Toronto — Ask Janet McPhee to disclose her age and she counters with a big smile and says, "If I told you my age, you'd think I'm too old to be doing what I'm doing."
What she does is promote Living and Learning in Retirement, a course of studies at York University's Glendon College, which has blossomed into one of North America's most impressive back-to-the-classroom movements for older men and women.
It began as a result of the Canadian government's concern about its aging population. In 1973 the government launched New Horizons, a $10-million program designed to involve older people activities they would devise themselves.
In some circles the announcement was greeted cynically as a government attempt to win more votes in the next election. Others described it as an effort "to inject a little federal silver into the golden years of Canada's senior citizens."
Nevertheless, it stirred up a good response. By March of last year the government had poured a total of almost $67 million into 10,920 projects. Older persons won grants for doing everything from setting up old-time dances to providing kosher meals for elderly Jewish people in their homes. One group was given $4,670 to prepare a guide on wild mushrooms. In the province of Saskatchewan a group harvested a grant of $15,000 to restore vintage machinery in an abandoned aircraft hangar.
At Toronto, Mrs. McPhee teamed up with a group who were interested in offering the over-65s academic courses at university level. New Horizons money ($11,103) was enough to start Living and Learning in Retirement. Besides paying for a consultant supplied by York University's continuing education department, it also paid the fees of the professors who gave the lectures.
New Horizons grants are given only once. After the project is under way, money to keep going has to be found elsewhere.
Living and Learning easily found the money it needed. From the beginning it was flooded with applicants willing to pay the required $8 for each series of lectures. These have now been extended to a possible four courses that can be taken in the fall semester and three in the winter term. Most sign up for at least two.
The money from fees, plus a modest grant from industry, have been ample to cover expenses.
Thursdays and Fridays are the days the Living and Learning group invades Glendon College. Phyllis Barrow, a retired public- school teacher, has been attending the lectures for the last five years and puts them high on her list of interests. "We're studying Canada's relations with the United States now," she says. "We have wonderful professors."
Mrs. McPhee says that participants send in suggestions for course topics, and these are taken into account by the program-planning committee. Once approved, the outline is forwarded to the faculty member at Glendon who is the group's only paid consultant. He is responsible for arranging for the professors who will give the lectures.
Courses include "Canada in the World Today," and "Science and Social Conscience." They develop from what has gone before. "Out of our study of early Canadian literature grew our interest in early Canadian history, and from this we wanted to know about the rudimentary beginnings of government. After that we wanted to know how we are governed now, and this is political science," Mrs. McPhee says.
"Then of course it is only natural to want to go on from there to study economics because the art of government has a lot to do with money."
One spinoff from Living and Learning is Third Age Learning Associates (TALA) which also has its headquarters at Glendon. After three years as the president of Living and Learning, Mrs. McPhee now has become the director of TALA, which is basically an information center where older persons can get advice about starting their own learning groups.
TALA offers "how to" brochures, and practical advice on programming. As a new project, it has just received a $12,477 New Horizons grant for a Third Age Learning conference to be held at Glendon College May 13 and 14.
Among those most impressed by the Living and Learning students is Dr. David McQueen, principal of Glendon College. He describes Living and Learning as "a self- starting organization" and gives much of the credit to Mrs. McPhee. Living and Learning which now has a membership of more than 900, is something that "just happened" at the college, he says. "We feel they [the over-65s] are very good for us. The professors like lecturing to them because they ask intelligent questions."
"One thing they keep saying -- which is great -- is that they want to be with the young people," he says. "Quite a number of them deliberately stay on after class to have lunch in our cafeteria, which provides considerably less than gourmet meals. They stay simply because they want to be around the young people."
Mrs. McPhee says that she believes learning doesn't stop just because you reach a certain age. "Once you become used to a certain diet, you want to continue eating the same kind of food."
What she opposes is the patronizing treatment individuals so often get once the pension checks start coming. Too many experts try to pigeon-hole them, seem to think they have to have things done for them and have to be given things to keep them busy "when what they want is to go on living in the same way they have always lived," she says.
Living and Learning, she maintains, has been successful because "we are giving people things with no condescension whatsoever; no questions asked about academic background. It's learning for the love of it."