Lifelong Learning


My husband and I went to England two summers ago and spent a wonderful week at Oxford University.  We took part in their Oxford Experience, where you get to live, study, and eat (literary readers, note my Oxford comma there), at Christ Church College for the duration of a mini-course.  Every element of it was fascinating:  the course materials, the discussions, the field trips, the High Table dinners in hall.  You get to walk in a thoroughly snobby way past the tourists into the “residents only” areas of the college.  Loved it.

I mention this because after that program I signed up for every kind of Oxford mailing list, and so I regularly receive Facebook posts and promotional emails full of informative links.  The one that caught my attention this week was:

The article is clearly a marketing piece for their Continuing Ed programs, but they’re great so I feel okay posting it.  AND, it’s full of links about research I’m pretty excited about:  how lifelong learning benefits the brain throughout life, especially in our later years.

Contrary to earlier beliefs, our brains remain “plastic” — able to re-wire in the face of injury or illness, so to speak — even when we’re old.  We don’t have to give in to the notion of inevitable decline.  Yes, we can learn that language, instrument, skill, what have you, at any age.

Our culture has traditionally considered retirement a time to kick back and stop doing what you’ve been doing for decades.  Slow down, relax. However, researchers in brain health now say that, in fact:

At retirement age, the expectation is that we will slow down. Most people yearn for the day they can slow down and strive less – little knowing that this is probably the very worst thing they can do.

This is really good news for people willing to “take up the challenge to learn.”  The article gives the example of well-known artists who lived and produced great work well into their 80s.  We don’t all have to be Michaelangelos, but for sure there are many opportunities for people to expand and grow creatively before and after retirement.

In what ways do YOU want to continue learning?  How will you keep your brain active as you move toward (or further along in) retirement?  Comment below!  (In the meantime, I’m going to check out the video on lifestyle changes that can help ward off dementia in one of the article’s sidebar links.  We can chat about that one next time!)

This is a story of transformation that has forever changed how I feel about the power of lifelong learning. The story was told to me by one of our Clever Companion graduates, Jocelyn.

Jocelyn was first introduced to Bill Stewart, age 86, two years ago, in Victoria, by his daughter Carol. Carol was Bill’s only child and ever since his wife, Helen, passed away, he had become more dependent on her.

The problem was that Bill lived in Victoria and Carol lived in Calgary, with her husband and two kids. There was 450 miles separating them. It was clear Carol was devoted to her father, but there was only so much she could do. She had a busy life of her own. Her full-time career as a nurse and taking care of her family.

Carol felt responsible to look after her father, but often she felt powerless. She would call her father every Sunday, and many times she would finish the call in tears. Her Dad would tell her how lonely he was and how he missed her mother. Bill and Helen had been married for 54 years and had been inseparable. They had travelled throughout the world and were each other’s best friend. After a long bout with cancer, Helen died last year. Now he was on his own, in a house that was clearly too big for him, but for Bill, the house contained all the memories he had with Helen and he wasn’t about to sell and move to Calgary.

What made matters worse, was that Helen had always been the social one in their marriage. As Bill would say, Helen was social enough for both of them! Now he mostly puttered around the house, and the height of his social contact was chatting with the cashiers at the local grocery store.

As long as Carol could remember, her father had an interest in trains, all the different kinds, their routes, and how they had evolved over the years. He was also fascinated in World War II stories, especially about particular battles and how one general was better than another.

Carol decided that since she couldn’t be there are often as she would like, she would arrange for someone to meet with her father each week and engage him in conversation. She had heard about the Clever Companion program from a work colleague and she thought it might be worth a try. She arranged for Jocelyn to meet them at her dad’s home.

Jocelyn told me that Bill was soft spoken and polite, but she could tell he was guarded. As she does with many of her clients, she let Bill know what the Clever Companion program was about and suggested he try it for a couple of sessions and then decide for himself. He agreed.

By the time Jocelyn saw Bill the following week, Carol had already returned to Calgary. Jocelyn could tell Bill thought the world of his daughter and in spite of his reservations, he was willing to give the sessions a try.

That’s when things started to get interesting.

Jocelyn established an agreement with Bill that they would focus their first few sessions on trains. She wanted to know why Bill enjoyed trains so much and she wanted to hear all about his past experiences.

She could see the sparkle in Bill’s eyes as he told her about the various engine designs, train configurations and which ones were used in different regions of the world. She asked clarifying questions and when necessary had him elaborate on certain points.

Bill was in his element. He was fully present and engaged in the discussion and Jocelyn could see that he was becoming more energetic and animated as he told her the finer points on trains. It was especially good to see Bill go back in his memories to his earlier days, when he travelled by train throughout Europe.

Before they knew it, their first 90 minute Clever Companion session was over and Bill was amazed how fast it went by!

In preparation for their next session, Jocelyn gave Bill some homework to research certain topics related to trains and to be ready to present his findings. It was clear Bill was eager to do just that.

What started as their first session, soon expanded to many weeks, covering various topics of interest to Bill. He prided himself on doing his research and he would always be ready with his materials. He took his role very seriously.

Jocelyn kept Carol informed how things were going and Carol couldn’t believe how much her father had changed over the weeks. He told her how much he was enjoying his discussions with Jocelyn and how the sessions had re-kindled his interests.

Carol was just amazed how light and positive their Sunday calls had become and she no longer had that heavy feeling, worrying about her father. She had the peace of mind knowing that someone she trusted was seeing her father each week and if Jocelyn noticed anything untoward, she would be kept informed.

What a difference!

For Bill Stewart, lifelong learning and the social engagement of meeting with Jocelyn each week, was the catalyst to pull him out of his loneliness and isolation and give him a sense of purpose.

Imagine how many seniors, like Bill Stewart, are out there, who could use the same support?