Above: Hatcher Hurd teaches a class on the life of Winston Churchill for Seniors Enriched Living (SEL). Courtesy of SEL

For five years, Brandt Ross has packed up his guitar and PowerPoint presentations and traveled across Atlanta and beyond to inform and entertain rooms full of seniors.

The retired CEO presents popular programs related to his passions — history, baseball and the hazards of aging in place — at senior centers, senior residences and at continuing education programs for seniors.

The global coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop him. He recently wrapped up a slate of summer programs and will teach for four different senior programs this fall. Every class he teaches now is done online, using meeting apps such as Zoom.

“The online world has become an important component of senior life and we just have to get more people into it,” Ross said. “I talk in my senior transition program about socialization and keeping people connected. I think this … connection that we create for seniors who are isolated is so important.”


Senior education programs, such as Emory University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program, are rapidly adjusting to that new normal. “We lost a lot of students in the beginning (of the pandemic). We dropped down to about 100 students from 1,000,” said Jeffery Alejandro, OLLI program manager. “We had a lot fewer courses because instructors were reluctant to teach online. But now they’ve been missing teaching and students have been missing taking courses and the socialization.”

online game night
Emory University medical students host an online Game Night for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, also known as OLLI. Courtesy of OLLI

Alejandro anticipates offering 15 to 20 online courses this fall, with topics ranging from art and music to the history of Broadway to world travel.

OLLI is also working to maintain a sense of community for students through special interest groups and virtual gatherings. “We’re doing watch parties where everybody watches performances together or takes a virtual tour of a museum together,” Alejandro said.

Virtual programming has become a permanent part of OLLI’s new normal.

“When we go back to safe spaces, we will still livestream classes from the classrooms because of health concerns and accessibility issues,” he said. “So, there’ll be people in the classroom and people online taking the class together.”


Bill Berger, president of Perimeter Adult Learning & Services (PALS), looks forward to returning to in-person classes someday, but he’s also seen the benefit of online classes, which continue at PALS this fall.

“One of our participants is in dialysis and he’s able to log onto the class, sign in while he’s on dialysis, and be involved in the class,” Berger said.

enrichment class online
Researcher and ethnographer Althea Sumpter, center in top row, teaches a “Difficult Conversations” class online.

Now that classes are online, PALS and OLLI are recruiting volunteer instructors from across the country. Berger found one of the instructors for PALS’ upcoming Election 2020 course after reading about the Virginia resident in a Washington Post article on reapportionment.

PALS’ fall lineup of four Zoom classes features a series of lectures on early presidents, an in-depth exploration of Antarctica, a course on avoiding frauds and scams and the program addressing Election 2020 themes.

Berger said the value of these courses is that they, among other things, engage the brain and bring people together, “even if only on a computer screen in this time of social isolation.”

“Knowing about early presidents, you know, is that going to help you get along in life? Maybe not, but it’s something that’s fascinating to a lot of people to hear facts that they never knew about, and even if they never use it in the future, it’s still learning,” Berger said.

“Other information like avoiding scams and frauds is absolutely essential, especially for seniors, to know about,” he said. “And, of course, we have what many call the election of a lifetime coming up in no time at all.”

Lifespan Academy

The fall session of Buckhead-based Lifespan Academy will be totally virtual. “Our thinking during this difficult time is “Stay Safe — Stay Engaged,” said Peggy Palmiter, Lifespan’s executive director. “We help older adults get online and learn how to use Zoom, and we offer technology classes … on a variety of topics.”

video class
Brandt Ross teaches a virtual class on John Wesley Powell, a 19th century explorer and scientist, as part of his “Game Changers” series. SPECIAL

Lifespan’s fall course outline features classes on the U.S. Constitution, mindfulness and visioning, “Healthy Eating Ideas from other Countries,” and a series about “the challenges of aging in these unprecedented times.” Also on the roster are a town hall session on current events and live instruction in Tai Chi and line dancing.

Ross, a frequent instructor for Lifespan, recently completed a couple of new programs to add to his lengthy repertoire. “Perhaps the Greatest Cowboy,” is his course about Charlie Goodnight, a cattle rancher commonly referred to as the “father of the Texas panhandle.” The other is about Bass Reeves, a man who was born into slavery, became the first black deputy U.S. marshal, and was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons.

