The “seniors” walking through the Campus Center at Richard Stockton College on Thursday were not thinking about graduation. Most were already well into retirement.
With the under-21 crowd of students mostly gone for the summer, Stockton’s Center on Successful Aging, or SCOSA, opened the campus to an older population for a Successful Aging Festival. Participants could get their eyes and hearing checked, sign up for AARP or the Red Cross and other volunteer groups, get information about arthritis and tai chi, or participate in a research project at Stockton on monitoring the aging brain.
“I want to make sure I have a brain,” joked Terri Horner of Northfield, a retired nurse, as she signed up for the research project. She said the festival was a great way to get a lot of information and screenings in one location.
Almost 250,000 residents age 62 and older live in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, and that number has been growing. About 40 percent of the state’s population is older than 50.
Local colleges have been reaching out, both to educate those who work with the elderly, and provide services and programs to older adults themselves, who might have some leisure time on their hands but not typically think to spend it at a college.
Stockton professor David Burdick, SCOSA director, said the center was started in 2007 by former Provost David Carr with the mission of research, education and service.
“There is education for our students, for providers who work with older adults, and the older adults themselves,” Burdick said. The college gets a $15,000 grant from the Atlantic County Division of Intergenerational Services, and some funds from the college to coordinate programs. Last year SCOSA offered 70 programs attended by more than 1,000 people. The college uses its campuses, but also holds events at senior centers and health facilities. Many of the workshops are free.
Burdick noted that there are several retirement communities and residential living centers for older adults near Stockton, making it a convenient location for programs. A number of participants at the festival came in groups from over-55 communities.
Atlantic Cape Community College has two programs targeting an older population. Club 50 Plus offers workshops on such diverse topics as using social media, learning to play blackjack, cooking, and planning for retirement. Residents can join for $5 and get 20 percent off the cost of the workshops, which typically cost between $50 and $100.
Atlantic Cape is also among 19 colleges participating in a national community college initiative called the Plus 50 Completion Strategy. The program is designed to find and help older adults who never finished college so they can complete a degree or certificate program that could lead to a job or a promotion.
“Club 50 is more leisure activities,” said program coordinator Sherwood Taylor. “In the completion program we are trying to tell people come back, and we can help you finish college.”
New Jersey law also allows colleges to waive tuition for senior citizens, requiring them only to pay course fees. Burdick said those courses are typically offered on a space-available basis, so options can be limited. He said an Atlantic County Senior Citizens Advisory Panel has suggested they offer practical and lifestyle workshops that show aging in a positive way.
“They don’t want aging to be associated only with disabilities,” he said. The festival included a workshop on tai chi and a class on how to easily turn an old T-shirt into a recyclable tote bag.
Irma Madrid and Gail Norton, both of Smithville, showed off their tote bags as they waited for their ride home.
“I’ll be using mine,” said Madrid, who also had her hearing checked and signed up to volunteer for the Red Cross and the CASA youth advocacy group.
Stockton professor Marjorie Taylor and two of her students had a line waiting for hearing tests.
“I’ve had to turn people away,” she said. Gloria McWhorter and her husband, Clifford, came in from Atlantic City because they believe it’s important to stay on top of health issues, Gloria, a retired social worker, said.
Gloria said she doesn’t get out to Stockton often because she worries about deer in the woods at night, but she had a wonderful day there.
“Everyone had a smile, and they were all so professional,” she said.
Some of the participants said they have attended events at the Performing Arts Center at Stockton, but most had not been in the new Campus Center.
Cassey Harrison, a retired police officer from Monmouth County, warmed up for the tai chi workshop with friends Barbara Jackson and Peg Swinger, all from the Fairways in Mays Landing.
Harrison, 68, has been doing tai chi for 16 years and said it’s great for older adults dealing with arthritis, balance and just everyday stress. Swinger, 83, started tai chi about five years ago.
“It’s healthy and a great way to relax,” she said.
Stockton partnered with the Arthritis Foundation for the festival. Linda Gruskiewicz, regional director of the New Jersey Chapter, said close to 300 people registered for the event, and the foundation also saw an opportunity at the college to spread the message that not only old people get arthritis.
“About 9,000 of the more than 1.4 million people in New Jersey with arthritis are children,” she said. “We fight that image that it is just old people. Stockton is the right place to offer an event like this.”
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