youth hostels, which allowed young people from all over the world, adults too, to travel inexpensively and get to meet new people and have a safe place to stay."

Marty Knowlton and co-founder David Bianco eventually combined those two concepts to create Elderhostel. Over the years, the basic idea has remained the same. Enrollment costs are affordable, and accommodations often in college dormitories or local hotels are comfortable but not luxurious. There have been innovations as well, however, including intergenerational programs for the elderly and their grandchildren.

Elderhostel has also begun offering service projects, where people can teach English or help set up a small business in another country. Cady Goldfield points out that for some tireless learners, attending Elderhostels becomes a way of life.

"We have one gentleman who's been to nearly 400 programs, and he just goes from one program to the next, and he stops by his family home a few times a year for the holidays," she says. "One of his adult children lives in the house and he stops by, and then he goes back on the road to another elderhostel program."

Some people find a whole new career after attending an Elderhostel. Retired government worker Peter Abresch writes a mystery series using Elderhostel programs as settings. He did the research for his latest book, Painted Lady while attending an Elderhostel along the old Santa Fe Trail. But he says for all the deadly intrigue in his novels, Elderhostels are actually very congenial places.

"It's a place you can go and have almost instant friends. It's a lot different from when we were teenagers, and we always had to worry about what everyone was thinking about us," he says. "There's a camaraderie that's almost instant."

Cady Goldfield says the oldest Elderhostel student to date was 105. And there are numerous students in their 90s, including one who keeps surprising himself.

"Every time he goes on a program he e-mails me, and he says my wife Stella and I are probably going on our very last program now. And it never is," she says.

Cady Goldfield explains that Elderhostel is already looking ahead to the baby boomers, the huge numbers of people born after World War II. They're rapidly becoming eligible for Elderhostel programs, and the organization is looking for ways to meet the needs of a generation known both for its size and its activism.