Go Back to School – Tuesday Tip – September 4, 2018

For some of us, the first week of September inevitably turns our thoughts to going back to school.  If you’re like me, shorter days and the promise of turning leaves and crisper air to come conjures up thoughts of blank notebooks, new pens and pencils, and pristine books full of new things to learn.

Learning in retirement is one of the keys to cognitive health and successful aging and, fortunately, resources to support learning in retirement are abundant in 2018 America.  Here are three ways to get started:

Join a Lifelong Learning Institute

Join a Lifelong Learning Institute:  There are more than 400 Lifelong Learning Institutes (LLIs) in the United States and Canada so chances are there’s one near you.  At an LLI experts—often retired professors—and members with a passionate avocation lead classes and outings on subjects ranging from Middle Eastern politics and Shakespeare’s plays to yoga and birthwatching.  LLIs are a great bargain and a great way to blend socializing with learning.  I wrote about LLIs in an earlier Tuesday Tip and you can read that blog post here.

Watch an Online Lecture Series

Watch an online lecture series:  In our digital world there are abundant fee and free resources for learning in retirement.  The Great Courses company has hundreds of multi-lecture courses available in both audio and video formats, ranging in cost from less than $50 to well over $200.  If you’re looking for free lectures, however, a great place to start is at on a website called Open Culture.  Open Culture has a fascinating blog with new content daily as well as links to 1,300 free online courses, 1,000+ MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), 1,150 free movies, 1,500 free audio and ebooks, and much more.

“Borrow” College Syllabuses.

“Borrow” college syllabuses:  If you want to dive deeply into a specific subject of your interest, sharpen up your Googling skills and dig into the world of college syllabuses posted online.  A good college syllabus will give you lists of books and articles you might never find on Amazon or with a more general internet search. Let’s pick a subject at random and see what pops up…  Since I’m writing this on Labor Day, how about: Women in the Workforce and Labor Movement. A straightforward internet search brought me to two syllabuses (click on the links to reach the syllabuses):  A course at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro called “Gender and History:  U.S. Women’s Labor History,” and a course at New York University called “Women and Men in the Workplace.”  With some creative searching you can find syllabuses on almost any subject imaginable.

Happy September!  Happy lifelong learning!     

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Take Regular Sauna Baths – Tuesday Tip – April 17, 2018

Regular hot baths or trips to the sauna can fight lower back pain, and have been linked to lower blood pressure, healthier hearts, and lower rates of dementia.  According to Dr. Ray Schilling, writing on his “Ask Dr. Ray” website, a research project links regular saunas to lower blood pressure and lower dementia rates, news particularly relevant to people in retirement.

Rustic Sauna

Scientists in Finland tracked the lives of more than 1,600 men for more than 25 years and found, according to their article published in the American Journal of Hypertension, that men who went most frequently to the sauna had the lowest blood pressure.  The same study showed that men who went to the sauna once a week had no “reduction” in dementia, while those who went 2 to 3 times a week had a 22% reduction in dementia and those who went 4 to 7 times a week had a 66% reduction in dementia.

Is it the Sauna Itself or the Social Experience?

Before you rush off to the sauna, consider the cultural dimension of the experience in Finland.  There, going to the sauna is just as much a social a experience as it is a physical experience and, as we’ve learned from many other studies, regular socializing has been linked to lower blood pressure and dementia rates.  (It’s a lot like going out for coffee with a friend, as I wrote about in an earlier Tuesday Tip.)  So remember to sauna with a friend!

Always consult a qualified medical professional before using a hot tub or sauna.

More Tuesday Tips here.)

Access Free Learning Resources Online – Tuesday Tip – April 10, 2018

Are you interested in learning more about U.S. Civil War history before a summer trip to visit battlefields, or about the emperors of Rome before a trip to Italy?  Are you determined to arm yourself for the culture wars with a better understanding of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection? Want to brush up on your Spanish or French, or learn Arabic? No? How about relaxing and watching one of 1,150 free movies? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have the website for you!

