Spring 2009 Issue

Young at Heart

Barry’s Elderhostel Program takes the ‘kids’ out of the classroom

By: Jeremy Jones

Participants in Barry’s Elderhostel program to Key West, Florida, receive an educational tour of the Hemmingway House January 27.

It’s been said that life is what you make of it, and if that’s the case, then Oscar Stewart and his wife Sally Foster-Stewart are making the most of it.

You can usually catch them out dancing two or three nights a week; they’ve been on three major trips in the past year, and less than six months ago the two got married – all this for a couple in their 70s.

But their active lifestyle doesn’t end there. On January 24, the exact day the Stewart’s were celebrating their three-month wedding anniversary, they began their first day of a week-long trip in Key West as part of Barry University’s Elderhostel Program.

“The people who participate in the Elderhostel Program are the more active seniors. It keeps us going,” says 79-year-old Oscar. “Besides that, they are educational and you learn a lot.” This is the couple’s third Elderhostel trip, having taken two others, one to New York City and one to St. Augustine, Florida.

Live and Learn

Based on the international program Adventures in Lifelong Learning, Barry’s Elderhostel Program, which is offered through the School of Adult and Continuing Education (ACE), is one of hundreds around the world that offers living and learning trips to older adults ages 55 and over. Barry’s program is one of three in Florida, the other two being offered through Stetson University and Eckerd College.

The concept is simple: offer older adults the opportunity not only to travel but also to learn about the history and culture of the area they are visiting.

“These people are still active. They are there to learn as much as they can about that particular area because every area is different,” says Susan Leff ’92, regional program director for Barry’s Edlerhostel Program.

Each trip includes 21 ½ hours of educational content, whether through classroom lectures given by local professionals about the history and architecture of the city being visited, or through instructional guided tours to various locations in the area. It’s a far cry from the standard commercial tours where visitors are often on their own.

With Barry’s program, which has been in existence for about 15 years and runs October through May, participants can visit Key West, Fort Myers, Sanibel Island, Miami Beach, Key Largo and the Miami International Book Fair. And while the economy has slowed things down a bit, Barry’s program is still running strong, averaging between 30 and 50 participants for each Elderhostel.

The trips are so popular that Leff is considering adding Fort Lauderdale and Naples as destinations, as well as trips dealing with horticulture, botany and World War II veterans stationed in Miami Beach during the war.

Bernard Kaplan, who has been an education coordinator and instructor for Barry’s Elderhostel Program for nearly 10 years, says the educational component of the program is a big draw for older adults who want more than a do-it-yourself trip. With the Elderhostel trips, participants “learn a lot about a variety of topics and experience things they would have missed out on during a standard trip to one of these places,” says Kaplan.

During their five-day excursion in Key West, Elderhostel participants took in the sites as well as the history of the city including lectures on Key West’s coral reef, Harry Truman, Key West history and architecture and deep sea diving. They also took part in guided tours of the Hemingway House, Truman’s Little White House, Heritage House, Sculpture Garden and the Mel Fisher Gallery & Museum.

Common ground

Sally Foster-Steward and Oscar Stewart take in the view from the porch of the Parish Hall at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Key West, Florida, January 26. Long-time friends, the couple married after both of their spouses passed away and now have 12 children between them.

While the learning component is key to the program, that doesn’t take away from the unforgettable experience of meeting new people on each trip. Not only are they all older adults, with the average age being 72 for each Elderhostel trip, but most of them come from similar backgrounds.

During January’s Key West trip, a majority of participants were retired teachers, which makes sense since the program is primarily built on the educational experience. Others in the group were retired military, bankers, builders, accountants and other professions. A majority were also couples, like the Stewarts, who live half the year in North Port, Florida, and the other half in Windsor, Connecticut. Being able to experience the trip with her newlywed husband was quite special for Sally Foster-Stewart.

“It’s extremely important to live and learn at our age, but I like the fact that we can do it together,” said Sally, who is 75. While she and Oscar had done things together in the past, that was when they were both married to their former spouses and the two couples would do things as friends.

But a little more than a year ago, Oscar’s wife of nearly 50 years passed away; Sally’s husband of almost 50 years had also passed away five years ago. Their 20-year friendship eventually pulled the two together, bringing them and the 12 children between the two into one family. “It didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t enjoy living alone,” said Oscar. But had you told Sally 10 years ago this would be happening, her response was one of disbelief. “If anyone told me I would be getting married at 75, I would say you’re out of your mind.”

