Home schooling available for seniors on the phone

new york  |  Kathy Leeds grows animated as she describes the courses she is taking, including classes in current events, art and literature.

But Leeds will never step foot on a campus or in a classroom. The 79-year-old widow has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair to get around her Manhattan apartment.

Leeds is one of about 500 people  who recently enrolled in a telephone-based educational program for homebound seniors called DOROT University Without Walls, believed to be the largest program of its kind in the country.

The curriculum includes more than 250 courses and runs the gamut from understanding feng shui and poetry writing to discussions on moral, ethical and philosophical issues and a discourse on women of the progressive era. Informational classes on money management, Internet surfing and medicine also are available.

DOROT’s mission, according to its Web page, “is to enhance the lives of Jewish and other elderly.” Many of the agency’s programs are based in New York, but for the University Without Walls program, “seniors and teachers can be connected from any location in the U.S. equipped with a telephone, and all participants can speak to and hear each other.”

Leeds said, “It gets me out emotionally. It releases me from the four walls around me.” She has participated in the program for 12 years, and her recent class selections included a course on the life and work of author Doris Lessing and a class on recording personal histories.

In her Manhattan apartment, Kathy Leeds looks at some of the educational materials from University Without Walls, a telephone-based educational program for seniors from DOROT.
photo/ap/mary altaffer

As the nation’s population grows older, experts say programs like University Without Walls help engage seniors’ minds and expand their social network. The latest census figures show that 73 million Americans — nearly 20 percent of the total population — will be older than 65 by 2030. Within that group, 35 to 40 percent will be over 85, said Dr. Leslie Libow, a geriatric specialist at the Jewish Home Life Care System affiliated with Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

For 87-year-old Sarah Levinson, whose herniated disc and sciatica keep her from going out as much as she’d like, University Without Walls is unbeatable.

“When it’s bad weather, cold, wet or hot, even when I don’t feel well, I can get to the class,” said Levinson, a Manhattan widow who’s penned a poem on how the program rewards her personally. “The socialization, the interaction is wonderful.”

Professionals in the world of art, history, science and medicine teach the classes, often as volunteers. Each 50-minute class meets once a week for up 18 weeks. Class size is kept small, no more than 10 people, to keep discussion lively. Fees also are low: $15 per course.

Outside experts and people involved with the program say it provides a hugely valuable service.

“It’s an extraordinary way to combat a sense of isolation,” said Nechama Liss-Levinson, a Long Island psychologist who introduced her mother-in-law to the program. “The idea that our bodies and our health are influenced by our emotional and intellectual well-being is well documented.”

DOROT invites seniors from around the country to join its University Without Walls program. Information: (212) 769-2850 or www.dorotusa.org (click on “For Seniors” then “Programs” then “On the Phone”).