Learning New Tricks

Regular exercise … check. Five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day … check. Blood pressure 120 over 80 … check. Strong personal relationships … check. Learned something new this week … hmm?

Lifelong learning has been added to the prescription for aging well. “Keep your brain active,” say headlines in dozens of news articles. “Do crossword puzzles.” “Play bridge.” “Try Sudoko — you’ll love it.” (I tried it, and didn’t.)

Games and puzzles are good, but lifelong learning goes beyond these popular pastimes. Thomas Perls and Margery Silver, authors of “Living to 100,” say “learning never should stop, for anyone. Formal, late-life learning helps to preserve thinking abilities. Continued learning is the key to mental vigor.”

One way to get involved in learning is to participate in one of the programs affiliated with New Hampshire colleges. Dartmouth College’s ILEAD (Institute for Lifelong Learning At Dartmouth) has more than 1,000 members. Each semester, some 600 seniors participate in one or more weekly classes. Other programs include CALL (Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning) at Keene State College, Adventures in Learning at Colby-Sawyer, RISE (Rivier Institute for Senior Education), LINEC (Learning Institute at New England College) and OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), affiliated with Granite State College. OLLI has classes in Concord, Manchester and the Seacoast area.

The institutes follow an Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org) model designed to provide learning opportunities for seniors in their own communities. Most institutes are on campus. OLLI classes are held in community buildings, such as libraries or churches. OLLI is one of 115 institutes around the country funded by the Osher Foundation. Thanks to Maine native Bernard Osher, many more seniors have access to formal learning.

Classes are for anyone age 55 and over. There’s a modest fee for the semester. Members are involved in all aspects of developing curriculum and managing the program. Presenters volunteer their time or, in some programs, receive a small stipend. They are people who have significant expertise in their fields.

The institutes offer a wide variety of subjects — to name just a few, political economy, comic opera, history of Ireland, art of the 20th Century, medical ethics, beginnings of jazz, birding by ear, the new Middle East, religion and politics in a democratic society and dozens more. Most classes are eight weeks long in a weekly lecture/discussion format. There is no homework or testing, but many participants are motivated to do additional reading in the chosen subjects.

Virginia Martin, OLLI director, says that the program is growing. “It’s wonderful,” she says, “to see the enthusiasm of the participants. It’s a great way for new residents to get acquainted. People really come out of their shells as they participate.” She laughs as she remembers one man, a long-time computer expert, who said, “I’ve used my left brain all my life. It’s time to fill up the right side.”

Another way to continue learning is to use your town’s community education program. Classes are usually at public schools in the evening. Most senior centers also offer classes. The Gibson Senior Center in North Conway, for example, offers a class in computer skills and another in dancing. A phone call to your local school department or senior center will provide information.

But perhaps classes don’t appeal to you at this time. This may be the time to undertake your own study of a topic that interests you. You might begin by looking up resources, then read and perhaps visit with an expert. Roger Sweet, of Sullivan, had long admired the cello. In retirement he studied the history and design of the instrument. Then he decided to build a cello. That done, he learned how to play the instrument. Now he plays “for fun” with two other retired physicians.

There are many ways to pursue your own interests. If you have basic computer skills, look for a computer course on a favorite topic. If there is a piano in the corner of the dining room that you haven’t touched for years, find simple music and set a practice schedule for yourself. Buy Spanish language tapes and learn at least several basic greetings and questions. Learning a language does take longer in later life. Still, you may find yourself whizzing by “Como esta usted?” to more challenging conversation.

Travel can be a learning experience. Elderhostel offers learning and travel programs worldwide, but you don’t have to go far or spend a lot of money to get some of the sense of discovery that travel brings. Design your own closer-to-home discovery trips. You might explore New England’s industrial heritage, for example, with trips to Saugus Iron Works, Lowell Textile Mills and former mill towns in New Hampshire.

Prepare for your exploration by learning as much as you can about the history of your chosen site. After the trip, enjoy a good historic novel or movie set in that era.
The daily crossword puzzle or bridge game provides a “brisk brain walk.” Learning something new, reading challenging books, playing a musical instrument or doing another complex activity provides the mental equivalent of strength training.

“Learning stimulates the growth of dendrites and creates additional neuronal networks,” says Dr. Perls. “These networks are important to overcoming damage to brain tissue.” The more we learn about the brain, the more we realize the importance of brain exercise.

“It is cognitive capacity, more than physical disability,” Perls continues, “that most often determines a person’s ability to remain active into late life.” That is reason enough to be a lifelong learner. The fun of learning is the frosting on the cake. NH