Open Culture Holds a Wealth of Free Learning Resources

The Open Culture website describes itself as “The best free educational & cultural media on the web.”  It boasts a library of 1,300 free lectures, more than a thousand “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses), 1,150 free movies, 700 free audio books, 800 free eBooks, and more.  The website’s lead editor is Dan Colman, Director and Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. “The common thread running through his career,” says Colman’s profile on the website, “is his interest in bringing relevant, perspective-changing information to large audiences, often with the help of the internet.”  Open Culture is not associated with Stanford University.

Open Culture’s home page features a blog with interesting and eclectic new content appearing almost daily.  Recent articles include “Stephen King Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Novels,“ and “The Genius of Harry Beck’s 1933 London Tube Map-and How It Revolutionized Subway Map Design Everywhere.”  

Open Culture is an essential resource for all lifelong learners.  Check it out today!

More Tuesday Tips here.)

Research Your Family’s History – Tuesday Tip – April 3, 2018

Genealogy—researching and recording your family’s history—is a pastime ideally suited for retirement, rich in learning, creativity, and purpose.  If you like history, want to challenge your computer and skills, and are interested in creating something of value for your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, genealogy may be just what you’re looking for.

The internet has put rich reservoirs of genealogical information at our fingertips.  Fee-based platforms like ancestry.com make it easy, perhaps too easy, to build a family tree.  The site will give you “ancestry hints” when its algorithm’s determine it may have information about an individual you’ve added to your tree, but these aren’t always reliable since it may have come from another subscriber with inaccurate information.  That’s why, if you get serious about genealogical research, you’ll want to learn about and adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Going Beyond the “Who” and “What” to “How” and “Why” of Family History

Building a family tree, with dates and locations of birth, dates of marriage, and dates of death, is only the start.  That work might answer the “who” and “what” questions, but the real fun is trying to puzzle out the “how” and “why” of your family’s history.  Why did your great-grandmother leave Italy for America, while her sisters and brothers stayed behind? I’m a genealogical beginner, but I already have one or two questions it might take me years to figure out.  My great-grandfather came to the United States from Colombia in the 1890s to work in New York City as a coffee importer and, somehow, met and married the daughter of a silk factory owner in Paterson, New Jersey.  How on earth did they even meet?

Genealogy Can Teach You About The Full Range of Human Experience

If your research helps you answer questions like mine, you’ll be able to write powerful stories your descendants will thank you for.  Every family has heroes and villains, secret and surprises, and if you can uncover and describe them, you’ll convey important lessons to your family about resiliency, the possibility of fresh starts, lies and love—in short, the full range of the human experience.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)  

Start a Vegetable Garden – Tuesday Tip – March 27, 2018

Now that spring is here (although there’s plenty of snow still on the ground in the Northern zone where I live) it’s time to consider one of the most health giving and enriching activities you can pursue in retirement.  I’m talking about gardening, especially vegetable gardening, especially organic vegetable gardening.

Gardening is Good for Body and Soul

In a 2015 article in the journal Ageing and Society—”Exploring the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening for older adults”—the authors reported a mind-boggling array of benefits observed in their test gardeners, including:

  • increased exercise and physical activity,
  • better sleep from exposure to fresh air,
  • lower blood pressure and strengthened immune systems from being in and observing nature (like in a previous Tuesday Tip about birdwatching),
  • increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and more.

If you’re intimidated about getting started with vegetable gardening, start small, with a planter on your deck or porch.  Grow some basil and heirloom tomatoes, and by mid-summer you’ll be making pesto or interlacing slices of mozzarella cheese, tasty tomatoes, and basil leaves, drizzling them with olive oil and balsamic reduction, and sitting down for a lunch with the best tastes of summer.  Delicious!

Why Organic?

