Conventional wisdom says retirement should be a time of rest and relaxation. Yet there’s a reason so many seniors mentally regress quickly after they stop working. If we’re not mentally active, our brains tend to atrophy, inviting a greater chance of cognitive decline.
Fortunately, there’s a remedy. By continuing to learn, we live longer, healthier lives. In one study, seniors who spent three months learning at least three new skills—such as Spanish, drawing and music composition—saw their cognitive abilities improve at the same rate as people 30 years younger.
This isn’t to suggest you return to taking painful and boring classes. Learning, after all, should be fun. By choosing topics that inspire you, and methods that keep you motivated, retirement can provide the most enriching years of your life. Here are some tips for diving in.
Seeing the world
Traveling can easily be turned into a learning experience. Take the example of the man who took me in like a daughter when I moved to America (I refer to him as my “adopted father”).
He always longed to spend a summer in Italy, so once he retired, he set out to actually do it. It was a big trip for him, taking years of planning. He researched the places he wanted to visit. He took many Great Courses on Italy to understand its history, culture, literature and art. It would turn out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life, and generated lots of memories that he revisits frequently.
Of course, not everyone has the resources for such vacations. The risk of Covid can also make it prohibitive. But this needn’t stop you. The National Park Service offers virtual tours of places like Yellowstone and Alaska’s Katmai Preserve. Companies like Airbnb and Beeyonder present similar trips from Egypt to India. For just $15, I had a wonderful remote guide take me through Zen gardens in Japan.
The point is that you don’t need much money or mobility to explore the world. All you need is curiosity and willingness.
Tap into your passion
Before getting started in understanding a new field, ask yourself what you want to learn and hope to achieve, then frame your approach accordingly.
Say you’ve always been interested in archaeology, and now wish to better understand it more fully. Start with a basic textbook for a first-year undergraduate student, then move to an online course or a class at your local community college. The idea is to dip your toe in. If one subject doesn’t move you, go on to the next.
For example, my mother has embraced genealogy since she retired. In her attempt to trace some branches of our family back to the 1400s, she had to beef up her digital abilities. She used internet resources to learn how to operate genealogy software, which helped her immensely in finding the information she sought. Her goal was to transmit our family heritage to future generations, leaving a history that survived her. She found it exhilarating—and this is what motivated her to learn.
Teaching is learning
Physicist Richard Feynman believed that if you can’t teach something at an elementary level, you don’t really understand it.
Chances are you’ve spent a lifetime learning something of value to others. It could be anything from sewing to accounting. Becoming a part-time teacher—even if just as a volunteer—is a way to stay engaged and keep abreast of your field.
Research says that if we isolate as we age, our chances of developing dementia later on increase. Teaching provides interaction and a chance to learn from students. And there’s no shortage of places that could use your expertise.
You can serve as a docent at a museum or tutor kids at a neighborhood school. Nonprofits like SCORE need mentors for new small-business owners. Adult education programs require instructors for everything from English to the arts. If you remain vibrant, after all, you still have much to offer the world.
At a certain time in life, it may become harder to step out of your comfort zone. You may feel left out when your grandchildren are discussing new technology and trends. Let the internet come to your rescue.
No matter what the discussion, there’s almost certainly a beginner’s course on it somewhere. Perhaps you wish to understand cryptocurrency. Or maybe you want to share in your granddaughter’s passion for soccer. You can utilize free resources such as YouTube videos or podcasts, or audit a massive open online course (MOOC). If you want to up the ante, you can take a class at a community college or enroll in a MOOC for a few hundred dollars. All you have to do is search.
There’s no need to be the dinosaur next Thanksgiving. Allow Mary Fasano to serve as your inspiration.
She started high school at age 71, then took one college class per semester for 17 years. At age 89, she became the oldest student to ever receive a bachelor’s degree from Harvard. As she said in her commencement address, “The power gained by understanding and appreciating the world around us can be obtained by anyone.”
Barbara Pettit is the managing director of professional learning at the CFA Institute.