Lifelong Learning for Seniors

Has it ever crossed your mind that you might be bored in retirement? Why not learn a new language, take music lessons or even get an advanced college degree? Whether you want to acquire a new skill, pursue a new hobby or study a subject of special interest to you, you’ll find that older adults have countless opportunities for lifelong learning. Accept that challenge and you’re likely to enrich your social life, boost your brain power and improve your overall health.

What is Lifelong Learning?

Learning is not confined to a classroom or to a certain stage of life. It can take place throughout life and in countless situations. The voluntary, ongoing pursuit of knowledge—whether for personal or professional reasons—is lifelong learning. Besides enhancing employment prospects, ongoing learning enhances personal development, social interactions and citizenship.

Many people decide to move to college- and university-related retirement communities “where they can take lifelong learning courses, mentor college students and even get a degree,” The New York Times reported in a 2014 article titled “Going Back to School, Without the Pressure.” “As baby boomers retire in large numbers, these communities will experience significant upticks in popularity,” senior-housing expert and George Mason University Professor Andrew J. Carle told The Times. “People want intellectually stimulating environments,” he added.

In a story titled “Why Boomers Are Returning to College,” PBS-TV’s “News Hour” related the story of Ray and Ann Goldwire, who retired to a resort-style community but “quickly grew weary of the activities that absorbed most of the retirees’ days. It was golf, golf, golf, bridge,” Ann Goldwire said. “Ray and I didn’t get along real well there.”

Sadly, it’s not unusual for older Americans to feel isolated from the rest of society when they retire. “We’ve built a lot of really beautiful retirement communities in this country, but unfortunately they are in many ways completely separated from the rest of society. A bird in a gilded cage is still a bird in a cage,” senior housing expert Andrew Carle told PBS.

A January 2019 feature article in Inside Higher Ed, titled “Retirees to Embrace Campus Life,” reports on “a growing trend of privately owned retirement communities being built on or near college campuses.” The article notes that “some retirement communities may lease or buy college-owned land, such as Kendal at Oberlin, which has close ties to Oberlin College in northern Ohio, and Vi at Palo Alto near Stanford University.”

Kendal at Granville resident in Denison University class

Benefits of Learning New Skills Throughout Life

Computerized brain games and other brain-training techniques claiming to prevent memory loss have become big business, but a 2014 news story aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition” suggests “you might be better off picking up a challenging new hobby.”

Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, randomly assigned 200 older people to learn a new skill—either digital photography or quilting. They were compared to a social group who did things like watch movies or reminisce together and to another group of older adults who listed to the music or played easy games and puzzles. Only those who learned a new skill had significant gains. “We found quite an improvement in memory, and we found that when we tested our participants a year later, that was maintained,” Dr. Park said.

A recent Harvard Health Blog, titled “Back to school: Learning a new skill can slow cognitive aging,” makes the point that: “Active aging involves more than moving your body. You also need to move your brain.”

“New brain cell growth can happen even late into adulthood,” says Dr. Ipsit Vahiam, director of geriatric outpatient services for Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “The process of learning and acquiring new information and experiences, like through structured classes, can stimulate that process.”

Classes can also sharpen your social skills and enhance your self-confidence. “It is easy to become more socially isolated as people grow older,” says Dr. Vahia. “A class makes you interact and communicate with other people on a regular basis through group participation, conversations and discussions.”

AARP has compiled a helpful list of the best colleges for older or returning students, which includes online learning opportunities.

Kendal at Granville residents at Denison University

Bringing Generations Together

While Kendal residents and staff clearly benefit from their ties to educational institutions, students who are engaged with residents and staff of Kendal communities also benefit. The involvement of students in Kendal communities spans the spectrum from preschool to artists in residence, graduate-level practicums, research and internships.

Kendal at Oberlin residents, staff and families are committed to engaging with multiple generations. Residents provide mentoring to those in need, continue in lifelong passions for teaching, act as surrogate grandparents and participate in the on-site Kendal Early Learning Center. In 2012, Kendal at Oberlin’s intergenerational initiatives were designated a Program of Distinction by Generations United, a national organization focused on improving the lives of children, youth and older people through intergenerational programs and public policies.

