A Different Kind of Retirement Community

(Photo courtesy of the Lifelong Peer Learning Program)

By Bonnie Eissner

New York City had long beckoned Bruce Smith. As a kid growing up outside of Philadelphia, he used to watch the Broadway tryouts that came to that city and imagined living in New York. In 2010, after retiring from a career in California as a community college theater professor and later an administrator, he got his chance. He and his partner moved across the country to a city of over 8 million people, where they hardly knew anyone. “I wanted to be in New York because of what’s in New York,” he said. But, in addition to soaking in the city’s culture, he needed a community. Through some searching and luck, he found the Institute for Retired Professionals, now known as the Lifelong Peer Learning Program, or LP2 for short. “I moved to New York with no friends,” he said. “Now I've got 300 friends.”

Adults ages 65 and up are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In short, more people are reaching retirement age. Retirement, for those with enough savings and the right situations, offers the chance to pursue interests and passions. That might mean joining a golf club, traveling, or taking art classes. For those looking for a pastime that is both intellectual and social, a peer learning organization, such as the Lifelong Peer Learning Program, based in New York City at the CUNY Graduate Center, may be the perfect fit. 

The Lifelong Peer Learning Program began at the New School for Social Research in 1962. By the 1980s, groups across the country had emulated it, including ones at Harvard, Syracuse University, Duke, and UCLA. Today, over 400 so-called lifelong learning institutes (LLIs for short) are part of the LLI Network at Road Scholar. 

The premise of the Lifelong Peer Learning Program is simple: Members participate in study groups, a minimum of two per semester, or four a year, and they are expected to lead study groups or volunteer for the organization by joining a committee or participating in community service. 

People sitting in a group

(Photo courtesy of the Lifelong Peer Learning Program)

Soon after joining, Smith led a theater and performance study group. He arranged for study group members to see a play every other week, choosing shows that were in revival so that the members could read the scripts and compare them to the performances. He has since converted the popular study group to a special interest group in which members watch three or four plays a semester and gather afterwards to discuss them. 

Theater and the arts are just some of the topics offered in study groups. In spring 2021, members could choose from 37 different subjects. The titles ranged from “Shakespeare on Power Politics,” which involved reading four plays, to “Looking Back at the Spanish Civil War” to “Public Opinion Polls, for Better or Worse?” 

Carolyn Setlow, 75, co-coordinated the public opinion polls study group with another member, Ellen Sills-Levy, a colleague from her long career in public opinion polling and marketing research. 

Setlow retired in 2010 from her role as an executive vice president at Gfk Group to travel with her husband and do some executive coaching. But after a few years, they both realized they wanted to settle back in New York, and they craved intellectual stimulation and more structure. They have found both, she said, since joining the Lifelong Peer Learning Program in 2019. 

“It's a community of people with shared intellectual goals of learning and sharing, learning from what others have learned and developed in the course of their lives and their careers,” Setlow said. 

She and others emphasized that peer learning is different from the lecture-based instruction that takes place in typical classes. 

“Peer learning is supposed to be we're all equals,” Smith said. “It's a much more collegial approach.”

To prepare for leading her polling study group, Setlow took advantage of the resources available to first-time coordinators. “When you gain the courage to raise your hand and say, ‘I’ll coordinate a study group,’ there's a curriculum committee that works with you on the development of the proposal,” she said. A technology committee helped her adapt her course to Zoom during the pandemic. A mentor in the class gave her feedback. “It's very structured and supportive,” she said.

Meera Kumar, 74, a former writer, editor, and public relations director, has coordinated a number of study groups since joining the Lifelong Peer Learning Program with her husband, Ajit, in 2017. She finds that the level of discussion varies depending on members’ familiarity with the topic. A study group on Shakespeare, for example, sparked more conversation than one on Hinduism. 

Kumar knows that the program is seeking a more diverse membership. Still, she said, “It's a very interesting and a very engaging group. It's been easy to make friends.”

Smith, vice chair of the program’s advisory board, and others on the board want to attract more diverse members. As a start, the organization is planning a new, more optimized website. 

To apply, members must first attend an information session. There’s also a written application and an interview. According to the website, applicants must demonstrate that they are committed to serious study and are willing to contribute to the organization’s self-governance.

“If we're going to have peer learning, we have to have peers who will do some of that leading of discussion groups,” Smith said. 

The organization has about 325 members, with 10 to 20 new members joining each year. 

“We get very communal over time because most of the members stay with us until they die,” Smith said.

In addition to the study groups, members stay connected through special interest groups, such as the one on theater that Smith coordinates. In the summer, between semesters, there are shorter study groups. Members also participate in the organization’s many committees. Plus, there are social events, such as Pour at Four, held on Fridays. 

Even during the pandemic, when the program transitioned to Zoom, the members stayed loyal, said Barbara Marwell, 83, a retired psychologist who was elected board president in 2020. Only one member, a woman in her 90s, dropped out temporarily because she couldn’t handle Zoom. “I think it shows the importance of LP2 in the lives of our members,” Marwell said.

In late spring 2021, the program produced a video tribute to the coordinators who adapted to Zoom. Nine men and women answer questions about their experiences. Just over halfway through, a question pops up on the screen: “What’s the best part of coordinating a course?” The coordinators talk about learning from fellow participants, opening up new worlds to group members, the aha moments. The last coordinator to respond is John Becker.

“Creating, and literally taking that idea from conception to birth and then conducting the classes and seeing how the child grew up is one of the most positive experiences I’ve had,” he says, his voice tightening as he fights back a tear and the screen cuts to black. 

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: JUL 14, 2021

Category: Academic Initiatives & Strategic Innovation | GCstories | General GC News | Voices of the GC