Optimizing the College Experience for Retirees
This article is written by R. Malcolm Stewart, M.D. Dr. Stewart is a neurologist specializing in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Since retiring from direct practice, Dr. Stewart decided to go back to college and is currently working toward a degree in computer science. This article represents Dr. Stewart’s reflections on his experience with returning to college during retirement.
To learn is to be alive! Learning is part of an active lifestyle, and lifelong learning is a laudable goal. Attending a college or university as a senior citizen can be both rewarding and challenging. If you are considering going back to school in your later years of life, make sure you do some “homework” and carefully assess your options, motivations, goals, overall life circumstances and age before embarking on such an adventure.
Benefits and Rewards
One of the immediate rewards of going back to school is the excitement of starting a new journey in life. Learning new information or a new skill can promote a better self-image. You can hold more interesting conversations with your peers and share your newly developed knowledge or skill with them. Learning a new language opens up new vistas for travel and communication. Learning a new skill brings self-satisfaction and better mental health.
Learning is also a positive factor for maintaining brain health. While the learning does not stop the underlying pathology of a neurodegenerative process such as Alzheimer’s disease, it promotes a compensation so that you remain active and functioning, thereby reducing the impact of the neuropathology. Of course, best results are seen when you participate in a variety of intellectual activities.
The benefit of social interaction in returning to school can be tremendous. Being around younger people can help inspire your own curiosity, energy and motivation. At the same time, you must be careful not to compare yourself to the younger people. Don’t try to compete head to head with first-time college students, but, rather, collaborate and share your life experience with them.
One of the biggest challenges to returning to school is the time commitment. If you are serious about learning something new—whether it be studying a new foreign language, learning to play an instrument, painting a picture, computer programming or learning about a new field of study—you must be willing to commit the time necessary to master the subject. A rule of thumb is that about two to three hours of study outside of class is needed for each hour spent in class.
In addition, senior citizens may need to spend more time out of the classroom than their younger colleagues due the way that aging impacts information processing speed and memory retention. The wealth of life experiences for older students, however, can help level the playing field against younger students.
Another time issue centers around how much free time you have at your disposal to devote to learning something new. You must consider how this time commitment impacts relationships like with your spouse or a significant other. How would they feel about your new time commitment? Are they supportive or do they feel abandoned? Do they share your love and enthusiasm for the subject and value learning? Do they also have an activity to fill their time when you are not available?
There are also financial challenges when returning to school. Do you have the financial resources to attend an institution of higher learning? Many community colleges offer free access to citizens over age 65 and sometimes younger. Free access to certain classes may be limited and you may need to pay tuition to attend the desired class whether as an audit or for credit. State colleges and private universities are more expensive. Would you need to keep working to support the family? Taking out a loan at this juncture in life is probably not a good option. Scholarships may be available to those attending full time, have special needs or are going into a new field. Scholarships may be restricted if one already has a degree.
Another issue which can affect learning relates to your health and well-being. The aging process can affect hearing and vision. If these are not optimal, you might miss important information being delivered. If you are not in good general health, taking on the burden of leaning may not be warranted. Medications such as sleep medications, antihistamines for colds and allergies and anticholinergics used for bowel or bladder problems can impair learning. Alcohol and recreational drugs can also impair learning. Untreated depression and anxiety can also affect learning. For an experience to be encoded into memory, it must have a strong emotional valence. If the experience is perceived as neutral or boring, it will not be remembered. If you have depression, which can affect attention, you will not absorb the material. If you struggle with performance anxiety, which can affect 1 in 8 people, you may not want to participate in class discussions or make solo presentations.
Making the Journey
If you do choose to pursue an educational activity at a university or college, you have the responsibility to yourself to evaluate the situation and take inventory of your resources. You must have realistic goals and be prepared to make adjustments. Choose a course of study you like and think will be fun, perhaps to learn about a new field or to develop a latent talent. Expanding your horizons can be great. If the experience is not to your liking, you have the power to stop, modify or change the program or take a break. Don’t become a prisoner to the process. This will only generate resentment and defeat the purpose of the activity.
You must be prepared for intellectual challenges and reality checks. You will probably not be the head of the class or the shining star you were 40 or 50 years ago. That’s OK. Ask yourself why you are there. Hopefully, part of the answer is to have fun. Another answer is to challenge your brain and help prevent neurodegenerative disease. If the course of study is overwhelming, change to something different. You may need to go at a slower pace rather than quitting the game. Maybe change from credit to audit. The journey becomes more important than the destination.
You must not embark on the program in a vacuum. Consider your overall health and strive for balance. You must keep up an exercise program. Aerobic and, to a certain extent, less strenuous exercise can produce brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which acts like a brain fertilizer and improves memory and learning. The effect lasts two weeks at most, so you must continue to exercise.
You must maintain good sleep and hygiene so you can remain alert and focused in class. You can’t spend night and day just trying to keep up with class. Another issue relates to the time of day when you take the class. You must try to attend the class at a time when you are alert and can concentrate. If you are a morning person and you take a class late in the evening, odds are you will be too tired or sleepy to optimally absorb the material. If you are a night person and take an early morning class, the same issue portends. If you are taking a night class, you must be careful about driving late at night or in inclement weather.
My final thoughts as a senior and a college student? Choose something you like. Keep it up as long as it’s fun. Know when to change or stop. Enjoy the ride!