While not reported in the study, I’ll give you two reasons why you should consider organic instead of conventional vegetable gardening.  First, you’ll be saving your body from harmful herbicides and pesticides.  Second, you’ll be adding a mental challenge to your gardening endeavors as you enrich your soil and plot to outwit the pests committed to eating your bounty before you do.  Learning about and working with the ecosystem of an organic garden is like solving a challenging and beautifully-constructed crossword puzzle!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Eat Blueberries – Tuesday Tip – March 20, 2018

The blueberry is one of the miracle foods of retirement and successful aging.  Those little blue globes of sweetness fight far above their weight, packing a left-right punch combination that should make it an essential part of your diet.  Some of the benefits of blueberries are specifically age-related, while others come more generally from a diet rich in fruit of all kinds.

Eating Blueberries Slows Brain Aging

Dr. Kris Verburgh, in his new book “The Longevity Code,” detailed the blueberry’s benefits.  “According to a Harvard study with more than 186,000 participants,” Verburgh writes, “people who ate these berries three times per week had a 26 percent lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes.”  A 2012 study from the Annals of Neurology showed that regular blueberry eating “can slow down brain aging by several years.”

While blueberries stand out from the pack, eating fruit of all kinds is good for you.  “For each portion of fruit people ate,” says Verburgh, “their risk of a heart attack was reduced by seven percent, according to a study that included more than 220,000 people.”

Don’t Rush to the Pancakes

Blueberries are great for you, but don’t get your fix with a plateful of blueberry pancakes drenched in syrup; that’s a big dose of unhealthy carbohydrates.  Instead, try this delicious alternative: oatmeal dusted with cinnamon, topped with blueberries, a handful of walnuts, and a little vanilla-flavored unsweetened almond milk.  It’s a great and tasty way to start your day!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Volunteer in the NICU – Tuesday Tip – March 13, 2018

Volunteering as a “baby cuddler” in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a unique form of community service with benefits for the volunteer as well as for infants and their families, and a great way to bring a sense of purpose to retirement.

Cuddling Helps Babies Develop

Volunteers provide a critical service; a staff member at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Florida, explained to a local TV station that “when infants get extra attention and cuddle time between parent visits and medical rounds they gain weight more quickly, develop stronger cognitive skills, and reach [developmental] milestones at faster rates.”  And, as the opioid crisis deepens in the United States more children, many with their own health challenges, are born to addicted mothers just as they begin their own rehab battles, leaving children especially vulnerable.

Cuddlers May Experience Euphoria!

If you don’t have grandchildren of your own or grandchildren nearby, it’s a great way to get the baby fix we all need, and as you hold the child you’re likely to release endorphins and experience euphoria.

Look online for baby cuddler opportunities near you, and expect a thorough background check and training program before you get started.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Start Drawing – Tuesday Tip – March 6, 2018

When I was a child I liked to make pencil drawings of birds.  Fifty-plus years later, I no longer have any of those sketches, but I vividly recall that they weren’t all that bad.  They probably weren’t drawings I made while observing birds at the bird feeder—birds don’t stay still for long—but, more likely, they were copied from my parents’ bird guide.  But they were faithful and careful drawings that anyone would have recognized not only as birds but as cardinals or chickadees or whatever bird species I drew that day.

Drawing Is Great For The Brain

Maybe you liked to draw as a child but, like me, buried your visual creativity as school, jobs, and families became priorities.  Even if you have never picked up a pad and pencil, you should consider drawing as a retirement pastime for both its inherent pleasures and its proven cognitive benefits.  A study published in 2014 titled “How Art Changes Your Brain:  Differential Effects of Visual Art Production and Cognitive Art Evaluation on Functional Brain Connectivity” compared changes in neural connectivity in two groups of post-retirement adults, one that took a ten-week art class, and another that took a ten-week art appreciation class evaluating artwork in a museum.  Functional MRI testing after the “interventions” showed improved brain functioning in the art class group, and psychological testing showed gains in resilience in that group, too.

