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Older adults might find purpose in continuing their education during retirement.

Aging and education experts Suzanne Ortiz, program manager of Encore at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland; Shalom Plotkin, owner of Right at Home In Home Care & Assistance in Beachwood; and Lisa Weitzman, WeCare administrator and manager of business development at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging in Cleveland, all offered ideas.

“Encore is for individuals who are 55 and over who love to learn – lifelong learners – and they can take pretty much any subject that we offer,” Ortiz said. “We have history, entertainment, art, religion, spirituality, science, exercise, pretty much you name it.”

She said the program is especially great for older individuals who were always interested in a certain subject, but never had the time to explore it. Classes are typically taught by experts in the field and retired Tri-C professors.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ortiz said class sizes ranged from 10 to 200 students in each class. Now that everything has gone online, she said, currently, the biggest class has 40 lifelong learners. Shockingly, according to Ortiz, this change has benefited some older adults.

Noting those who are 55 and older are more susceptible to COVID-19, Ortiz said many retirees have recently found themselves homebound. Taking online classes allows these individuals to “leave the pandemic situation and take their mind somewhere else – it really allows them to escape reality.”

“When we’re in person, it allows them to keep their mind going, but then also connect with people who have the same interest as them,” Ortiz continued. “We have a lot of individuals who call each other and find out what class they’re going to take so that they can take the class together, then they have something to talk about and they get to see each other every Friday.”

The program’s age range is vast. It’s youngest learners are 55, and according to Oritz, its oldest learner has been 95. Many are in their 80s.

“We have amazing instructors who just really make you escape everything that’s going on and help you bring your passion to life,” Ortiz said. “That’s one really rewarding thing about the program, especially now. People really need to know and understand that we’re here for them. We’re doing this because we love what we do; we love our instructors and our participants, as well as our community.”

Plotkin noted local colleges are “thrilled” to have adult learners because they bring life experience to the table.

“I have found that you can teach old dogs tricks,” Plotkin said. “Someone might say, ‘Well, their brain is a little bit less malleable,’ but I would say it’s super satisfying when you stay engaged in intellectual pursuits – it can expand your horizons, it can be so broadening.”

Those focused only on themselves shrink their own horizons; those who seek to further their education by taking a class expand their horizons.

“There’s a lot more online content than ever before,” Plotkin noted. “We might be physically distancing, but we don’t have to be emotionally distant, for example, from our synagogue or from our state or from education.”

Weitzman echoed Plotkin’s statement. She said taking a class or learning something can address issues around social isolation and feelings of disengagement.

“For so many people, as they think about older age, maybe starting at retirement, people feel like they’re falling off of something,” Weitzman said. Some feel as though they are falling off the career ladder or plateauing in life with nothing more to learn or explore.

She noted many older adults’ fulfillment and sense of self came from their careers.

“Those feelings don’t ever go away: wanting to feel purposeful and wanting to be happy and wanting to feel like we’re contributing in some way and that there’s a reason to get up every day,” Weitzman said. “The idea of lifelong learning plays right into that.”

At the end of the day, lifelong learning can mean pretty much whatever someone wants it to – it’s a mindset.

“And the mindset is, ‘I may be older in age, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t so many other things out there that I still want to learn – there’s so many things out there that I want to experience,’” Weitzman said. “So if you have that mindset that, ‘Just because I am X number of years old, doesn’t mean I’ve lost the capacity to continue to be fulfilled, to continue to have purpose to my days, to continue expanding my knowledge and my experience,’ that really is what lifelong learning is all about.”

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