GMU helps Northern Virginia prepare for the “Silver Tsunami”

By Alice Slayton-Clark and Sudha Kamath
George Mason University

GMU photo

Intellectually stimulating classes designed by members for members, engaging social opportunities and a cooperative-style volunteer structure are hallmarks of OLLI-Mason. Photo courtesy of OLLI

A ‘silver tsunami’ is coming, but don’t board up the windows just yet. It’s a groundswell of baby boomer retirees. And George Mason University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI-Mason) is helping Northern Virginia prepare.

“The silver tsunami is coming to OLLI-Mason to find intellectually stimulating classes designed by members for members, engaging social opportunities and a cooperative-style volunteer structure that supports and enhances the organization’s quality,” says Jennifer Disano, executive director. “Those 50 or better may be asking the question, ‘I’m retired, now what?’ The answer is: OLLI-Mason!”

The Social Security Administration reports that more than 10,000 Americans will turn 65 each day in the next two decades.  At that rate, seniors will make up one-fifth of the U.S. population by 2030.  The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of retirees over 65 is expected to double by 2050, reaching 88.5 million.

OLLI offers a variety of activities for those 50 or better. Photo courtesy of OLLI

According to Fairfax County Board of Supervisors member Pat Herrity, more than 385,000 county residents will exceed age 50 by 2030; 105,000 will exceed age 70. That’s an increase of 88 percent since 2005.

This is not your grandparent’s retirement. Lured by the cultural, educational and social offerings in Northern Virginia, many boomers are opting to spend their golden years at home, in the communities where they worked and raised their children.

“Age in place” is the new phenomenon, as localities scramble to provide policies, programs and services to address the fundamental shift in the way our communities are organized.  This becomes even more critical as boomers remain healthier and intellectually engaged, and live longer lives.

Extended mission

Mason’s 2014-24 strategic plan states that the university is committed to “contribute to the cultural vitality of our community through regional partnerships…. OLLI-Mason and similar initiatives in Arlington and elsewhere extend the university’s learning mission to seniors who are interested in maintaining an active intellectual life.”

OLLI-Mason provides in-depth programming for active and intellectually curious seniors.   From Latin to archaeology and religion to science, OLLI-Mason courses cover a variety of subjects. But it’s not all about the classroom. Retirees also can take field trips, join clubs, play bridge, attend parties, act in plays or just relax in the social room and library with peers.

Disano describes seniors in Northern Virginia as “a productive, prodigious and influential group.” She says OLLI-Mason exists today because of their foresight and forbearance to make it a reality.

In 1991, Mason became an affiliate of Learning in Retirement (LRI), as OLLI was known then, with 100 members and 14 classes. In 2004, LRI became OLLI when the Bernard Osher Foundation voted to subsidize the Institute through grant money and a $1 million endowment to Mason.

OLLI-Mason now spans three sites – Fairfax, Loudoun and Reston – and offers 100 multi-session courses and dozens of special events each term to nearly 1,200 members. Mason donates space, technology and facilities to OLLI, and supplies nearly 20 percent of the teachers and speakers. Volunteer opportunities abound.

OLLI members are entitled to many Mason activities and resources either free of charge or at a significant discount.

Mason officials have engaged with OLLI from the top down.  Provost Peter Stearns has taught several history classes at OLLI, and President Emeritus Alan Merten participated in a videoconference.  His wife, Sally Merten, is scheduled to speak at OLLI on March 28 about her experiences during the Vietnam War in “A Conversation with and Reminiscences of a United States Air Force Nurse.”

For more information about OLLI-Mason, visit


About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.