Drawing Classes are Everywhere

So buy that sketchpad and pencil set today, and you’ll soon want to take a class to improve your skills.  (In a class you’ll meet other aspiring artists; this will add a valuable dose of socializing to your day.)  This will add Fortunately, inexpensive art classes are widely available across the United States. I chose three medium-sized communities at random, and this is what I found:

Boise, Idaho:  Take an eight-week “Beginning Drawing 1” class for $120 with Boise artist Kevin McCain.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:  Take a four-week class in “Figure Drawing” for $85 at the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.

Rochester, New York:  Take a six-week “Basic Drawing” class for $170 at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery.

There’s sure to be a drawing class somewhere near you, too!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Become a Docent – Tuesday Tip – February 27, 2018

If you love learning—and teaching—becoming a docent may be the perfect retirement activity for you.  What is a docent?  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a docent as “a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery.”  It’s typically a volunteer role, and docent service opportunities exist at museums and galleries, but also at historical landmarks and other places visited by the public across the United States.    

The Best Way to Learn is to Teach

If you’re passionate about a subject, going back to “school” for rigorous docent training is a great way to add to your knowledge and get you ready to share what you’ve learned with others.  To give you a taste of the range of opportunities out there, here are brief descriptions of three docent programs at different places and at different types of institutions:

Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Incline Village, Nev. – Docent here “help visitors to have an entertaining, educational experience through which they will learn about Lake Tahoe and environmental problems affecting it.  Our program offers docents unlimited opportunities for enrichment, public outreach, and personal satisfaction.”  TERC’s Docent Program Description gives a good overview of what being a docent entails.

Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Ga. – Volunteering as a docent at the Center for Civil and Human Rights “not only exemplifies your support and commitment to human rights but also provides you with the opportunity to contribute to the enriching experience of visitors and members.”  Many docents here are veterans of the civil rights movement.

Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minn. – If you want docent training that sounds like the equivalent of getting a postgraduate degree, this may be the place for you.  At MIA, “docents are enthusiastic, creative, self-motivated volunteers who have excellent communication skills and a desire to interact with people of all ages. The required two-year study course trains volunteers to conduct inquiry-based, participatory tours of the museum’s permanent collection and special exhibitions. Weekly sessions focus on the history of art with emphasis on the museum’s collection, and on teaching techniques that actively engage tour participants. Assignments include readings, oral presentations, and several hours of preparation outside of class. Those who complete the program are asked to give 40 tours per year for a minimum of three years. A college degree or college-level coursework and/or art history classes are recommended but not required.”

Docent service is a great way to interact with people, and to keep your brain sharp and active in retirement.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

Watch Birds! – Tuesday Tip – February 20, 2018

You don’t have to strap an expensive pair of binoculars around your neck and head into the woods to benefit from birdwatching.  According to a 2017 study published in the journal BioScience, simply living in an environment where birds are abundant can lift your mood.

Abundant Bird Population Tied to Mental Health

The study, “Doses of Neighborhood Nature:  The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature,” explored the relationship between natural residential environments and mental health.  Study participants completed self-assessments measuring depression, anxiety and stress, and researchers measured the amount of vegetation, and the variety and abundance of birds in participants’ neighborhoods at two different times during the day.

Using statistical analysis, researchers found that “people living in neighborhoods with higher levels of vegetation cover and afternoon bird abundances had reduced severity of depression, anxiety, and stress.”  They concluded that abundance was more significant than variety because most people can’t identify bird species, and afternoon abundance was more significant than morning abundance because that’s when people are more likely to be out of their homes.

Pay Attention to the Birds Around You

The study’s authors suggest that deliberate urban and community design policies that increase vegetation, and the birds attracted to it, might have a strong public health justification.  In the meantime, if you live in a place where birds are abundant, take time to notice them.  If you don’t, take a walk or a drive to where they are to lift your mood!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)