On the Road Again — A Journey of Lifelong Learning

By Barbara Worthington

The pursuit of intellectual stimulation coupled with travel adventures holds special appeal for older adults for a variety of reasons. Specialized programs aim to enhance both learning and socialization.

Don’t be fooled into believing that the name Elderhostel designates a stodgy group of elderly folks. Though the “elder” part of the designation might suggest participants in the later stages of life, the successful not-for-profit organization dispels any images of rocking chairs on the porch or a chess game under a shady maple tree.

As the world’s largest educational travel organization for adults aged 55 and over, the Boston-based group provides travel opportunities that incorporate learning adventures designed for participants to experience everything from chamber music to lighthouse exploration and archaeological digs to white-water rafting.

By any standards, the organization offers a winning formula: a travel adventure with a learning component and ideal opportunities for social interaction. Indeed, Elderhostel has given birth to many lifelong associations and friendships.

Those elements, particularly in combination, go a long way toward slowing cognitive decline in older adults. Even for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, activity, mental stimulation, and social interaction can slow its progression.

Maintaining Brain Fitness

As part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project conducted in Chicago, a study of more than 1,200 elders, participants underwent cognitive testing for up to five years. The study revealed that cognitively active elders, whose average age was 80, were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than those who were cognitively inactive.

Published last year in the online edition of Neurology, the study also showed that frequent cognitive activity during old age was associated with a decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a transitional stage between normal aging and dementia, as well as a slowed decline in cognitive function.
Stimulating the brain by visiting a museum or attending a concert, for example, can increase the number of brain cells and connections between brain cells. Physical exercise improves blood flow to the brain, encouraging development of new brain cells.

Mounting evidence also suggests that mentally stimulating activities provide a “cognitive reserve,” enabling even people with developing Alzheimer’s disease to function normally longer. And research indicates that physical exercise and mental stimulation can protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Other findings show that interacting with family and friends and cultivating social networks provide a cognitive reserve. Some suggest that simply talking helps to keep the mind sharp. Older people with a more extensive social network are less likely to suffer cognitive impairment than those whose social network is more limited.

The Elderhostel concept promotes the cultivation of the critical combination of physical activity, brain stimulation, and social interaction among older adults. In offering nearly 8,000 programs each year, the organization creates learning adventures designed specifically for elders intent on keeping their minds and bodies active.

Decisions, Decisions

With thousands of specially designed programs, Elderhostel offers an eclectic variety of travel experiences and learning opportunities in all 50 states and more than 90 foreign countries. In 2007, 165,000 older adults participated in Elderhostel programs worldwide.

“Everything we do has an educational component,” says Elderhostel President and CEO James Moses. “All the experiences we create are focused on learning.” And the organization maintains programming likely to appeal to almost anyone. If hiking in the Grand Canyon isn’t your cup of tea, you might choose to uncork and unwind in the fabled Napa Valley of California.

If you’re hooked on crafts, try the hands-on experiences of calligraphy, jewelry making, glassblowing, drawing, and painting. Would-be cooks can enhance their skills from novice to gourmand.
Sports enthusiasts choose from a variety of venues offering activities including canoeing, bicycling, golf, tennis, fishing, snorkeling and scuba. And history buffs enjoy the opportunity to visit a variety of historical settings and eras from the Betsy Ross House and Independence Hall to Lewis and Clark’s Northwest Passage discovery.

Programs range in length from a single-day outing, known as a Day of Discovery, to programs spanning four weeks. “The average is around 12 days,” says Moses. The majority of U.S.-based programming is about a week, according to Moses.

Participants’ ages range from 55 to octogenarians. Though the majority of Elderhostel adventurers are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, Moses says, “In Elderhostel we have a lot of people well into their 80s.” The average age of Elderhostel participants is 72.

The wide-ranging programs allow for a broad variety of energy and ability levels where physical activity is concerned, from the ability to simply climb a few steps to full days of fast-paced strenuous physical challenges.

Elderhostel recognizes the importance of addressing the whole person through its program offerings. Moses says the organization creates programming aimed at “personal growth and intellectual stimulation.” He notes the importance of providing experiences in which “the brain and body really work together.”

Moses says for Elderhostel, “It’s always been about enrichment,” and its essence has involved the understanding of the benefit of lifelong learning to healthy aging. That enrichment forms the basis of program development—it’s never been about targeting older adults.

“The extent of programming is so dramatic, it’s impossible to quantify it,” Moses says. There are literally hundreds of opportunities for exposure to subjects as diverse as opera, marine biology, Shakespeare, uploading digital pictures, and human culture studies. “We don’t gear programming toward older adults at all,” he says.

Suggestions and ideas for programming come from participants and academics who work on Elderhostel programs, according to Moses. Following a rigorous vetting process conducted by travel industry personnel, academics, and Elderhostel staff, it takes significant time to develop a new program to the quality level Elderhostel demands.

There’s actually a formula used to create a typical program day’s schedule that allows for field trips, lectures, workshops, and a question and answer session. “It takes at least six months to take an idea and create a program around it,” Moses says.

Brain Power

For more than 25 years, Elderhostel has offered its challenging travel adventures to older adults. Catalogues provide detailed information related to the subjects to be covered and the strenuousness of the activities involved for each program. The organization provides reading lists in advance so participants can hit the ground running as they embark on their learning experience. Though there are often lectures, readings, and extensive material to cover, there are no tests or grades.
“It’s not a day at the beach,” says Moses of the programming. He says that despite the inherent fun and sense of adventure, “You really have to focus if you’re going to participate.”

“We were absolutely shocked at how much learning content there was,” says Judie Fernandez of Menlo Park, CA, a veteran Elderhostel traveler of 12 years who will soon turn 70. Among her favorite trips, of the 15 in which she has participated, are those to Mongolia/China; Italy; Gettysburg, PA; Morocco; and Russia.

