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Seniors Engage The Outdoors And Explode Myths About Retirement At UF’s 4-H Camp Ocala Elderhostel Program

Ami Neiberger

Jerry Culen, Fla. 4-H Youth Dev (352) 846-0996 ext. 250

GAINESVILLE — Audrey Heath owns her own kayak, walks four miles a day and can paddle a canoe for hours. An avid student of American birds, she hikes through scrub brush toting binoculars in pursuit of a rare avian find.

Who is she, America’s next athletic icon? Nope. She’s part of a new generation of American retirees who are embracing life on the wild side.

“I think it’s important to stay active,” said Heath as she perched on a picnic table beside her husband, Elbert Heath, after a canoe trip. Both in their mid-60s, the Heaths were participants in the University of Florida’s Elderhostel program in the Ocala National Forest. “I think what I’ve valued the most about Elderhostel is meeting other seniors who have a zest for living and learning.”

Participants in the program, sponsored By the 4-H Youth Development Program at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, spend a week exploring local springs and wet prairie habitat, watching birds and hearing lectures about Florida’s wildlife and ecosystems. The Heaths soon hustled off in pursuit of a rare sight — a limpkin with hatchlings that they had spied the day before.

It’s pretty typical behavior for Elderhostelers and a growing number of other retirees, said Jerry Culen, an assistant professor of youth development in UF’s department of family, youth and community sciences and organizer of the program at 4-H Camp Ocala.

“They are very active people and they come here to study. This program is for the life long learner,” said Culen, “and it really debunks popular stereotypes of sedentary retirees.”

No one would call 70-something Mary Bailey sedentary. As she scrambled over some tree roots to marvel at an ancient Indian shell mound, the retired chemical engineer from Silver Spring, Md., said, “This is really a fabulous program and I’m learning a lot. I saw trees that I’d never seen before, and limpkin, a bird that’s endemic to Florida. This was a unique experience for me, one that I won’t soon forget.”

The Heaths and Bailey are not alone. Annually, more than a quarter million people over 55 attend Elderhostels at 1,900 universities, community education centers and national parks in the United States. Elderhostel programs, including the one at 4-H Camp Ocala, are coordinated nationally By a nonprofit organization in Boston. Their popularity demonstrates that many retirees want to lead lives that are active and mentally challenging.

“You never stop learning,” said Tom Talty, who left his home in Buffalo, N.Y., to attend the Elderhostel program at 4-H Camp Ocala. “The name of the game is to keep moving mentally, physically and emotionally.” That’s a philosophy he and his wife, Marie, have applied to their retirement, whether they are hiking with the Foothills Trails Club in Buffalo or canoeing in a Florida lake.

A physically and mentally active retirement is healthier, said clinical psychologist Garret Evans. “You don’t want to retire from something, you want to retire to something,” said Evans, an assistant professor in UF’s department of family, youth and community sciences. “Hiking, canoeing and exercise are valuable not only in terms of a sound body, but also a sound mind. People who are involved in groups like these with social connections function better, are happier people, and live longer.”

Promoting a healthy lifestyle that includes educational development is what makes the Elderhostel program successful, said Culen. Some have wondered why 4-H, a youth development program that involves 331,000 young people ages 5 to 18 in Florida, is promoting programs for senior citizens during the off-season at one of its four camps.

“That’s easy to answer,” said Culen. “These seniors are an example of what we hope our 4-Hers will become — active adults who pursue knowledge and excellence in whatever they do. What better role model could we offer our young people?”


Photo available By calling Tom Wright, UF/IFAS Communication Services, 352/392-1773.

Photo: Elderhostelers Audrey and Elbert Heath of Alpena, Michigan watch for birds at 4-H Camp Ocala. Participating in a nontraditional program for retirees, the Heaths enjoyed bird watching, hiking, canoeing and lectures about Florida’s unique ecosystems. The program is sponsored By the 4-H Youth Development Program at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.