Older adults thrive at Saddleback College’s Emeritus Institute

Students from Professor Laura Hoffman’s photography classes through the Emeritus Institute practice taking their best shots on a field trip in Laguna Hills 2018. Laura Hoffman/Courtesy

The Emeritus Institute will be celebrating it’s forty-fifth year of serving students in Southern California in 2021. It is also the largest, non-credit, older adult education program in California serving between 4,000 and 6,000 students each semester throughout south Orange County.

The Saddleback College Emeritus Institute offers older adults lifelong learning through academically rigorous classes and programs that keeps them mentally and physically healthy. It also gives students the opportunity to engage with others socially and continue to contribute to their community in meaningful ways.

Individuals aged 65 years and older make up 15% of Orange County’s 3.2 million residents, according to 2020 demographic information — and the number of people in this age group is expected to double in the United States by 2030.

In just ten years, the baby boomer group, those born between 1946 and 1964, will reach their sixty-fifth birthday. This will expand the size of the older population, so that one out of every five residents will be of retirement age.

“The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history,” said Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau.

This demographic group has changed the course of history and continues to define how this dynamic cohort spends their golden years. They are active, they are involved and they are continuing to further their education as nontraditional students.

Karima Feldhus executive dean of extended learning at Saddleback College oversees the program for the Emeritus Institute.

“We are very important to the health of the community of older adults,” Feldhus said.

The average age of students is seventy three years old, with the oldest being hundred years of age, however, any individual over eighteen years of age can attend. Classes are non-credit and tuition free, except for a few art courses that require a small materials fee.

Classes follow the traditional college semester schedule of 16 weeks in length for fall and spring and eight weeks during the summer. They offer over 200 sections covering a variety of disciplines in business, social and behavioral sciences, humanities, languages, fine and performing arts and health — with health and art classes being the most popular. Students can take as many classes as they want and repeat them up to 99 times — plus, there are no textbooks, no homework, no tests and no grading.

Normally, courses are offered at over 30 various locations throughout South Orange County, though with COVID-19 all classes are conducted online synchronously and asynchronously. Instructors lecture through weekly Zoom sessions and work with students on an individual basis.

Kathleen Lui, now in her 70s, retired from teaching school in Hawaii and California and was looking for something that would help her stay active and engaged. She also wanted to meet new friends outside of her previous work circle and have some fun.

Over the past six years, she has taken classes on a wide variety of topics at Saddleback College and currently is enrolled in seven classes. Liu says the Emeritus Institute “filled the bill” for learning, staying healthy and engaging with nice people of different ages. She found her new social circle of people to be gifted, with a wide variety of experiences and jobs that they had worked in the past.

The friendships she developed through her interaction with other students made classes fun but were also instrumental in dealing with life’s hardships.

“I love, love, love the Emeritus Institute,” Lui said. “It has enriched my life tremendously. When my husband passed away a couple years ago, it was important to socialize with other people, they really helped me through that period.”

She was reluctant to move from Orange County to San Diego to be closer to family, because she did not want to miss out on taking classes through the Emeritus Institute. When COVID-19 started and classes went online, it allowed her to make the move and she has continued to take classes from her new home in San Diego.

Professor Jay Sampson teaches ceramics classes through the Emeritus Institute and instructs his students the art of slip casting in 2011. Saddleback College/Courtesy

Elliot Stern, president of Saddleback College, said in an email Emeritus Institute students have adapted to managing classes online surprisingly well:

The largest segment of our non-traditional age students are in Emeritus Institute classes.  The classes provide cognitive engagement and community (virtual) for over [5,000] nontraditional age students. We thought we would never be able to serve those students online because of the tech skills necessary to master online learning. But COVID taught us that we should not underestimate our non-traditional age students! Like our faculty who had not previously taught online, they learned how to use Canvas, they mastered Zoom etiquette, and they’ve managed to keep their learning going with barely a hiccup. Of course, we had to up our game in providing them with the tech support they needed, but they far surpassed our expectations and have embraced the easier access of online learning.

The ability to take classes on Zoom during the pandemic has eased the isolation factor and provided seniors a way to stay active and engaged. Emeritus Institute student Elizabeth Sandner thanked the Emeritus Institute in an email for the “opportunity to learn online,” she wrote.

“I hope Saddleback and the state will keep up the learning opportunities for older adults,” Sander said. “We are past the time for getting a diploma and going out into the workforce, but we all still want to keep our minds active and learning.”

Professor Chris Ho shows his students how to do the fine art of Chinese brush painting in an Emeritus Institute class in 2011. Saddleback College/Courtesy

Some individuals are eager to start in-person classes again, but most individuals have said they are thankful that they do not have to drive to a location and pay for parking; plus they are able to fit more classes into their schedule. Emeritus Institute student Sandra Price shares how convenient online classes have been for her, in a letter to the Emeritus Institute dated Sept. 29.

Dear Emeritus Staff,

I would like to thank you for all the courses you offer and all the work you put into serving the older community. Thank you for fighting for this special service. We are so privileged to be able to have this service in our community. Thank you.

I am loving the courses on-line. I can watch my exercise classes any time of day. If I get up early I can exercise. If I want to watch it live I can exercise. If I sleep in I can exercise then. It is wonderful. It also saves time from getting in the car, searching for parking and then driving to my next destination which I am then rushing to get to.

I am taking classes I would never have gone to in person because I could not fit them in my schedule. I have taken a painting and photography course. I would have never gone to class and sat for three hours to attend these classes. But I will sit at home where I can move around and eat a snack while watching the class. I love, love, love this.

So please please please consider keeping courses online forever. What a service you are doing.

With gratitude, Sandra Price

Many of the classes have been offered for years, and students have loyally followed their favorite professors.

“Professors have to have fresh materials every semester because they get some of the same students,” Feldhus said. “Otherwise, you cannot get a student to keep coming to your class for 30 years.”

Emeritus Institute students have different needs than traditional students and Feldhus focuses on working with them to ensure they have an enriching experience. She describes them as kind and generous, even when there is a problem.

“They’re supportive, understanding and they’re appreciative,” Feldhus said. “They’re retired professionals and have life experiences. They want to make sure you understand they’re not complaining, they just want to bring something to your attention because this is Saddleback College, and they will even offer suggestions.”

Saddleback College Emeritus Institute classes are available online and the spring semester begins Jan. 19, 2021.