Ross is diving into Zoom technology, adding intermission periods to his programs and enjoying answering questions sent to him by his audiences. He’s also getting a kick out of creating artificial backgrounds. “For example, I’m doing a program Wednesday on the Grand Canyon for Lifespan, and I’ve got great pictures of the Grand Canyon, so it’s like I’m sitting on the rim of the canyon,” Ross said.

Virtual programs do have their challenges, though, he said. “One of the tough things is I’m singing songs and playing guitar. The sound is really, for the most part, not good, and I need all the help I can get,” he said, laughing.

Researcher and ethnographer Dr. Althea Sumpter began teaching at OLLI in 2018, starting with “Documenting Your Cultural History,” a course on how to create family stories through PowerPoint and video. She’s also taught “Navigating the Gullah Geechee Coast,” a course based on her first-hand knowledge of the area’s culture.

“This year I created a course that is very prescient for the time, ‘Difficult Conversations,’” she said. The course focuses on the development of the U.S. from a cultural and ethnic perspective with a goal of inspiring people from diverse backgrounds to become allies in forging a common future.

Dr. Sumpter said online teaching for OLLI is working out well for her, “along with the ability to remain in contact with those in the class through email.”

“Zoom allows me to share my PowerPoint materials along with online links to additional materials,” she said. “I also like that a support person is always available if something goes awry.”

Did you know?

  • In Georgia, seniors ages 62+ can attend the state’s public colleges and universities tuition-free.
  • Check college admission web pages for information on their tuition waiver procedures.
  • Georgia State University’s program, known as GSU 62, can be found at admissions.gsu.edu/bachelors-degree/knowledgebase/gsu-62-program.

Get Schooled!

Here’s a roundup of some education programs for seniors offered by metro area nonprofit organizations. Some of these programs offer scholarships or grants or state that they will turn no one away for inability to pay. Public libraries and senior centers are also good sources of classes and activities. Check out the websites for virtual programs.

Enrichment of Life Movement (ELM)

The fall session of Marietta-based ELM was cancelled due to the pandemic. Founded in 1984, ELM provides educational programs, social interaction and volunteer opportunities for residents of the Cobb County area, ages 50+. The non-denominational organization normally offers a full day of more than 60 classes for eight-week sessions in the fall, winter and spring at First United Methodist Church of Marietta. Info: elmcobb.org.

Lifespan Academy

Created in 1981 by a collaboration of churches, Buckhead-based Lifespan Academy is an education and enrichment program of the Lifespan Resources organization. Lifespan will offer virtual classes for its fall session, which begins the week of Sept. 7. A single eight-week class is $50. The full schedule of classes costs from $59 to $84. Info: lifespanatlanta.org or 404-273-7307.

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Emory University

Four-week online classes begin monthly, except in December, and cost about $50. An optional one-year membership is $50 and provides benefits such as discounts on OLLI classes, access to OLLI book clubs and other special interest groups, and discounts at some local restaurants. Info: ece.emory.edu/olli or 404-727-5489.

Other OLLI programs can be found at Kennesaw State University, cpe.kennesaw.edu/olli and at The University of Georgia, olli.uga.edu.

Perimeter Adults Learning & Services (PALS)

Founded in 1991, Dunwoody-based PALS is an all-volunteer organization led by seniors for adults ages 50+. The fall session of life enrichment learning runs from Sept. 14 to Nov. 11 with four Zoom online classes offered on Mondays and Wednesdays. The $55 fee covers all of the classes. Info: www.palsonline.info.

Seniors Enriched Living (SEL)

This all-volunteer, interfaith organization based at Roswell United Methodist Church is in its 30th year of offering classes for seniors. The fall term begins Sept. 28 and runs for eight weeks. Registered members can take five online classes a week for a registration fee of $55. Open to anyone age 50+. Registration is $55. Info: selroswellga.org.

Senior University of Greater Atlanta (SUGA)

Tucker-based SUGA will do a virtual fall session beginning Sept. 22. Seven classes will be offered Tuesdays through Fridays, and members can take one or all classes, which run from six to eight weeks. SUGA began in 1979 on the Emory University campus, and later moved to Mercer University and then to leased space at Rehoboth Baptist Church. The normal annual registration fee has been $195 per person, which covers the entire year of classes. For information on current charges, send an email to sugaatlanta@gmail.com. Info: su-ga.org

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.