Educational programs help seniors fulfill postponed dreams

Retirement brings with it the promise of time to pursue interests and passions postponed due to work and family pressures. But many retirees discover that fulfilling a dream requires replacing the old work-a-day discipline with a new structure.

Regardless of age or physical condition, intellectually curious seniors have many opportunities in the Los Angeles area to participate in an educational program that fits their needs in an enriching, stimulating and affordable environment.

In the Los Angeles area, lifelong learning programs such as PLATO, SAGE and OASIS each provide a framework for mature men and women in search of new challenges and new friendships with like-minded people. These college-based programs vary widely in their approach, so selecting the organization best suited to your needs and aspirations is important.

PLATO Society

The PLATO Society of UCLA is the best known and most prestigious of learning programs for seniors in Los Angeles. PLATO, an acronym for Perpetual Learning and Teaching Organization, is an independent, self-financed program under the auspices of UCLA Extension.

Founded in 1980, PLATO has a membership of about 420 men and women, mostly in their 60s and 70s. Several members are significantly younger, like the woman who left PLATO to have a baby, while others are older, like Seba Kolb-Tomkins, who answered the mail for Eleanor Roosevelt’s syndicated “My Day” column.

PLATO is not a lecture series and features no instructors. Instead, the program offers what it calls “study/discussion groups,” or S/DGs, which deal with a wide range of subjects.

Each group generally features 14 participants, and a different member is responsible for making a presentation and leading the discussion during each weekly meeting. Among current PLATO members are former lawyers, doctors, teachers, professors, psychotherapists, journalists, business executives and artists, as well as a one-time ballerina and a flight attendant. Regardless how accomplished they were in their careers, “members leave their titles at the door” and are addressed by first names only.

The curriculum is planned by a coordinator and a co-coordinator — any PLATO member willing to devote the time and energy can become a coordinator — and the subjects are limited only by the members’ interests. Topics can range from astronomy to zoology.

Among the 26 different subjects currently offered are “A Matter of Opinion,” which examines the way the media influences national policies; “Middle East Quagmire: Part I — Zionist Thought”; “Shakespeare Then and Now,” comparing the original plays with their treatment in films and musicals; and “Natural-Born Killers,” which studies earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

PLATO follows the UCLA academic calendar, which is divided into three 14-week semesters. A new selection of S/DGs is offered each semester, although some of the more popular topics may occasionally be repeated. There are no formal requirements for membership in the PLATO Society beyond intellectual curiosity and a willingness to devote the time necessary for meaningful participation. Annual dues are $425, and members may audit UCLA classes with the permission of the instructor.

For many members, PLATO plays a very significant role in their lives. A retired advertising executive who lost his wife to cancer said that PLATO saved his life, and a former Philadelphia broadcaster said, “It provided access to like-minded people when we first arrived in L.A.”

Although not intended to be a social organization, PLATO has also helped a number of single and widowed members to establish new relationships.
In addition to the groups, the society offers a variety of special programs and benefits, such as monthly lectures from distinguished speakers such as LAPD Chief William Bratton; Frank McCourt, author of “Teacher Man” and “Angela’s Ashes,” and L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahoney.

An annual conference regularly addresses a topic of vital concern (this year PLATO is scheduled to examine the state of health care in America), and a special three-day retreat at an off-campus residential setting during spring break provides society members with an informal learning experience.

The PLATO Society is located at 1083 Gayley Ave., adjacent to the UCLA campus in Westwood. For more information, visit Release of ‘Alpha Dog ‘ reopens Markowitz family wounds

Seniors Flock to OASIS of Learning

“Make the shape of a U with your hips,” coaches belly-dancing teacher Elexa Williams. Her students willingly comply, rolling their shoulders, gyrating their torsos and undulating their hips as they follow the teacher’s example. Around their waists, the participants wear scarves adorned with rows of coins, and as they move, the room fills with a rhythmic jingling sound.

Down the hall, students peer intently at computer screens, struggling to learn the nuances of sending e-mails and creating documents in Microsoft Word.

OASIS, a program offering educational, enrichment and volunteer opportunities. Part of a national network, OASIS in Los Angeles is a program of Jewish Family Service, and is co-sponsored by Robinsons-May, the Los Angeles Department of Aging and the Westside Pavilion.

OASIS provides an eclectic array of classes, many of which are free. Fitness fans can choose among such options as chair exercise, yoga and karate. Art buffs can study French and American impressionism or drawing. Others can explore Jewish spirituality, analyze Shakespeare or play guitar. Some of the classes are even taught by retired professors from UCLA and USC. And seniors who wish to travel can choose among a variety of day excursions and extended trips.

“I think OASIS is wonderful because they have so much to offer,” said Aura, a 72-year-old participant in the belly-dancing class. She also takes “The Rabbi Speaks,” with Rabbi Michael Resnick, and a bridge class, which she said “works the aging matter in your brain.”

“OASIS provides learning and growth opportunities for active people who live at home,” program director Victoria Neal said. “It’s a progressive alternative for those who might feel like they’re with old people’ when they attend senior centers or meal programs.”

Neal estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 individuals ranging in age from 60 to 95 attend classes at OASIS’ Westside locations each week. Most Westside classes meet within OASIS’ warren of classrooms inside the Robinsons-May at the Westside Pavilion. Others meet in community rooms within the shopping center. Satellite locations include the Farmers Market, Park La Brea, Workmen’s Circle and Jewish Family Service’s Pico-Robertson Storefront and Freda Mohr Multiservice Center on Fairfax. In Woodland Hills, classes are offered in conjunction with Pierce College through the Encore-OASIS program.

