An education in the virtues of retirement

By Frank Kaiser, Special to the Times
Published August 28, 2007

So many older folks tell me that college was one of the best times of their lives.

I agree. Perhaps that's why I continue to find myself in class - usually at least one a semester - at age 71.

The undergrads treat us with respect, even deference; I've often been asked advice on life issues. How refreshing it is to be taken seriously by youngsters! We seldom get that from our grandchildren.

Most of all, I enjoy learning: learning what I want to learn.

There's freedom in taking courses without worrying about grades, credits or graduation. Learning something just for the sheer pleasure of it is a joy.

I've taken computer software courses, art courses - my 3-foot-tall nude sculpture won an award - ethics, public speaking, philosophy, graphic design and enough photography classes to merit several Ph.D.s.

As a serious amateur, from 1980 until recently, I took photo courses every semester at whatever college I was near, just to have access to darkrooms. With today's digital technology, it's no longer necessary to use a darkroom. But I will always remain thankful for the access.

About 25 years ago, I was considered a "nontraditional student." Today, with so many geezers taking classes, we're just "one of the guys." Or gals and you don't have to wear a poodle skirt or saddle shoes.

Looking for new friends? Search no farther than your local community college. You'll find folks of all ages, many interested in topics that matter to you.

And in these days of "use it or lose it," what better way to keep your mind and body active than to attend classes you enjoy?

Old dogs, new tricks

Many institutions, such as St. Petersburg College, near my home, and Florida's public universities, offer courses free to students age 60 and older. At SPC, I simply sign up, pay $35 for a student card, and take whatever courses interest me that are not filled.

Then I leverage my student card for discounts at concerts, lectures, even for buying software, where the savings are huge.

If you must pay tuition, and your purse is thin, check out the billions of dollars available in grants and scholarships.

Concerned that you're too old and can't learn? It's simply not true. We old dogs are readily taught new tricks. Half the students enrolled in college today are at least 25.

We bring rich life experience to class. One student told me that he was thankful I was there because "You give me hope for my old age." And who else is there to prove to younger generations the virtues of aging?

No wonder, according to the New York Times, more than 500 colleges and universities offer older-adult learning programs. In the classroom, we enhance discussions, providing new angles of insight.

Retire to your alma mater

In June, when I returned to Indiana's DePauw University for my 50th reunion, I briefly considered what a joy it would be to live on or near my college campus again. Think of the intellectual stimulation, the cultural events.

Then I thought of the snow and tornadoes and decided not to leave Florida after all.

But thousands of people are retiring to college campuses. In ventures between schools and private developers, many colleges are building retirement communities for aging alumni. Besides built-in nostalgia, returning graduates often get free classes, priority access to sport and cultural events, and an atmosphere of youthful energy and intellectual vigor. (Please see the related story on Oak Hammock, at the University of Florida, Page 15.)

That's the same sort of atmosphere I enjoy at St. Petersburg College.

Isn't it time to put a touch of class into your retirement?

Frank Kaiser is a syndicated columnist who lives in Clearwater. His Web site, www.suddenlysenior.com, includes nostalgia and links to senior-focused sites. Contact him at frank@suddenlysenior.com or write to 2431 Canadian Way, Suite 21, Clearwater, FL 33763.