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Growing Old Is Not for Dummies

June 9, 2012

The old adage holds that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. If you believe this I have a moon colony I want to sell you.  The truth is we must continue to learn as we grow old or be left behind pleading pathetically for help from our younger friends and family.

Fortunately, a wealth of low-cost, continuing education courses are offered to “mature” adults these days. Located in many major cities, these help those of us over 50 to cope with a rapidly changing world while making new friends, re-charging our brains and proving to ourselves and others that we are not obsolete. Or, as I tell my granddaughter, Cogito ergo sum, sweetheart.

Subjects offered in these courses range from college algebra and computer skills to dance, drama, history, languages, literature, photography, science and the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. One cooking class, designed for widowers, is delightfully titled “One foot in the gravy.”

Some of the best courses are found in university towns. In Austin, where I live, the University of Texas offers five different courses to “seasoned adults” through its Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Tuitions range from $195 to $305 a year.

A similar organization, the Lifetime Learning Institute (LLI), has been operating in Austin since 1977 with the sponsorship of AARP. I am taking an advanced Spanish class through LLI for $20 per semester. Most of my classmates are retired or semi-retired professionals with college degrees.  Many have advance degrees. But like so many seniors they seem to think that to stop learning would be like jumping off a moving train.

Our instructor, Lynne Lemley, earned her PhD in Spanish at UT. A dedicated teacher she uses her impish sense of humor to remind us that we do not get dispensation from homework because we’re old. Al contrario.

Our Spanish class runs for two hours every Monday morning and students are expected to teach the class during the first hour.  One student presents a Spanish verb in all its conjugations, meanings and usages then takes questions. Two other students give well-researched papers, in Spanish, on pertinent topics. Subjects covered this semester have ranged from heroes of the Mexican revolution to dolphins of the Amazon River, the aqueduct of Padre Tembleque near Hidalgo, Mexico (a UNESCO world heritage site), the Massai of Tanzania and Kenya, the history of Saint Valentine’s day and a humorous treatise on the phases of life.

Our instructor, Lynne, conducts the class during the second hour as we critique the Spanish novels we have elected to read. Funny but firm, Lynne grills us to the nth degree not only about the Spanish idioms in the novel but also about the author’s style, effectiveness, character development and methodology.

Classes geared to older people have been on the increase since the 1970s when we discovered that there’s life after 50 and that people past 65 don’t automatically go out to pasture. The Lifetime Learning Institute first opened classes in Austin in October, 1977, with 173 students and eight teachers.  Today thousands of students and hundreds of low-paid teachers participate in LLI’s Austin classes. Here, as in other towns, space for these classes is offered by churches, temples, libraries, recreation centers and retirement facilities.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) has established classes at some 120 colleges and universities around the country since 2001. These are funded by the 30-year-old Osher Foundation, established by Bernard Osher, American businessman and philanthropist, to support higher education and the arts.

Many other universities and cultural institutions operate their own continuing education programs.  Google  “lifetime learning” or “continuing education” and you’ll see how courses for “seasoned seniors” have mushroomed in recent years.

These courses are especially popular with the “young old”—people in their 50s and 60s. But geezers (like me) in their 70s and 80s–are also going back to school and finding that it’s more rewarding the second time around. They call us “le troisiéme áge,” a phrase I love since it’s the only thing that makes old age sound sexy.

The jury is still out on whether we delay dementia, or even Alzheimer’s, by continuing to study. But other benefits behoove us to keep our books and minds open. At the same time, we should hold on to our cherished memories since recalling past events is also a healthy mental activity. And who knows?  Someday our grandchildren might want us to tell them about the good old days of LPs and CDs and newspapers and books and snail mail and how we communicated before the social network was invented.

If you believe that then I have another colony on Mars that I want to sell you. The truth is, we should continue to study for our own enlightenment and the help this gives us in remaining independent

As another old adage holds: There’s nothing like learning to keep you in the prime of senility.

Gwen Gibson

From → humor

4 Comments
  1. Amen, Gwen! I love the OLLI classes at UT, and I’m almost always listening to an audio lecture from The Great Courses on my daily commute to work.

  2. Thanks for the enticing reminder, Gwen. Since I’m counting downto retirement in less than two years, I”m certainly starting to think how much fun it will be to participate in focused learning again! You’re a marvelous role movel, as always.

  3. Al Spivak permalink

    Gwen, I’m only 84 so I won’t have to consider retirement for a while. When I do, I think your ideas for continued education are great. I ought to try something in economics or business administration — to undo the stupid decisions I’ve made over the last four score and four years. If they could only be undone. Keep up the good blogging work.

  4. Jo M permalink

    Gwen – One of my goals for retirement was to teach yoga and to take college courses in subjects I was interested in rather than those that were required for a degree. I was particularly interested in the world’s major religions. I consider myself fortunate to achieved the first goal, although perhaps I over achieved, since I find that teaching yoga three afternoons and three evenings a week doesn’t give me the flexibility to take the courses I want. The solution – The Great Courses, a program offering a variety of lecture courses taught by college professors through DVD or audio CD. While the list price may run several hundred dollars, the company frequently has specials offering discounts of up to 70%. I purchased the Great World Religions Series and am learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. While I don’t have the benefit of class interaction or the ability to ask questions, there is a wealth of material available and I can watch on my own schedule (assuming I can wrest control of the the TV remote from my husband.)

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