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Seniors choose lifelong learning. Special programs open new doors for older students

JAMES MORGAN always wanted to study art. As an electrical engineer with the multinational Bechtel Corporation, he sketched and dabbled in Europe and Canada. Now, after retiring here in 1984, Mr. Morgan is taking a degree in painting - and will soon hold his first exhibit. Thus far, the boom in adult and ``continuing'' education has been mainly a matter of job enrichment or retraining and a way for yuppies to keep alive their liberal arts impulses.

But another group - senior citizens - is showing an increased interest in ``lifelong learning.''

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Here at the University of North Carolina, a new Center for Creative Retirement is being designed as a model for seniors' education. It will offer a full range of education services - from pre-retirement counseling, to placement in local volunteer work in prisons, parks, and schools, to serious study and exchange of ideas in both liberal arts fields and finance.

More people are retiring today, and they are retiring younger. (The Census Bureau reports 24 million retirees in 1960 and estimates 41 million in 1986.) Among new retirees, observers say, two myths are widely shared: Retirement is a dreaded period of inactivity, or retirement is a purely placid life of golf games, palm trees, and rocking chairs.

The fact is, experts say, that many retirees find they need to rethink who they are. After years of working in the same job and area, they often move to new communities and search for ``access points'' to those communities. They may have talents to share, or, like James Morgan, feel they have hidden talents to develop. Many are ready for a new era in education - formal, informal, or both.

``For a lot of folks, retirement comes so fast, and there's a need to know how to handle it. The important question is, `How do you get people to look on retirement as a creative challenge - to open up a new period?''' says Alfred Canon, vice-chancellor of UNCA.

Accordingly, there's a burgeoning number of workshops, retreats, college courses, community programs, and other educational ventures for seniors, such as the travel-based Elderhostel movement. (See accompanying story, next page.)

Almost no major campuses, however, are developing the kind of long-term, comprehensive program offered by UNCA. Its center is built around eight distinct paths.

This spring, the first path, the ``senior-service league,'' held an eight-week class for 30 retirees looking for productive ways to volunteer time and to take leadership roles in Asheville. Seniors study local history, economics, politics, education - as well as service possibilities.

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In January, the ``college for seniors'' begins - a complement of courses ranging from Shakespeare to drafting.

Next spring comes the ``retirement enterprises council'' - an open association of retirees interested in meeting on economic and financial matters. Local entrepreneurship and the growing national market of retirees will be a special focus.

Further down the road, an ambitious ``seniors leadership academy'' is planned - a place for senior scholars to retire but still maintain research and exchange with colleagues and students.

Betty Robinson retired last year after teaching school for 37 years in Asheville. But, like most of the 3 million people over 65 in the United States who still work, she ``didn't want to sit at home.'' Through the senior-service league, she found a job teaching math in a pre-release education program for prisoners. ``Last month we gave out two high school equivalencies!'' she says.

But most retirees are not local. Asheville, situated in a verdant Blue Ridge mountain valley, is becoming a retirement ``hot spot'' in a state whose retirement population moved from 27th to seventh nationally between 1960 and 1980. People come for the mountains (immortalized by author Thomas Wolfe, who grew up here), the climate, and the low crime rate.

State Rep. Martin Nesbitt has become a believer in the center because it attempts to ``integrate our new retirees into local society. Seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the national population - and the one we know least about how to serve.''

UNCA chancellor David G. Brown, known as an innovator since taking over the college in 1984, developed the idea when looking for ways to fuse the liberal arts mission of the campus with local needs and trends.

``Seniors' identities are often tied to their sense of themselves as workers,'' says Dr. Canon. ``They retire and begin to ask, `Who am I?' Those questions you can begin to explore in the humanities.''

Experts say that seniors tend to take their courses more seriously than do many undergraduates. ``A lot of my friends don't like the watered-down courses you sometimes get for seniors,'' says Mrs. Robinson. ``They want the real thing.''

``The knowledgeable, curious retired persons go to a lecture - even an esoteric one - and after everyone else has left, they are still up front asking questions,'' says UNCA official Wally Bowen.

``We want to keep busy learning - that's something that keeps you alive,'' says Benjamin Holden, who now runs the center's service league after retiring as the president of Warren Wilson college in Swannanoa, N.C.

``We want to find a niche where we can continue to help the community,'' Dr. Holden says. ``I've had something like this in the back of my mind for a long time. Seniors have all this talent, experience, and time. That's not to waste.''

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