‘Never Too Old To Dream’: The Lessons of a 90-year-old Masters Recipient

You're never too old to learn something new and further your education...

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The degree conferred upon 90-year-old Lorna Predergast by the University of Melbourne in July was a Masters of Ageing. The Australian spelling of that last word might strike those in the U.S. as odd, but the sentiment behind it should not: Even before she received that degree, she had become a master of aging in a literal sense. And that is something an increasing number of older Americans are seeking to do as well.

They want to continue to enrich their lives, to be life-long learners. And that is a sure path to not only a better quality of life but improved mental and physical health. Prendergast quoted author C.S. Lewis when she was asked about her degree, which involved the study of music therapy, particularly as it applies to dementia patients: “You’re never too old to dream.”

Indeed, all seniors would do well to keep that in mind. Same for those responsible for their care, as is the case at The Allure Group’s six skilled nursing facilities: We are not, and never have been, in the business of simply warehousing our residents. Rather we try to meet all their needs, to provide holistic care. Our mission is to give them ample opportunities for growth, no matter their age. We do this through periodic continuing-education seminars, and various activities and events such as:

  • Art Classes — They have been found to give seniors a social outlet, as well as a means of self-expression that goes beyond the spoken or written word. Moreover, our residents gain a renewed sense of purpose.
  • Cooking Demonstrations — Again, there is the social element. They also improve self-esteem and evoke memories through senses like taste and smell; stimulating brain function is obviously crucial to those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
  • Game Days — Certain games work the mind, others the body. And all of them make the clock stand still. As George Bernard Shaw, the long-ago playwright and political activist, once said: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
  • Music — The various programs and demonstrations hosted by Allure, besides serving as entertainment, can be regarded as stress reducers. And like the cooking demonstrations they stimulate positive memories.
  • Outings — Allure has staged excursions for its residents to places like the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Prospect Park Zoo, the benefits of which are manifest. Residents can stretch their legs and minds, go beyond their usual environment and remind themselves they are part of a larger community.

Many, many other facilities are taking a similar approach, and have done so for a very long time. As gerontology consultant Natalie Davis told U.S. News and World Report: “We’re past just trying to fill time. We want to enrich their lives.” That should always be the goal.

Then there are the folks like Lorna Prendergast, who seek something more. Forbes reported in 2018, in fact, that the majority of U.S. degree-seekers are 50 and older, a trend that can be attributed not only to a joy of learning but practical matters like a career change or a need to upskill to remain competitive in the workforce.

The example offered in the Forbes piece was that of a 60-something gentleman who had fashioned a 30-year career at a telecommunications company. When that organization announced new initiatives, notably in cybersecurity, management made clear to its employees that they would need to adapt with the times. The gentleman in question, armed with only an associate degree at that point, heeded the call and earned his bachelor’s degree in integrated studies through an online program offered by Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont.

CNBC reported in 2018 that adult learning initiatives were first introduced at The New School in New York City in 1962, and that that program, which survives today as the Institute for Retired Professionals, served as a template for other schools. Consider, for example, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a nationwide network that includes 122 colleges and universities. Those schools can be as varied as Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., which has 1,200 members in its program, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., which has seen memberships increase by 11 to 12 percent each year.

The ages of those in these programs range from the 50s to the 90s, according to the CNBC piece, and the course offerings range from current events to memoir writing, from fly fishing to American pop music. Vanderbilt even affords seniors the opportunity to join the steel drum band.

Particularly notable is Arizona State, which is building a 62-and-over dorm that is due for completion in 2020. Ninety percent of the units have been sold, according to CNBC, despite a hefty pricetag. The buy-in is $378,500 for a one-bedroom unit, $810,200 for a two-bedroom unit, though 85 percent of that is refunded to the owner’s estate following his or her death. There are also monthly fees.

With the American population continuing to age, there figures to be even greater interest in programs like these. It is, after all, never too late to dream.

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