“You learn something new every day” is more than an empty truism if you keep your mind open to new perspectives and new experiences, even well into old age. But what is required is more than a matter of passive acceptance; exposing oneself to the kind of fresh information that broadens the mind, rather than merely reinforcing the old beliefs of a lifetime, also takes some active effort. If you’re in your sunset years, with your mortgage paid off and kids safely put through college and yourself perhaps even able to retire, you may find yourself for the first time in decades with the leisure to pursue educational activities that enhance your quality of life.
The Elderhostel movement was founded in the mid-1970s, when the World War II generation reached retirement age and got interested in educational travel experiences. It also gave colleges something useful to do with their dormitories during the summer months. But the Baby Boomers are a different kettle of fish: less affluent than their parents on average, and waiting longer to retire, so that taking off somewhere for two weeks or a month is less doable for many. Elderhostel rebranded itself as Road Scholar in 2010 in an effort to woo this newest generation of Golden Agers, but that won’t sway those of us who still have to stick around to work at least part-time.
Luckily, there’s a more affordable, less time-consuming alternative that also grew out of the Elderhostel movement: Lifetime Learning Institutes. They are sort of like Continuing Ed or BOCES for people aged 55 and up who aren’t looking to retrain for a new career — just to keep their minds nimble, with the kind of group stimulation that many of us remember fondly from our college years. Missing, however, is the pressure to perform and compete with other students, and there’s little or no homework involved.
Classes typically meet once a week for four to eight weeks in spring and fall, and are surprisingly affordable: A set annual membership fee entitles you to register for up to 12 courses (though class sizes are limited, and they tend to fill up quickly; some are so popular that admission is done by lottery). In the Lifetime Learning Institute (LLI) hosted by SUNY New Paltz, that annual fee is only $115 per person: no student loan necessary!
The New Paltz LLI — one of more than 400 across the country, each autonomous and affiliated with a college — was founded in 2007 by local educators Lyn Mayo and Helise Winters. That means that it’s celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. A members-and-their-guests-only gala will mark the occasion on Sunday, September 17 at Garvan’s.
But that’s not the only reason why now would be a really good time to invest in a membership. LLI’s year is the academic year, so you get the most out of your money if you join in time to register for fall courses. August 19 is the “suggested” registration deadline; you can still sign up after that, but many classes will already be filled. Becoming a member now also qualifies you to participate in the LLI’s bus trips — they’re going to tour West Point in October 2017 and the Philadelphia Flower Show in March 2018 — and to attend the member brunches, with speakers or performances, that are held about every six weeks at Woodland Pond. You can also get passes to park on the SUNY campus and to use the gym facilities.
So, what sorts of classes are we talking about here? “From folding origami to philosophy. There’s usually something there for everyone,” says Marilou Abramshe, a retired social studies teacher and school principal who now serves as LLI’s catalogue chair and classroom manager chair. And indeed, the list of available options ranges from the seriously academic to the arts (both hands-on and art appreciation) to self-help, alternative healing and spirituality. Political science is a hot topic this fall, with class titles including “Current Events Discussion,” “America’s Military/Industrial Complex,” “The Governors of the Empire State,” “Understanding Modern War,” “Take Action and Make Your Voice Heard,” “How Sociology Can Save the World” and “Law, Ethics and Fairness in a Just Society.” So if you’re a Boomer who opposed the Vietnam War but dropped the ball on social activism once you aged out of eligibility for the draft, or once life’s practical demands got in the way, this might be a good opportunity to reengage.
Want something more lightweight and fun? Try learning Euro dance, genealogical research methods, how to cook with exotic spices, collage as memoir, easy bike rides, cocktail party etiquette or even a course on the Beatles. There’s a film appreciation class that screens bits of murder mystery/courtroom movies and challenges viewers to figure out whodunit, another that teaches the basics of Chinese medicine and another in which you’ll learn how to repair old books. Abramshe is especially enthusiastic about “The Engaged Observer,” in which the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art’s Zachary Bowman will use the Dorsky’s fall exhibitions to help you appreciate and think critically about contemporary art; and “Season Ticket,” a new pilot program in partnership with the Department of Theatre Arts in which adult students will observe and discuss two fall SUNY productions, both from backstage and in performance.
The presenters of these classes are highly knowledgeable in their fields: Many of them are retired college professors or educators, some businesspeople sharing their fields of expertise, others ardent lifelong hobbyists. “None of them get paid, except that they get to take free classes the following year,” Abramshe notes. “They love teaching seniors, because they don’t come to class with a blank mind. There’s a lot of interaction. They’re there because they want to go.”
Most of the classes are offered on Wednesdays, when the college supplies classroom space, or on Fridays at various venues including St. Joseph’s Church, Woodland Pond, the Reformed Church’s Education Center and the New Paltz Community Center. Some of the art classes are hosted in the artists’ own studios.
Intrigued? Now’s the time to check out the brand-new fall 2017 LLI catalogue and become a member for the school year just starting. To find out more, call (845) 257-2892 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.newpaltz.edu/lifetime.