September always feels like the start of a new year. It’s amazing how the school calendar shapes the culture of North America. Thousands of children, adolescents and young adults head back to classrooms in September. Anticipation and an eagerness for learning fills their eyes. The urge to study, to take a course or to register to learn new skills hits me like a virus every September.
Eagerness for learning doesn’t change as we get older or after retirement. In fact, retirement brings many new opportunities for learning. For the postworksavvy there is more time available to take those courses and to join interest groups. A course offered only during daytime hours is now possible.
Local school boards, libraries, galleries, colleges, universities and private academies offer a variety of continuing education courses. The course calendars cover the usual informal courses such as cooking, yoga, photography, dance and art classes as well as various formal programs for the adult learner leading to diplomas, certificates or degrees. Some courses don’t involve much more than simply showing up; others expect serious study and require exams.
I’ve been impressed by the opportunities available through various learning institutes that focus on retired people who are interested in self-development and enrichment. Most of these are not-for-profit groups connected with universities. The institutes usually have mission statements related to life-long learning or third age learning. Social aspects, special events and personal discovery are as important as classroom experiences. Learning opportunities come from lectures, discussion, debates, clubs, movies and travel. The listing of courses and activities within the Greater Toronto Area is amazing. A scan through Google indicates that similar institutes exist in most cities with a university.
For those who want a more self-directed learning experience, online offerings are endless and most are available at no cost. Online learning requires more self-discipline and the social connections are virtual — but there is still the excitement of learning. For many older adults who have mobility issues or for those living in remote areas, online learning is an important means of staying intellectually stimulated and involved with the world.
The wonders associated with learning keep me engaged and excited. I look at the learning opportunities like a kid in a candy store and have difficulty deciding how I will spend my precious time. What should I take?
After some hard thinking about my life priorities, I have decided that this fall my new learning will be skill focused and not classroom-based. It will come from physical endeavours — learning tai chi and learning to swim.
Tai chi interests me for several reasons. For years I have observed a group of older Asian women moving effortlessly through a series of beautiful postures as they gather in our local park every morning to practise. I admire the serenity of the movements. I admire their flexibility — a flexibility that seems to defy their aging bodies. The second reason is selfish — my orthopaedic surgeon recommended tai chi as a method of re-gaining balance and strength in my legs and ankles. He told me that better balance is essential for recapturing aspects of my gait as I continue to recover from hip surgery. Finally, tai chi is complex. It uses both body and mind. If it works for me, I’ll probably spend the rest of my life learning the movements and experiencing the wonders of this ancient art. Maybe I’ll be able to join the group of women that practises in the park.
I’m signing up for swimming lessons because I want to swim better. I am a natural ‘floater’ so I’ve always been able to do easy strokes but I am not a strong swimmer. This summer I realized — with some frustration — that I may never again be capable of the five-mile beach walks that I enjoyed in earlier years. I decided that swimming is a form of physical activity that my body will tolerate without risk of further damage to my joints. I swam every day — but with difficulty. My frustration with swimming confirmed the need to get some help in mastering those strokes and in strengthening my capacity to cover a bit of distance in the water.
Neither of these learning choices involve classrooms of lectures. Both incite some fear. What if the tai chi is too complicated or too frustrating? What if I look foolish? What if my ankle tendonitis is exacerbated? What if I can’t improve my swimming ability? What if I’m too old or too weak for these physical tasks?
For now I have set these worries aside. I take courage from remembering the skills I have mastered during a lifetime of trying new things. Sometimes I’ve failed when trying but there has always been the excitement of learning. I look forward to the new perspectives and the renewed confidence that comes from challenging both body and mind.
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Image by Craig Nagy, Vancouver via Flickr