Ideas

Jerry Cianciolo

‘The desire to learn never leaves us’

‘If I weren’t here, I’d be home thinking about what I was going to have for dinner,” 76-year old Joel Lamoureux told me during a recent lifelong learning class in Medfield.

Apart from the pathos, what these words reveal is a longing among many older people — especially those with physical limitations — for opportunities to flex their minds. And those opportunities can bring surprising returns both socially and physically.

Granted, there are many options available. Scores of colleges and universities offer free or reduced tuition for seniors, for instance. The Evergreen Program at Boston University allows anyone over the age of 58 to audit a class with the consent of the instructor. Likewise, Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Tufts, Brandeis, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and 116 other sites across the nation offer an assortment of daytime classes for “third agers” (those from 50 to 75 years old).

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But these aren’t for everyone. Individuals with physical limitations can find it difficult if not impossible to get to campus. Fees may also run higher than seniors are willing or able to pay. And sprawling greens with throngs of young students can seem intimidating. Online courses are always available, but some seniors aren’t computer savvy and these courses lack the social interaction many desire.

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Fortunately, another education option has emerged in and around Boston — lifelong learning programs sponsored by local Councils on Aging and held at the same facilities where seniors already go for meals, haircuts, or help with retirement planning.

It’s convenient and the benefits are obvious, says Ann Bekebrede, program coordinator of Sherborn’s seven-year-old Lifetime Learning program. “Classes are in the daytime, they’re close by, and they’re in familiar territory.”

Course offerings are rich. At the Duxbury Senior Center’s Lifelong Learning program, you’ll find “Psychology in Movies.” At Marshfield’s Lifelong Learning Opportunities program, there’s “Classical Music in Our Lifetime.” And at Lexington’s Older Wiser Lifelong Learners program, launched in 2013, you’ll find “Nuclear Energy: What Does the Future Hold.”

Typically, courses are offered in the fall and winter and meet for four to eight sessions. Costs range from $10 to $80, and for those unable to afford the fees, scholarship money is sometimes available. Instructors include local authors, musicians, aficionados of particular topics, and retired or active college professors.

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Wilfrid Rollman, 73, a former Wellesley College professor and now senior lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, is drawn from this last group. Rollman leads a four-session seminar at the Sherborn Council on Aging called “Women and the Arab Spring.” “I didn’t know what to expect when I worked up the curriculum,” says Rollman, whose offering last fall attracted more than 30 seniors.

In Medfield, Council on Aging director Roberta Lynch decided to offer what she dubbed a “Minds in Motion” course that targets those who don’t normally concern themselves with abstract topics. Lynch believes that introducing these subjects in an interactive way increases the chance of piquing someone’s interest. For example, an early Minds in Motion session focused on ethics. Enrollees were asked to create their own definition of morality — but with a catch. They couldn’t use the words “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.” Later the group was introduced to the Trolley Problem, an ethical conundrum devised by Philippa Foot in 1967 and still debated in college philosophy courses.

YouTube was also used generously. Enrollees judged the dance moves of Motown groups like the Temptations, critiqued the humor of W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin, and observed the important role 3D printers are playing in heart surgery today.

“The desire to learn never leaves us,” says Gayle Thieme, director of Senior Services at the Wellesley Community Center. “These courses are good for those who may be dealing with some loss in their lives. It’s a way for them to engage again and to reconnect with friends and acquaintances.”

Charlotte Rodgers, director of Human Services at the Lexington Senior Center, says the effects can compound. “As people get older, they tend to become isolated,” she says. “Programs like ours offer the dual benefits of social interaction and brain stimulation. We also find many people stay and have coffee after the class and chat. So there’s a recreational component as well.”

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Lifelong learning programs may harbor an even more tantalizing possibility: preventing, or at least delaying, the onset of dementia.

Opportunities to flex their minds can bring surprising returns both socially and physically.

With no cure in sight, Alzheimer’s researchers have for years focused on possible ways to slow the degenerative disease. A number of studies have shown that in addition to diet, exercise, and social connections, keeping the brain alert enhances its vitality and may build reserves of brain cells that lower the risk of cognitive decline.

If additional clinical trials confirm this finding, they would support earlier research. One 2002 study called ACTIVE, Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, found that older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training lasting 60 to 70 minutes not only improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities but continued to show improvements 10 years later.

But even if all of that is wishful thinking, mental stimulation of the sort offered by lifelong learning programs — that respects the intellectual capacity of seniors and is convenient for them — would be embraced by septuagenarians and octogenarians everywhere.

“We all need a reason to get up and moving in the morning, and brain boosting programs provide such a purpose,” says Sue Getman, chair of the National Institute of Senior Centers. “Senior centers across the country are and can be community focal points for intellectual and personal stimulation.”

Jazz singer Eartha Kitt said it best: “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”

Jerry Cianciolo, who leads a lifelong learning course “Minds in Motion,” is chief editor of Emerson & Church Publishers in Medfield. He can be reached at jerryjcianciolo@gmail.com.