As I was preparing for an art making class at a senior home last Thursday, a resident asked if I knew where the manager was. When a nearby aide told me the request was coming from a 104-year-old, I couldn’t believe it: I told Eleanora she didn’t look a day over eighty. Later I found out that the reason she needed to speak to the head honcho was because she wanted to learn Spanish. Why? Because the United States was becoming a bi-lingual country and Eleanora wanted to be part of it.

I say ¡bueno! Go for it!

One of my nursing home fantasies is called Elder U. because it borrows heavily from a higher-ed model. It’s a place where everyone is accepted and works towards a “degree” in their chosen “major.” Courses of study are based on individual interests (or behaviors), and custom tailored to levels of cognitive functioning, whether it’s a fixation on folding napkins or a genuine love of, and appreciation for, history. Faculty and mentors would be drawn from staff, family members, and local volunteers with related expertise. Activities that are already in place — e.g., fitness, affinity and support groups, newsletters, outings, Bingo, etc., — can be redesigned with a little imagination as extra-curricular components of “campus life.”

The beauty of this scenario lies in bringing all parties together under a single, unifying vision, that of a learning community accommodating the widest extremes, and giving purpose to lives that are otherwise “just hanging in there” (as my elderly mother was fond of saying).

Seriously, how much would it take to satisfy Eleanora’s wish to speak Spanish? We’re not, after all, talking core curriculum requirements, standardized testing, or any accrediting association. And what if her dream were to end no sooner than the lessons began? Elder U. would still be there to engage and support her wherever she is.

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