Carol Walker, 63, of St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., retired 17 years ago as a lieutenant in the New York Police Dept. harbor unit. Her interest in learning line dancing led her to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, where she has since studied a variety of subjects, including digital photography and astronomy. Walker has also taught photography and she contributes many of the pictures in the course catalog for Eckerd's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Experts in education and gerontology say that as baby boomers age and approach retirement, the number of retired Americans who are spending time -- or planning to -- on educational pursuits is growing fast. The trend is driven by such factors as increased longevity, people enjoying more years of good health, and a growing realization by many that a retirement into passivity is not only boring but can lead to atrophy of both mind and body. The federal government estimated in 2001 that additional life expectancy for a 65-year-old was 16.4 years for men and 19.4.years for women. That's a lot of time to fill if you're not working and in good health.
GROWING VARIETY. Margery Silver, a neuropsychologist on the Harvard Medical School faculty and an expert on the aging process, points out that scientific research shows that "keeping your mind active has a physiological [benefit]. When you learn new things, you build new connections in your brain." This can even help stave off symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer's, she says. Silver, who is 73, still works part-time. In 2001, and her husband moved into Lasell Village, a retirement community affiliated with Lasell College in Newton, Mass., where residents can take courses and use the facilities, including the campus Internet system.
Certainly, educational opportunities aimed at the 65-and-older set aren't new. Elderhostel was created 30 years ago to offer educational travel to people 55 and older. The first "lifelong learning institute" targeted specifically at retirees opened in 1962 at the New School for Social Research in New York, according to Elderhostel, and there are many others that have been around for two decades or more.
What's new is the tremendous variety of learning opportunities and venues available to baby boomers as they approach retirement. The options range from one-shot lectures, seminars, or day trips organized by a local college or retirement home to retirement communities that market their educational opportunities as aggressively as they do their golf courses.
ON THE ROAD. So whether you're already retired and looking for something interesting to fill your time, or just starting to think about a retirement lifestyle, you may want to check into some of these options. Here are a few suggestions for identifying programs that coincide with your interests.
Educational travel is appealing because it combines the exploration of a new place with deepening your understanding of its history, geology, or literature. Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org) offers 10,000 programs a year in 90 countries. The average age of Elderhostel participants is 73, but last year the organization created a new "Road Scholars" program, which is attracting people with an average age of 64.
Road Scholars programs tend to offer more free time and more participatory experiences. Another educational travel option is Senior Summer School (www.seniorsummerschool.com), which started out to offer retired Floridians an educational and northerly escape from the summer heat in Madison, Wisc. Now it offers campus-related summer programs in eight locations in the U.S. and Canada.
BACK TO THE DORM. If you prefer to stay close to home, ask local community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities about their programs. Many campus-based programs participate in the Elderhostel Institute Network, which serves as a resource and coordinator for "lifelong learning institutes," programs that offer a college-level curriculum but don't have grades or tests. You can search for an institute in your area by clicking here.
Maine has a network of 15 "senior colleges" (www.maineseniorcollege.org) where anyone 50 or older can register. Each school in the network has its own schedule. Among the subjects being offered in the spring session at Penobscot Valley Senior College in Orono are growing orchids for fun, women of Africa, Maine wildlife ecology, and management philosophy. There's an annual membership fee of $25, and each course is $25. Dallas' Richland College Emeritus program offers both credit and non-credit classes on campus and special programs, such as day trips -- all open to anyone 55 and older. It also provides free lectures on topics such as music and literature at local retirement homes.
Perhaps the ultimate commitment to lifelong learning is moving into a retirement community affiliated with an educational institution. For folks who like the idea of living in a campus environment, the Kendal Corp., a developer based in Kennett Square, Pa., has built six retirement villages near campuses in Ohio, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. The programs give residents' access to campus activities, allow them to attend or teach classes, as well as work on joint-research projects with undergrads, grads, or faculty. One group studied how people's choices about living arrangements affect their quality of life as they age.
NO TESTS REQUIRED. Another such community, not built by Kendal, has sprung up in Academy Village, outside of Tucson. There, the impetus for 5- and 10-week courses on topics such as "advances in medical research" came from a resident who is a former president of the University of Arizona.
In our shorter-lived-parents' generation, people were often satisfied to define retirement in terms of what they weren't doing -- namely, working. But with the possibility of 20 or more years ahead after leaving your primary job or profession, you owe it to yourself to envision a positive, enjoyable way to spend your time. Continuing education might be the answer. Not only do you not have to take tests or pull an all-nighter to struggle for a good grade, you can study any topic you want, almost anywhere in the world -- and on your own schedule.
In addition to writing Your Retirement for BusinessWeek Online, Hoffman is the author of The Retirement Catch-Up Guide and Bankroll Your Future Retirement with Help from Uncle Sam. You can contact her through her Web site, www.retirementcatchup.com