Improving lives for seniors

Marylen Mann in her living room.
Marylen Mann, AB '57, MA '59, started OASIS, a nationwide program aimed at providing social and intellectual opportunities for seniors. Photo by Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

You won’t find Marylen Mann, AB ’57, MA ’59, spending her time watching TV or working on arts-and-crafts projects.

In fact, because of Mann, you won’t find as many senior ­citizens doing either of these activities. Why bother, when there are children to tutor, classes to take and new people to meet?

That’s the thinking behind OASIS, Mann’s nationwide ­program aimed at providing social and intellectual opportunities for seniors. Mann started the program in 1982, after seeing the sedentary activities offered at senior centers. With a grant from the U.S. Administration on Aging, OASIS was born. Now in its 35th year, the program is thriving in 50 cities with 30,000 annual participants. In 2005, Mann was named one of 10 national People Who Make a Difference by the AARP. She won a Founders Day Award from the university in 2006. And in 2007, she was asked to speak at the United Nations Conference on Aging and Economics.

Mann graduated from Washington University in 1957 with a philosophy degree, but “I got out of school, and there were no ads in the paper for philosophers,” she says. She earned her ­master’s degree in education in 1959 and worked in ­curriculum development.

This translated to her work with OASIS. Mann created focus groups to test new classes, and she developed a training ­curriculum for her prized intergenerational tutoring program, in which seniors tutor first- through fourth-graders in reading.

“Developing curricula to train teachers to train seniors to work with kids was just another extension of what I had done,” she says.

Originally located in four cities — St. Louis, Los Angeles, ­Baltimore and Cleveland — as part of a two-year pilot ­program, OASIS partnered with sponsors, such as May Co., and local ­hospitals, such as BJC, to expand and provide greater coverage across the country.

In St. Louis, Mann’s latest project is the Magnificent Theater of Life, a three-part seminar designed to introduce seniors to end-of-life topics like living wills and palliative care.

For this, Mann recruited the help of a number of Washington University educators, including Brian Carpenter, professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences, who studies processes related to aging.

“When people stay socially engaged and intellectually engaged, that really does yield rewards in terms of their physical health and well-being over time,” Carpenter says.

And working with Mann has a pleasant ancillary benefit. “Marylen is a force of nature,” Carpenter says with a laugh. “She’s got a lot of ideas, a lot of energy. When she said that she was going to do a program like this, we knew we were on the train and there was no getting off.”

One of the most important benefits of OASIS is that it keeps seniors from becoming isolated. “We create mini-communities,” Mann says. “People meet folks who have similar interests or ­similar challenges, and they end up becoming friends and ­supporting each other.”

In her own life, too, the project has a key social component. “I’ve had some real tragedies in my life, and my involvement with OASIS has helped me overcome [them],” Mann says. ­Alongside family, “I feel that OASIS is also my community.”

Mann’s focus is also behind the scenes, making sure the ­program is addressing the needs of seniors.

“People at any age have to have somebody who says, ‘I really believe in you,’” she says. “That’s what I had in college. ­Professors thought that I was more capable than I was, so I was always ­trying to live up to their opinion of me.”

And nearly 60 years after her college graduation, Mann is still quoting the philosophers she read in school.

“Seneca said that there are pleasures in old age if we only know how to take advantage of them,” she says. “I think what we want to do is help people to make their older years as ­pleasurable and as interesting as possible.”

Zach Kram, AB ’16, works as an editorial assistant at the sports, culture and tech site The Ringer.