“Our goal is to connect generations to help strengthen our communities and to help develop healthy communities that engage people at all ages,” says Donna Butts, of Generations United. Go HERE to stream or download a podcast of a Kendal-sponsored Boomer Generation Radio interview with Donna Butts.

With a double major in chemistry and music performance, Harrison Ponce had just graduated from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, when he became Kendal at Granville’s first artist-in-residence during the summer of 2018. Kendal at Granville launched the program in collaboration with Denison’s fine arts departments

“What began as a plan of once-weekly programs for the residents quickly turned into as many as 39 separate events, including concerts, Friday movie nights, and multi-disciplinary lectures and discussions,” a feature story on Denison University’s website notes. “Musicians from Denison and Columbus performed with a range of instruments, and residents had a chance to experience the arts with their own hands through interactive workshops….

“The experience for both Ponce and Kendal was so successful that Kendal at Granville and Denison University signed a new Collaboration Agreement to foster a closer affiliation and enhanced collaboration between them. By sharing each other’s programming and facilities, there will be more opportunities and intergenerational experiences for both Kendal residents and Denison students.”

At its 2017 annual meeting in New Orleans, LeadingAge awarded Kendal-Crosslands Communities its Hobart Jackson Diversity and Inclusion Award for the community’s five-year collaboration with educators and advocates to create the Chester Charter School for the Arts in Chester, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in the nation.

Barclay Friends in West Chester, Pennsylvania, has ties to several nearby academic institutions. West Chester University undergraduate students developed a program called Traveling Across Generations especially for Barclay Friends. It promotes intergenerational friendships through weekly visits with residents. Intergenerational programs with Westtown School and West Chester Friends School allow residents to interact with younger students.

Kendal at Hanover residents in class at Dartmouth College's art museum

The Kendal University Connection

Because of their shared passion for lifelong learning, Kendal residents, staff and board members became pioneers in establishing ties to leading colleges and universities—including Dartmouth, Oberlin, Cornell, Denison, the University of Chicago, Amherst, Smith, LaSalle, the University of Delaware, Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University.

All of Kendal’s communities, programs and services have relationships with local colleges and universities. In fact, most Kendal communities can trace their origins to initiatives that involved local colleges or universities.

Although the first Kendal communities, Kendal at Longwood and Crosslands in Pennsylvania, were developed in the 1970s without any formal college or university ties, retired faculty and alumni from Swarthmore and Haverford colleges and Westtown School were well-represented among early residents. Their interest in lifelong learning and in remaining active in the community helped establish a culture with a natural affinity for college and university relationships. This culture has been transplanted to new Kendal communities, has become more formalized over time and has led to creative, dynamic ties between Kendal and educational organizations.

When a Kendal community is developed, it’s usually because a local group of has come to Kendal and said, “We’d like to have a Kendal in our area.” In Ithaca, New York, it was the president of Cornell University. In Hanover, New Hampshire, an English professor at Dartmouth College was involved. And very often colleges and universities have supported the endeavor—sometimes by providing seed money, sometimes by helping to acquire land and almost always by providing faculty and staff to serve on the board.

Many Kendal community residents take courses and are instructors in college- and university-sponsored lifelong learning academies. The Institute of Lifelong Learning at Dartmouth (now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth) was created by Dartmouth College with the participation of Kendal at Hanover residents. Several residents teach Osher-developed courses, many of which are offered at Kendal at Hanover.

Lathrop (which affiliated with Kendal in 2004) has developed relationships with five colleges that are within a 10-mile radius of its campuses in Northampton and Easthampton, Massachusetts. Lathrop residents can audit courses and take in the many cultural activities on the campuses of Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass Amherst. In addition, Lathrop residents are invited to become members of Five Colleges Learning in Retirement (LIR), an organization that offers seminars on the two Lathrop campuses and on all five college campuses.

Washington & Lee University (W&L) and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) are within walking distance of Kendal at Lexington and both offer year-round intellectual and cultural stimulation. Residents audit classes, attend concerts, take in exhibitions and attend athletic events at W&L and VMI. Kendal at Lexington volunteers also participate in research projects conducted by the schools, and residents often serve as jurors for the W&L law school’s moot court.