Believe it or not, their story isn’t the only one of its kind that came out of the Key West Elderhostel trip. Connecticut couple Joyce Suhs, 71, and Herb Lau, 77, lost their spouses a few years back, but the four had been friends for more than 40 years. Their love was solidified when Lau took a trip to North Carolina to visit Suhs after both their spouses had passed away. During his stay the two found out Suhs had breast cancer; he never went back home and they became “permanently engaged” two years ago. Suhs is now cancer free.

Having each other makes the Elderhostel trips even more exciting for the two, who are now on their second trip together. “We both like learning the history, plus it’s a great way to do it. You get to meet so many new people,” said Suhs.

In a group of 46 representing 15 states and Canada, as was the Elderhostel trip to Key West, you’re bound to uncover a lot of similarities and a few differences. While Beverly Taber Smith, 69, from Richmond, Quebec, Canada was among the majority as a retired teacher, she was in the minority as one of the half dozen singles and the only international resident to make the trip.

Like most of the other participants on the trip, Smith has been on Elderhostels before, but this is her first one in the United States. She sees the fact of being single as an opportunity and not a hindrance. “It’s wonderful coming on these Elderhostels, especially for single ladies, because you just don’t know who you will meet,” Smith said. “There are so many interesting people.”

Conch Republic 101

Joyce Suhs and Herb Lau rest on a bench outside of the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida, January 27. The couple became ‘permanently engaged’ two years after both of their spouses passed away.

As a former high school literature and journalism teacher, Judith Isquith particularly appreciates the educational opportunities offered during the Elderhostel trips. She and her husband Alan have done 10 trips so far and plan to do many more.

The Key West program was ideal for the Isquiths, who are from Midland, Michigan, and have been married for 54 years. Not only could Judith experience the Conch Republic for the first time, but it was a perfect segue from the couple’s stop in Key Largo where they celebrated her uncle’s 50th year as a Dominican priest. “Key West was always a place I wanted to see and learn about,” said Judith. “Most of the Elderhostel programs are extremely well organized.”

For Alan, who had not been to Key West in 60 years, the trip was an awakening. Not only had the city grown tremendously but there was a lot more to learn about. Old dirt roads were a thing of the past, replaced by the lively, tourist-driven areas like Duval Street. “This was very different from what I remember,” said Alan. “The Elderhostel really made everything come to life.”

Mary and Bill Dennis, also Michigan natives and friends of the Isquiths, had done Elderhostel trips to in the past including ones in Hawaii and Thailand. But neither of them had ever been to Key West, and they wanted to take part in Barry’s program because the itinerary would keep them on the go for most of the trip.

“We decided we wanted to do one that was more active,” said Mary, 75. “The education factor of the Elderhostels keeps us coming back. They are wonderful educators. It was very relaxing to come and learn and have fun.”

Edwina Sanders ’86, ’90, director of coordinator retention for ACE, helps plan and coordinate the Elderhostel program for Fort Myers. Her goal, with the assistance of Leff, is to make these trips attractive to the Elderhostel’s niche market. She frequently comes up with new programs and ideas to make Fort Myers an even more desirable destination than it already is for many travelers.

“What I look at is being able to put together a complete week and provide our participants with something they aren’t getting somewhere else,” Sanders said.

During the week, participants take part in tours of Thomas Edison’s home, hear lectures on Fort Myers’ history, and visit Manatee Park and the ECHO (Educational Concern for Hunger Organization) farm, which develops food crops that can be used in third world countries.

“These people are coming to learn. They aren’t just coming to take a vacation,” says Sanders. “They are that group of people that are continuous learners.”

Repeat Business

One of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum’s famous cats, Archibald MacLeish, remains undisturbed as participants of the Elderhostel Program tour the premises.

In the retail world, if a customer keeps coming back, than you’re obviously doing something right. That concept can be true of Elderhostels as well, especially for Jim and Joy Pope of Austin, Texas. Over the past 15 years the couple has taken part in 50 Elderhostel trips around the world.

So what makes the program so good that the Popes continue to come back? They say it’s the people. “You’re dealing with people who have similar backgrounds, and that makes it a natural fit for us,” says Jim. “You never run across anyone here that is uneducated, and that compliments the fact that we’ve had some trips that have been very valuable as far as the educational content is concerned.”

Even with 50 Elderhostel trips under their belts, the Popes say it’s difficult to pick a favorite because each one offers an entirely different experience. So whether they are opal mining in Utah or visiting historic sites in Key West, the couple welcomes the plethora of experiences the Elderhostels offer. Retirement hasn’t kept them confined to a rocking chair, but has opened the doors to a whole new world for them to discover, Jim says.

“It’s an opportunity to see the things you’ve heard about all your life, and to be able to say, ‘we’ve been there.’ ”