By Natalie Rummel
Experts say that only about 30 percent of physical aging can be traced to genetics; the rest is up to the individual. According to one retirement Web site, continued learning is a way to improve quality of life, no matter one’s age.
Residents at Grace Village Retirement Community in Winona Lake, Ind., have an opportunity to continue learning in a classroom setting and to interact with college students-passing off some of their own knowledge that they’ve gained over the years.
In the spring of 2005, Grace College, also in Winona Lake, began offering the Senior Learners Program, which allows residents at the retirement community to audit approved on-campus classes at a reduced rate.
The cost is $25 per person per class, and the classes cover a broad range of topics, according to Greg Weimer, director of Planned Giving at the college and founder of the Senior Learners Program.
“The residents were asking if they could get some professors from the college to come and teach a class at Grace Village,” said Carol Buhlmann, the Senior Learners Program contact at the Village, “but that’s a little prohibitive and doesn’t give much variety.”
So Buhlmann contacted John Boal, Grace’s chief advancement officer, with the inquiry, and Boal charged Weimer with the task of creating the program. “Almost every major university is doing something like this,” Weimer said.
Weimer meets with the registrar at the college a month or two before the start of each semester, and they determine which classes will have spaces for additional students. Weimer also receives feedback from Grace Village residents on which classes might interest them.
“We’ve had a lot of requests for computer classes,” Weimer said, “but there usually isn’t enough space available because seating is limited in computer labs.”
After deciding which classes to offer, Weimer leads a workshop for the senior citizens, where he explains the course options, and helps register for classes.
The program usually has three or four residents enrolled per semester, and about 25 people have participated in the program since it started. Some have taken more than one class.
A range of courses, from New Testament to history to survival Spanish, is available to residents. “They really like music or art appreciation,” Weimer said.
Merle Sheffer, a former teacher and principal, took music appreciation with Kavanaugh three years ago. “I liked learning about a subject I’m interested in-music is a hobby of mine,” Sheffer said. “Not being an official student, I didn’t have to take the tests. I did take a few, but I didn’t have to…but it gives us a zest for living.”
“I think it’s enriching not only for the senior citizens, but also for the students,” Weimer added. Several residents took a class on World War II. Because they had lived through that time period, they could help the other students by sharing their personal experiences, he noted.
Buhlmann stresses that a variety of people live at Grace Village, including a number of former professors and other professional people. “And it allows them to feel as if they haven’t shut away that part of their life-the ability to learn, the ability to have new information and use it for their lives now, and the ability to interact with students and give knowledge that they’ve gained over the years.”
Weimer said it also helps energize the residents. “You would’ve thought he was a freshman all over again,” he said of one man who was taking his first course in the program.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people who want to take a class are too busy,” Weimer said. “They say, ‘I’d love to take a course, but I’m so busy volunteering,’ or ‘I’d love to take a class, but I can’t with my health.'”
Grace has made the program available to other senior citizens in the community who have heard about the program through their friends at Grace Village, but Grace hasn’t advertised it yet because class seating is limited. “However, we’ll figure that out when we get there because that’d be a good problem to have,” Weimer said.
For more information or to register for a course in the Senior Learners Program, call Greg Weimer at (574) 372-5100, ext. 6124.
Natalie Rummel was an editorial intern with the Brethren Missionary Herald Company. She is a 2009 graduate of Grace College.