School is Always in Session

Seniors In Library// by Stella Katsipoutis

Thought your days in Lecture Hall were over? While going back to school may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of retirement plans, signing up for a college course or two during your golden years might not be such a bad idea. In fact, recent research is showing that older adults who continue their studies have a host of health benefits to look forward to.

According to the American Psychological Association, taking college classes can improve seniors’ cognitive abilities and decrease their risk for developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

An Australian study called the “Tasmanian Healthy Brain Project” analyzed the cognitive performance of 359 participants between the ages of 50 and 79 both before and after completing a year of full-time or part-time study at the University of Tasmania. Three years after their studies, more than 90 percent of the participants who had taken the college courses scored higher on cognitive tests and exhibited a significant increase in cognitive capacity, compared with 56 percent of the control group participants who did not take any classes.

“These findings are exciting and important because they have the potential to inform and shape our lifestyle choices,” says Jeanette M. Toohey, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of North Florida. “Learning new things generates new neural pathways in our brains, which, in turn, enhances neural plasticity—and neurological health contributes to achieving the best possible quality of life. Studies suggest that lifelong learning also contributes to stress reduction and mood elevation, and it enhances resilience and produces better sleep patterns.”

Better brain function isn’t the only thing drawing the elderly back into the classroom. Opening yourself up to new experiences and activities has numerous social advantages as well: It’s a great way to not only boost your self-confidence, but also make new friends—no matter how old you are. “Our area is a desirable retirement destination, and we’ve observed that those relocating here seek opportunities to maximize their quality of life and make connections with others in the community,” says Toohey. “Lifelong learning mitigates boredom, depression and isolation in a phase of life that is often defined by loss. It also provides opportunities to develop new relationships.”

That’s not to mention that continuing education during retirement, when most seniors have plenty of leisure time, offers the opportunity for older adults to explore their interests in various topics that they may not have had enough time to pursue when they were busy working or raising their families. “To retire should not mean to do nothing or to follow the same routine every day,” says Jorge Herrera, director of adult and continuing education at Flagler College. “We should replace the concept of ‘retirement’ with ‘transitioning,’ where one transitions from one lifestyle that is primarily focused on work to a lifestyle that is primarily focused on exploring and learning.”

As the list of benefits provided by continued education continues to grow and thrive, local schools have taken notice—leading them to offer educational programs that are specifically tailored to seniors. Programs like OLLI at UNF in Jacksonville and the Lifelong Learning Program at Flagler College in have created diverse curriculums in which anyone age 50 or better can engage in inexpensive and stimulating scholarly experiences in their subject areas of interest—without necessarily working toward a degree.

“There are no tests and no grades,” says Toohey. “The programs are designed for students who want to learn in a friendly, relaxed environment.” Class times are typically designed to appeal to retirees and Baby Boomers who have some flexibility in their daily schedules, and the courses are generally easy on the wallet too. For example, most of UNF’s OLLI classes take place on weekdays between 9:30 AM and 3:30 PM, and prices can range from only $20 to $150 per course, with an annual $50 membership fee. Flagler College’s Lifelong Learning courses are mainly offered from 6-8 PM on weekdays and only cost $49 per six-week class.

Aside from making these programs more accessible for seniors, colleges also accommodate the various interests of the older generations by offering a wide selection of course subjects. “Our Lifelong Learning courses offer diverse opportunities that range from academic to just plain fun,” says Herrera. Topics at Flagler College, for instance, include sign language, screenwriting, belly dance and computer basics. Similarly, students at OLLI can learn about art, photography, music, gardening, history, literature, science, math, technology, health and more. Plus, new offerings are added each term.

“The program formats are diverse and range from lectures, to discussions, to hands-on experiences,” says Toohey. “ED-ventures, our learning immersion field trips, are also very popular, as is our charter travel with Road Scholar, [with whom] we’re traveling to Savannah in the fall. One of our top priorities is ensuring that all current and prospective members find something of interest each term.”

For more information about enrolling in lifelong learning courses in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, visit the UNF or Flagler College websites. “The reality is that lifelong learning is becoming the norm not the exception,” says Herrera. “If you’re not out there, you’re missing out.”