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by Casey Mysliwy



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Picture your retirement. You might envision long vacations, afternoons on the golf course, or more time spent with family.

However, activities like these probably won't take up the bulk of your time. And while downtime is one of the perks of retirement, you don't want to spend all your afternoons on the couch, either.

For many retirees, the antidote can be learning in retirement: programs, often administered by colleges and universities, that offer educational and social opportunities for retirees.

Joining to learn

Retirement learning programs allow retirees to take college-style courses in a variety of disciplines. Subjects run the gamut from the expected, such as history, foreign language, or art, to the unique, such as memoir writing, 20th-century fashion, and even quantum mechanics.

Most retirees who participate in these programs are motivated to learn about an area or skill they haven't yet found time to tackle, or to reengage in a subject they studied years ago, says Robby Kiley, president of the Center for Learning in Retirement (CLIR), San Francisco. "They now have time, and they have the ability to choose how they want to spend that time," she says.

Retirement learning offers a close-knit sense of community. Learning about new subjects and sharpening skills is also an important component of healthy aging, Kiley adds. She even facilitated a class at CLIR that focused on optimizing brain fitness. "The old thought 'use it or lose it' applies across the board, and it sure applies to you as you're getting on in years," she says. "Keep your mind working. Expand it into new areas."

Learning communities

At first glance, joining a retirement learning program might seem a lot like heading right back to college. But retirement learning offers something that many retirees don't even realize they need until they sign up: a close-knit sense of community.

"One of the most important things for retirees is to find a lively social life that enhances the experience of learning and, in turn, enhances social possibilities," says Leonie Gordon, assistant dean and director of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR), Cambridge, Mass.

"What people want in retirement is to find a sense of structure to their lives," she continues. "When they first retire, they find themselves with infinite time on their hands. Learning in retirement first of all provides structure, but it also provides that engagement, sense of belonging, and having something interesting to do that engages your mind."

In addition to classes in literature, science, and more, members of HILR can participate in extracurricular events like dramatic productions, writing groups, cooking lessons, and bike rides.

"There's no passive learning here," says Gordon. "It's all about participation and contributing to the discussion."

Making connections

A spirit of community also inspires members of CLIR to remain active in the group, says Kiley.

"People find that they would enjoy more than just classroom learning," she says. "What you often find is that you enjoy companionship, and you certainly enjoy the opportunity to meet people of a wide variety. You need to find people to connect with."

Some programs offer financial assistance or scholarships. That emphasis on engaging with peers is inherent in class structures at both HILR and CLIR. At HILR, members have the opportunity to lead study groups. And at CLIR, most classes are taught by members.

"We have a curriculum committee, and people who are interested in offering courses to the membership actually go and pitch it," says Kiley. "The committee tries to make sure we have a variety of subject matters and teaching styles."

Members who teach classes often draw on past academic studies, professional experience, or other areas of interest. "We have people that give an amazing amount of time and energy," says Kiley. "You've got people of all sorts of backgrounds and expertise."

Finding the right program

If you're interested in participating in a retirement learning program, the first step is to research opportunities near you. "Look around and see what your community offers—be that the community you are in or the one you move to," says Kiley.

Check with these organizations to locate programs in your area:

  • Local community colleges or universities. Retirement learning programs often are facilitated by college or university extension schools, divisions of continuing education, or other outreach programs, so start your search with those departments.
  • The Bernard Osher Foundation. Based in San Francisco, this higher education foundation supports educational programs for adults ages 50 and older through its Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI). The organization offers 117 lifelong learning programs at colleges and universities all over the country.
  • Elderhostel Institute Network (EIN). The network is a voluntary association of Lifelong Learning Institutes funded by Elderhostel Inc., Boston. EIN also maintains a list of programs available at institutions throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Becoming a member

Each retirement learning program may have different membership requirements. For example, prospective members of HILR must apply for membership. Applicants then are interviewed by the program's admissions committee. The committee looks for specific qualities in applicants, such as curiosity, energy, and excitement about the prospect of learning, says Gordon.

Learning about new subjects is important for healthy aging. "We're limited to 525 active members because of classrooms and resources available," she says. "It's also the right size for the community."

At CLIR, membership is open to any person age 50 or older; those interested in joining can simply complete and submit a membership invitation. The program typically has about 130 to 150 active members.

Fees also vary significantly from program to program. An annual HILR membership costs $800, while a full-year enrollment in CLIR costs $250. Some programs offer financial assistance or scholarships, so make sure to ask what's available.

Above all, start your planning early, and keep an open mind to interests or activities you might not have considered before, recommends Kiley.

"There may be things you'll stumble upon that you want to explore deeper," she says. "You won't have to fear that you've missed an opportunity."

Published April 20, 2012

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