Denison University, located in Granville, Ohio, played an integral part in the creation of Kendal at Granville, which opened in 2005. The university not only contributed seed money for the project, it also provided the land through a long-term lease arrangement. Denison welcomes new Kendal residents by offering an orientation program to familiarize them with the University campus and with the opportunities available to them there. Besides attending the many cultural, intellectual and sporting events on campus, Kendal residents can audit courses through Denison’s Community Scholar program.

Kendal at Oberlin has relationships with several Ohio colleges and universities, but probably would not have come to fruition without the unstinting support of Oberlin College. The College provided seed money, facilitated the acquisition of land (just a mile from its campus) and arranged for faculty and staff, including the College president, to serve on Kendal at Oberlin’s governing board. Kendal at Oberlin residents can audit, without charge, courses at Oberlin College, and Oberlin faculty present lectures at Kendal. In addition, the Oberlin College Library and other campus resources, including athletic facilities, are open to Kendal at Oberlin residents. Oberlin Conservatory of Music students often bring their dress rehearsals to Kendal because they value the critiques they receive there from knowledgeable and attentive audiences.

Cello recital by Collington artist-in-residence

Bringing Living and Learning Together

Resident Toni Smith’s success in bringing University of Chicago classes and seminars to The Admiral at the Lake figures prominently in a 2017 feature article by Senior Housing News. The article, titled “How the Kendal Corp. Has Mastered University Partnerships,” notes that lifelong learning arrangements are often made in each Kendal community by the residents themselves. “Each Kendal community, naturally, approaches its lifelong learning component a bit differently,” the article states. “At The Admiral at the Lake, … one woman—Admiral resident Toni Smith—is leading the charge.”

When college student Maria Sanchez took a part-time job at The Admiral at the Lake to help pay for her education, you might say she hit the trifecta—help with tuition, a scholarship and a mentor in her field of study. She was one of the first five beneficiaries of the Admiral Education Assistance Program for staff. In addition, she was awarded a university scholarship funded by Admiral residents Richard and Marjorie Ettlinger, and an Admiral resident and still practicing psychologist became Maria’s mentor. Clearly, the stars aligned for Maria Sanchez.

A June 2018 New York Times feature article cites the Artists in Residence Program at Collington, a Kendal-affiliated community in suburban Washington, D.C., as “Fostering Connections Between Young and Old.” The program allows University of Maryland music graduate students to live for a full year at Collington, where they receive free room and board in exchange for performing regularly and organizing concerts and educational programs for residents.

The article notes that: “Marilyn Haskel, a 72-year-old resident of Collington involved in selecting the students, said the young people often invited fellow music students to practice on the grounds, resulting in pop-up concerts. With no family nearby, Ms. Haskel said, ‘it was delightful for me to sit down and have conversations about their careers and what they’re planning.’”

In May 2019, NBC-TV’s “TODAY” show featured a story about Collington’s artists-in-residence, titled “How 2 young musicians are living in perfect harmony with seniors.”

Kendal on Hudson residents reached out to Pace University’s president, an initiative that led to a formal partnership agreement in 2019 that allows residents to attend classes and events on Pace campuses in New York City and Westchester County and gives students opportunities to explore careers, meet mentors and more on Kendal on Hudson’s campus in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Kendal on Hudson also has developed a relationship with New York Medical College to provide training for medical students on working with older adults outside of hospital settings. Unlike many of the geriatric programs and communities most medical students have seen, Kendal communities demonstrate a different approach to healthy aging through wellness and fitness programs for residents, the health care provided, and the educational and lecture series offered there. Medical students find their work at Kendal on Hudson gives them a much different prospective on the aging process.

“I was amazed at the wellness programs offered to residents who participate in tai chi, yoga, stretching and chair exercises. It’s this approach to aging that you just don’t see in the nursing facilities where we have been trained,” says one student who plans to specialize in internal medicine. “This philosophy of healthy aging benefits the whole person in body, spirit and mind.”

Download a PDF detailing Kendal’s College/University Relationships.

Cover of Kendal University & College Relationships booklet