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Healthy Aging: How Lifelong Learning Helps

The first things that come to mind when we think of being healthy are medical care, diet and exercise. It's also pretty well accepted that lifestyle has a significant bearing on our health and that there are many other factors that can affect senior wellbeing—both directly and indirectly. In this, the second of our series on "Healthy Aging," we continue to explore activities that are not ordinarily thought of as health-related, but have been proven to provide significant health benefits. We do it in a way that considers the physical, mental and financial aspects for the senior citizen in today's society.

In our first article, Healthy Aging: How Volunteering Helps, we mentioned the importance of socialization and that volunteering will help combat the isolation that can begin to occur as the aging process causes seniors to lose contact with family and friends. Volunteerism also contributes to healthy aging by enhancing life satisfaction and wellbeing, sense of purpose, self-confidence and personal growth. These benefits of volunteering are also found in lifelong learning. Taking classes in a community adult continuing education program or at a college or university can be socially invigorating while also improving memory and cognitive abilities.

Learning can take place in many different forms and forums. Reading newspapers and books, listening to lectures and presentations, self-study courses, taking classes—all of these and more can be done on your own or in groups, at home, at the library, in a community room or a classroom, on the telephone, with a CD or over the internet. Learning in whatever form and wherever it takes place is fuel for the mind, giving our brains exercise, providing us with new interests and making us more interesting.

We are going to focus on multiple session class learning since that is where the greatest benefits can be attained. This may not be appropriate for many seniors due to conditions such as physical limitations. We do not mean to diminish the value of reading newspapers, magazines and books or attending presentations at libraries, museums and community centers—or to suggest that these activities be replaced. And while the computer and the internet are valuable resources for learning, they do not provide the personal contact where much of the enjoyment and benefits of learning come from for seniors.

There are several aspects to attending classes that make it a unique learning activity. The first and most important is that it takes a commitment. This usually means those attending have a real interest since they have chosen to spend the time and energy on the subject matter. This in turn then means that there is a group of like-minded individuals—at least in that they share an interest—who will be spending a number of hours together in respectful interaction working towards a shared goal. When going "back to school," the simple act of going will usually enliven a life by meeting new and interesting people.

There are many choices available to participate in lifelong learning and important considerations to make it a successful experience. One of the more important decisions is whether it should be a class specifically designed for seniors. Seniors can have some very special needs to take into account such as vision, hearing and mobility impairment. There are classes specifically designed for seniors in many adult education programs, colleges and universities. On the other hand, there are many seniors who would not enjoy this, preferring to be in a more diverse environment.

It is also important to consider educational background and the depth of the course material. Often course descriptions can be misleading so you will want to be careful with this. You may not have too much to be concerned about with a course such as Bridge for Beginners in the local continuing education program whereas a college level music appreciation class could be well below or far too advanced for you to enjoy.

The class selection process can be tricky. You can usually improve your odds of making a good selection by speaking with someone in administration or admissions about the suitability of the class for you. You should be able to tell right away if they are asking the right questions and giving you the appropriate information. If not, be persistent; try speaking with someone else who can be helpful. A bad classroom experience can be damaging and a turn off to the possibilities which lay ahead.

Many colleges and universities have made it a part of their mission to reach out to the entire community and have programs designed to encourage older persons to take advantage of their educational and cultural facilities. In addition to special classes, they may also offer stimulating social and intellectual experiences through lectures, cultural presentations and trips to places of interest.

Seniors may of course be admitted to college and university classes by following the degree-seeking student application process. Many colleges and universities encourage seniors who are not pursuing a degree to attend their regular classes at no charge or for a nominal fee. Admission to these classes is usually based on availability and there may be pre-requisites that have to be met. There is usually a special registration process for this type of attendance.

Some states and cities have special provisions for seniors attending public colleges and universities. Ordinarily the best way to find out about these is to call the admissions office. In addition, you should consider the federal (IRS) Lifetime Learning Credit, which may be claimed for the qualified tuition and related expenses of students in the taxpayer's family (i.e., the taxpayer, the taxpayer's spouse or an eligible dependent) who are enrolled in eligible educational institutions.

Of course, as with most things today, the easiest way to find out what is available in your community is to go online. For many, simply hearing the course description can stimulate interest. There is such a wide variety of subjects covered that it's not a far stretch to say that there is something for everyone. Getting started is usually the most difficult part of the process. It can be helpful to discuss your needs and goals with the admissions office.

There are exciting opportunities to explore in both old and new fields among the educational opportunities available to seniors. Lifelong learning will not halt the aging process, but it can energize, invigorate and play a significant role in healthy aging. Imagine going back to school just for the fun of it!