Lifelong Learning Keeps Seniors Sharp

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For Ellen Handel, a resident of Ohio Living Park Vista in Youngstown, the programs offered at its Mahoning Valley Lifelong Learning Institute encourage her to keep her mind sharp.

Handel, a 5½-year resident of the retirement community who lived the Philadelphia suburbs, just wishes more residents of Ohio Living took advantage.

“They’re excellent. I don’t want to miss them,” she says. “I believe in learning every day.”

And with programs such as the Lifelong Learning Institute and courses available through colleges nearby, there are ample opportunities for those like Handel to keep their minds sharp.

The Lifelong Learning Institute grew out of a Road Scholars program for retirement communities piloted in 2009 at Ohio Living Park Vista that lasted just over a year, says Brian Kolenich, the community’s executive director. The center formally launched the institute four years ago.

Each month, the institute offers eight programs, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, says director Marise Sahyoun. Most fall into one of five categories: arts and culture, history and political science, wellness and rehabilitation, religion and spirituality, and the recently added science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

“We really play off the resources of the Valley,” Kolenich says. Partners contributing to STEM programming include Youngstown State University, America Makes, the Youngstown Business Incubator and Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology.

For the other categories, partners include the Butler Institute of American Art, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County. The library will partner with Lit Youngstown on an upcoming writing workshop at Main Library, and sometimes has the Pop-Up Library on hand with books related to the program topic.

The institute, which has a $400,000 endowment for programming, also draws lecturers from beyond the region.

“Depending on the decade [the topic took place in] and depending on their ages, sometimes they can personally identify with some of the things we’re talking about,” says historian Greg Ferro, a retired Penn State University instructor who is among the more popular lecturers at Ohio Living.

Seniors who attend the programs have an easier time focusing because they normally have less going on in their lives than people in a more general audience, he adds. “They’re here for enrichment and have fewer distractions,” he says.

The program is free to Ohio Living residents and open to other seniors for a fee that ranges between $5 and $15, which usually includes lunch or an appetizer. About 60% of those who attend are from outside the retirement community.

“A lot of research shows that cognitive development increases when you’re in an environment with lifelong learning,” Sahyoun says. “For people who are in their homes and who need that socialization aspect, they get a lot of that here. They meet new friends.”

That’s an important aspect of the program, Kolenich adds. “That social interaction with like-minded people is important,” he says. Even with married couples, there is “social isolation at home and this interaction brings them out.”

Local colleges also have programs for seniors. For instance, Youngstown State University and Kent State University at Trumbull each have programs that allow those 60 and older to audit courses. State law requires public colleges and universities to offer such access.

“We don’t register students until the Friday before the term starts,” says Jeanne Herman, the registrar at YSU. Her office took over the College for the Over Sixty program two years ago, following dissolution of the Metro College.

Pictured: Jeanne Herman, registrar for YSU.

Admission to the class is at the instructor’s discretion and instructors reserve the right to say students must meet specific requirements before they can participate.

Although seniors do not have to pay for the classes, they are required to pay any class or supply fees required of other students, along with a $5 application fee.

“There’s no credit given for this class. It’s simply for the knowledge,” Herman says.

Fall is the most popular semester to audit courses, with up to 50 seniors typically participating each semester – total university enrollment is about 12,800 this fall, she reports.

Art classes tend to be the most popular, followed by foreign languages and history. “You’re rarely going to have more than one senior in your class,” Herman says.

“It gives the students the chance to learn from someone with a different perspective than mine in their own,” adds Alan Tomhave, chairman of the department of philosophy and religious studies.

Seniors bring a different perspective to discussions than traditional college students, or even non-traditional students. “That’s valuable to the learning experience,” he says.

The Senior Citizen Guest program at Kent State Trumbull typically has six to eight participants each semester, reports Jim Ritter, director of enrollment management, student services and advising.

Pictured: Jim Ritter, director of enrollment management, student services and advising at Kent State Trumbull.

“A lot of the senior guests use it because they want to keep their minds sharp,” he says. “The mind is a muscle. The more it gets used, the sharper it becomes.”

Participants come in the first day of classes to register “so they don’t take somebody else’s last seat,” Ritter says. “They basically pick and choose the classes they want. We like for them to meet the prerequisite, but we can be flexible with that because they’re not getting a grade.”

While the senior might not have taken the formal prerequisite such as Introduction to Theater, for example, he might have performed in local plays for 30 years. Students can participate as much or as little as they want and decide individually whether to do the homework or take exams.

“My experience is they participate a lot,” he says. “They want to be there so they’re not going to miss out on anything.”

Participants tend to gravitate toward subjects such as computers, Ritter says. Other popular disciplines are theater, American Sign Language and Spanish.

There are occasional adjustments for the students, depending on the course – some students never used a computer, for instance – but once they catch on they move quickly, he says.

Ritter recalls that one student, a retired engineer came back and took a course in CAD, or computer-aided design, at age 90.

“CAD was just starting out in his last few years, so he brought a completely different perspective to the class,” he says.

The Kent Trumbull branch campus has about 2,400 students per semester, including those who participate in online and evening classes, so seniors don’t get lost in the crowd, Ritter says. Most classes have 20 or fewer students.

“We’d love to have more,” he says. “They bring a very interesting perspective to the class.”

Pictured: Community’s executive director for Ohio Living Park Vista Brian Kolenich and director Marise Sahyoun.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.