Elderhostel was founded in 1975 by Martin Knowles, social activist and educator, and David Bianco, director of residential life at the University of New Hampshire. Knowles had stayed in youth hostels during several years of archaeological expeditions across Europe. He and Bianco discussed the meaningful involvement of Scandinavian elders that Knowles had seen at Scandinavian folk schools. Combining these ideas to challenge prevailing theories of disengagement and social withdrawal in retirement, Knowles and Bianco proposed an “elder hostel” for Americans aged 60 and older. Participants would be housed in unused campus dormitories during the summer while they engaged in 1 week of low-cost classes, field trips, shared meals, and social activities. Noncredit college-level courses in liberal arts and local history would be offered in a nonthreatening atmosphere, with no exams, papers, grades, or previous educational requirements.
Elderhostel’s immediate success and rapid growth validated its founding premise that retirees wanted to be productive and creative and that they would welcome affordable opportunities to develop new interests through intellectual and social pursuits. Programs began in 1975 with 220 participants at five New Hampshire universities and colleges. One year later, word-of-mouth brought 2,000 participants to Elderhostel programs at 21 universities in six New England states. In 1980, more than 20,000 people attended programs in all 50 states and Canada. By 1990, Elderhostel was the world’s largest education and travel organization for older adults, enrolling more than a quarter-million people in hundreds of programs throughout North America and in 80 countries worldwide.
In 1977 to 1978, Elderhostel incorporated as a nonprofit organization, centralized its program registration and administration in Boston, and hired its first president, Bill Berkeley. Seasonal catalogs were published to meet the increased demand for programs. Elderhostel had been subsidized by corporate and foundation funding and individual donors, but it became fully self-supporting in 1984, less than 10 years after its modest beginning.
Elderhostel, Inc., now operates as a franchise of colleges, universities, parks, museums, and other not-for profit host institutions that design and conduct programs under its trademark. Elderhostelers age 55 and older stay in hotels, motels, lodges, conference and retreat centers, even on board ships and trains, as they attend programs that range from 1 day to 3 or more weeks in length. Hostelers use their own resources to travel to any of the many individual program sites in the United States, but when the program begins, their Elderhostel tuition covers all lodging, meals, classes, field trips, and related travel until the program ends. Tuition for programs overseas includes round-trip international airfare from a gateway city.
Elderhostel’s mission—to provide high quality, affordable, all-inclusive educational opportunities for older adults—encourages innovative approaches to lifelong learning and, while maintaining a basic set of program standards, gives autonomy of design to providers, who then create a variety in programs that reflects the unique history and culture of their local settings. An extensive array of subjects includes liberal arts, ethnic and cultural studies, visual and performing arts, music and dance, and leisure and practical courses. Elderhostel programs offer thousands of topics each year. For example, hostelers might analyze and read poetry, begin a new language, learn the origins and traditions of southwest civilizations, discuss Jewish thinkers, study religious traditions, or research the scientific discoveries made by Lewis and Clark. They might explore Civil War battlefields, learn new dances, investigate politics and policies, or delve into the mysteries of the solar system. Field trips in Elderhostel programs include visits to places such as historic homes, museums, art galleries, plantations, festivals, theaters, city centers, gardens, lighthouses, presidential libraries, national or state parks, mountains, harbors, or barrier islands.
Continuing surveys of older learners’ interests and motives have spawned new formats as well. These include intergenerational programs, where hostelers share learning adventures with their grandchildren; active programs for outdoor experiences like mountain climbing, bicycling, kayaking, hiking, and birding; and service programs, which combine learning with volunteering for worthy causes worldwide.
To accommodate increasing numbers of retirees who seek the type of lifelong learning that maintains mental fitness, Elderhostel joined with a number of established Institutes for Learning in Retirement (ILR) in 1988 to form the Elderhostel Institute Network, a voluntary association that exists to facilitate the development of new ILRs and provide resources for established ILRs. Acting as a coordinating center for the Institute programs that already existed, Elderhostel also assisted the development of more than 200 new ILRs over the next 10 years.
Now known as LLIs, Lifelong Learning Institutes are campus and community-based programs that provide noncredit academic courses and related activities for retired adults. In general, LLIs operate like college programs, but each institute’s members determine classes, semester schedules, and organizational governance. The Elderhostel Institute Network continues to provide resources to more than 500 college and university-affiliated institutes and to facilitate the development of new LLIs across North America.
- Elderhostel, http://www.elderhostel.org
- Friedan, (1994). The fountain of age. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Mills, S. (1993). The story of Elderhostel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.