The national OASIS program was founded in 1982 in St. Louis by educator Marylen Mann and Margie Wolcott May of the May department store family.

“They wanted to create a program fostering wellness, companionship and vitality for mature adults,” Los Angeles OASIS assistant director Rachelle Sommers Smith said. “They didn’t feel that existing programs offered sufficient stimulation for retired people.”

OASIS is now available in 26 cities nationwide.

For the past five years, Fanny Behmoiras, 66, has been making a weekly trek to Pico-Robertson from Encino to attend the life history writing class.

“I come rain or shine,” said Behmoiras, who has written 153 vignettes, including those describing her family’s flight from Cuba in 1961. During this session, she shares her account of the joy of her grandson’s bar mitzvah, followed days later by the anguish of losing a cherished family member.

Her instructor, Bea Mitz, explains that participants write their memoirs to leave a history for their children and grandchildren. “They do this so that whoever follows will not have to say, ‘I didn’t ask … I wish I knew.'”

Bella Haroutunian, 73, follows life history with an intermediate computer class.

“I started a year ago,” Haroutunian said. “I had very little knowledge about computers, and I wanted to write my memoirs.”

Now she uses the computer not only to compose her life story, but also to e-mail friends and family and research her upcoming trip to Europe and Russia.

It makes me feel that I’m a little bit up-to-date,” she said. “Before, I felt that I was so behind on this technology.”

Neal says many OASIS participants explore new hobbies or careers through the program.

“They’re doing what they love to do and never had a chance to do,” she said.

OASIS also provides volunteer opportunities for seniors, who help keep the program running. Ruth Morraine, 94, has been volunteering twice a week since 1991, assisting with clerical and bookkeeping tasks. She doesn’t seem at all daunted by the need to take a taxi and two buses to reach her destination. As Morraine says, “Age is just a number, honey.”

For more information, visit or call (310) 475-4911, ext. 2200 (Westside); (818) 710-4163 (Woodland Hills); (323) 298-7541 ext. 2517 (Baldwin Hills); (310) 547-0090 (San Pedro) or (562) 601-5010 (Long Beach/Lakewood).

Myriad Options for Senior Living

At the ages of 83 and 84, Rose and Sam Leff began to feel isolated in their two-bedroom Woodland Hills apartment. “We had given up driving, so there really wasn’t too much for us to do,” Rose said.

The Leffs decided to move to a residential care facility at the Jewish Home for the Aging, which provides kosher meals, housekeeping services, transportation, social and recreational activities and a medical clinic on-site. While they agree it was difficult adjusting to living in one room (“If we have a fight, I’m out in the hall,” Sam joked), four years later, they have no regrets about their decision.

When seniors find that living on their own has become difficult or impractical, there are a number of living options to choose from. Senior living facilities offer a continuum of services, but costs and quality can vary widely.

The Leffs chose residential care (also known as assisted living), an option offering independent living in hotel-like facilities that provide housekeeping, meals, activities and transportation. Many facilities offer multiple levels of care, catering to seniors who are independent as well as those who require help with eating, dressing and bathing. Costs can range from $1,800 to 6,000 per month.

Board-and-care homes are a specific type of residential care facility involving a regular house that has been modified and is licensed to care for up to six residents. Personal care, meals, activities and transportation to medical appointments are provided. Fees range from $2,500 to $6,000 per month.

For those who need medical care in addition to personal assistance, skilled nursing homes provide nursing care around-the-clock. The staff includes registered nurses, certified nursing assistants and a medical director, and facilities are licensed by the state Department of Health Services. Residents often cannot walk, and generally need help with their daily living activities. Unlike residential care facilities, nursing homes are covered by Medi-Cal. Costs average from $4,500 to $5,500 per month.

Since the majority of seniors prefer to live at home when possible, there are many services designed to help make that feasible. Often, the challenge is making sense of the options. For seniors or their caregivers, whether they are in a crisis or just looking for some direction, “The first step is to call your local senior center,” said Sandra Solomon, director of protective services program and senior outreach services for Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). “You can walk in and ask a question or you can call on the phone and the worker will give you suggestions.”

Senior centers provide seniors living at home with opportunities for socializing in the form of recreational activities, meals and classes. Many offer counseling and support groups. JFS runs five senior centers in the L.A. area.

Adult day health care is an option for seniors who might otherwise be isolated at home due to medical conditions. Adult day health care centers provide recreational activities, rehabilitation therapy and social services, all under medical supervision. Transportation and meals are provided, and Medi-Cal will cover this service for low-income seniors. Social day care provides a similar set-up, without the medical component, but is not covered by Medi-Cal.

For those needing help with household tasks, placement agencies such as JFS’s A+ Personal Care can provide aides to assist with cooking, housekeeping, shopping and other tasks. Fees can range from $9 to $21 per hour.

For those in good health and with their own transportation, OASIS is a sort of junior college for seniors, offering an array of courses from computers and belly dancing to Shakespeare and current events, as well as trips both local and abroad.

Solomon notes that adult children who live far from their ailing parents or travel frequently may benefit from case management agencies such as JFS’s Senior Outreach Services. These agencies provide trained social workers who visit the senior at home, assess the situation and suggest what type of help might be needed. Once recommendations are made, families can either follow-up themselves, or have a caseworker make the arrangements and provide regular follow-up. However, not everyone can afford the $100 hourly fee, which does not include mileage and travel time.

Carol Koransky, senior vice president of policy, planning and community development for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, fears people who could benefit may be unaware that help is available.

“I want people who are dealing with aging parents and their own aging to know that there are resources,” she said. “I fear often times that the resource are actually sitting right here, and … they just don’t know that it’s available to them.”

For more information, contact Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles at (323) 761-8800.