In addition to top-flight experts and lecturers who have contributed to her enjoyment of various programs, Fernandez says “You see lots of interesting things you wouldn’t see otherwise.” Elderhostel frequently provides specialized and even behind-the-scenes access unavailable to ordinary travelers.
Classes are usually organized by universities and colleges, according to Fernandez, who adds, “The intellectual content is what really gets us excited. There’s so much to learn, you can get almost overwhelmed,” although she says going over the reading list and watching movies in preparation for the experience is helpful.

Fernandez finds a lot to like about the variety of programming. “The activity level can range from strenuous to it’s OK if you walk with a cane, ” she says. “You meet a lot of interesting people who are intellectually interesting and lively.”

What keeps her coming back is the “high quality in terms of what you do, the broad variety of programs, and the intellectual level of the programs.”

At the end of each session, participants provide their critiques of the program via evaluation forms. “It’s a day to day part of what we do,” says Moses of the continuous efforts to improve offerings. “Our programs are constantly evolving.”

Part of the continuous evolution stems from the minute detail participants offer in their critiques of programs in which they have participated. Two major facets of programming continue to resurface in Elderhostel evaluations, according to Moses. Both the quality of the educational program and travel logistics, including the living and learning environment and comfort of the accommodations, come under close scrutiny.

And, consistently, Moses finds, “Our evaluations are extraordinarily positive.”

Elderhostel Variations

In response to prospective travelers who identified with the Elderhostel lifestyle, travel adventures, and learning opportunities, Elderhostel launched its Road Scholar program in 2004.

Moses says the program is directed toward younger participants who seek more independent exploration. With no age limitations or restrictions, the average age of Road Scholar participants is 62.
The program creates access for baby boomers and others “put off by the Elderhostel name,” according to Moses. It operates as a separate entity from Elderhostel.

Both programs offer hands-on activities and surprising access to various venues likely to be difficult or even impossible to arrange on your own. Likewise, both programs provide resident experts, guides, lecturers, and instructors with knowledge and expertise they’re eager to share. And both are available to couples and singles alike.

As part of its efforts to expand its programming and appeal, in the 1980s Elderhostel introduced its intergenerational program bringing grandparents together with their grandchildren in settings throughout the United States and even internationally. Feedback to date has been positive with numerous letters from participants about learning and bonding together, creating a fuller relationship between older adults and their grandchildren.

“It’s one of the more exciting things we do,” says Moses of the intergenerational program.

Added Benefits

Although Elderhostel serves primarily as a provider of educational travel adventures, it offers significant peripheral benefits, not the least of which is socializing. Moses says couples often travel via Elderhostel programs, making new acquaintances and cultivating friendships among other participants. However, programs are equally appealing to singles.

Moses says participants often “get turned on” to the Elderhostel programs following the death of a spouse in an attempt to overcome the isolation and loneliness. “Elderhostel becomes a life-saver. It gets them back into living,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a way to go on after the death of a partner.”
Many friendships develop over time and romances have been known to blossom. “I know we’ve had a lot of Elderhostel marriages,” Moses says.

People become Elderhostel participants for a variety of reasons. Sometimes their Elderhostel experiences lead to unexpected developments.

Walter Chaskal, 77,  of Huntington Station, NY, has visited 14 states and five foreign countries over the course of his 27 Elderhostel trips. He says since his first experience in 1991, “It’s been a pretty steady flow of programs since then.”

With a multitude of interests, he and his wife, Jacqui, have embarked on the exploration of national parks, cultural history, literature, and the arts. “We’re passionate music and theatre lovers,” he says.
“What intrigues us is that you learn while you’re traveling,” he says, adding that Elderhostel often enables participants to “discover what otherwise might go unrevealed.” And, he says, “The different levels of program design are fascinating.”

In addition to subscribing to a number of bird-watching trips, Chaskal has visited the Peabody Institute’s musical programs in Baltimore on numerous occasions. Other trips have taken him to distant locations including Brazil and New Zealand.

Both he and his wife enjoy meeting and sharing knowledge and experiences with fellow participants. “They’re very bright people from all walks of life,” says Jacqui Chaskal.
Walter Chaskal maintains frequent correspondence with Elderhostel acquaintances who share similar interests. “That’s a nice spin-off of what Elderhostel is all about,” he says. He even exchanges e-mails with lecturers and instructors. “We’ve continued the dialogue because they were so stimulating,” he says.
Chaskal’s association with Elderhostel has spawned the opportunity for him to serve as an ambassador for Elderhostel, visiting senior centers, libraries, and classes in retirement programs to distribute catalogues and describe his personal experiences.

Pick Your Passion — Prepare to Pack

The opportunity for older adults to experience a unique learning adventure while traveling via Elderhostel extends to destinations around the globe. The variety in programming and locations creates much of the appeal.

Equally appealing is the cost, which averages about $100 per day for domestic programs and just under $200 per day for international programs, excluding airfare. Fees usually include the costs of accommodations, meals, materials, and museum and tour admissions.

There are a large number of six-day programs in the United States offered for under $600, according to Moses. Each promises to impart exciting new information presented by uniquely qualified experts. And each is designed to stimulate the intellect.

Moses says about 30% of Elderhostel programs are designed to be less rigorous, focusing largely on enrichment while 70% of the programs “are really very challenging.”

But that’s no problem. Elderhostelers welcome the adventure, the excitement, and the challenge. “These are active people who love life,” he says. “They see Elderhostel as an opportunity to stretch themselves, to get out of their comfort zone and take advantage of the opportunity to learn about something they’ve always been interested in. It’s a way to remain active in the world.”

— Barbara Worthington is associate editor of Aging Well.