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Embrace lifelong learning at every age

The fall is a natural time to take up something new and for seniors, ELLA offers a wide range of programming to suit any interest.
Steve and Janet Chambers are finding post-retirement meaning and engagement through ELLA classes. Photo: Kate Wilson

After retiring from her administrative position at the University of Alberta’s (U of A) department of chemistry, Lynne Lechelt was eager to follow the lead of a few former work mates. They’d been taking classes through the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association (ELLA) and had shared their experiences.

“These colleagues were so enthusiastic about the program; I was keen to learn more. My first session was in the spring of 2017, and I was hooked," said Lechelt, adding for her, the depth of experience among classmates often brings even more substance to the subject matter. She also points to the instructors' earnestness and efforts to invite class presenters who are experts in their field: Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief officer of public health speaking to a class on infectious diseases, for one. In another class on space, speakers from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency were featured.

Affiliated with the U of A's Faculty of Extension, ELLA offers people 50+ courses in fine arts, leisure and wellness, humanities and science. In 2001, the U of A’s spring extension offerings were discontinued, so eight participants decided to carry programming forward. With the help of Dennis Foth, then Dean of the Faculty of Extension, the group created a non-profit organization dedicated to lifelong learning and by 2002, ELLA’s classes included art, physical activity, linguistics, writing, history, music, aging concerns and more.

"As soon as I retired, I signed up. I saw there were no papers, no exams; just learning a variety of things. This is my passion-- lifelong learning," said ELLA president Vivian Mattia, who exemplifies many ELLA members by moving from taking courses to volunteering. Mattia has gone from board member to vice president and now president. “We do evaluations after every course too, checking to see if it meets expectations. Our approval rating is always very high."

ELLA courses are 15 hours, scheduled over an average of 3 weeks, with each session lasting an hour. Though the pandemic forced organizers to put ten courses online last year, that success launched a full winter/spring online session in 2020/21. Membership, mostly those aged 65 to 80, is at 870 participants and climbing back to pre-pandemic numbers.

Classes are taught by university professors. Reuben Gazer, a U of A Masters grad in astrophysics, teaches about every day physical principles, from the movement of stars to plants and electricity. He says the experience is rewarding and energizing, especially because the students are there by choice.

“Classes are largely a conversation instead of a lecture. You have to talk out physics in some ways, to see what seems reasonable,” said Gazer, who brings his experience as a magician and musician into class interactions too. “I receive intelligent, insightful and curiosity-driven questions and am encouraged by the student's drive to learn."

Steve Chambers and his wife Janet were looking for something engaging and meaningful after retirement when they heard about ELLA.

“The idea of going back to my old alma mater, I was looking forward to that,” said Steve, noting a lot of ELLA students are university grads. “You meet former colleagues, former patients, neighbours. A lot is communicated by word of mouth.”

Mattia is aware of research proving lifelong learning’s ability to help older adults with mental acuity and social interaction.

“Seniors are engaged, committed learners. Some members are well-travelled, with a lot of knowledge,” she said. “I’m proud of senior learners who embrace online learning. We want to keep our minds active and agile.”

ELLA’s fall 2021 program offers 22 online courses, covering topics from interior decorating and yoga to marvels of mathematics, and from medical imaging to water colours on Japanese art paper.

Fall registration for the online session starts September 7, with in-person classes set to return in the spring of 2022. Course enrolment requires a small annual membership fee. For more information go to