Minds kept sharp
Retired couple discusses their ongoing pursuit of mental stimulation through OLLI
Stewart and Sue Monroe are highly active members of the Chico State community, but they aren’t faculty members or traditional students. They’re among the 860 members (at last count) of a program that’s providing intellectual, social and physical stimulation to retirees across the North State.
The program is called OLLI—the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute; Chico State is one of 117 universities across the nation affiliated with the Bernard Osher Foundation to offer educational opportunities for adults 50 and over.
Some of the class leaders, like Stew, are retired professors. Others, like Sue, are simply passionate people with knowledge of a particular subject. Regardless of background, all class leaders volunteer their time to teach their peers.
Research has found a connection between mental activity and acuity. The LLI Review, in a study highlighting benefits of lifelong learning, noted that “cognition is dependent upon brain function and brain function can be improved through physical exercise and cognitive stimulation.” Psychology Today recently ran an article on the topic that said, in part, “enriched learning environments can help reduce cognitive decline due to aging as well as help older adults deal with depression and poor self-image.”
That’s precisely what Stew, 75, and Sue, 70, have seen during their 13 years with OLLI.
“For the most part, members are pretty active,” Sue said in a phone interview that included Stew. “I do think that the mental exercise keeps people stimulated and interested in life and, therefore, more active.”
Stew agreed: “I think the mental activity helps the physical activity considerably.”
Chico State has had a lifelong-learning program for 25 years. It began in 1988 with the name Prime Timers, and its first class—an autobiography tutorial called “Writing Your Slice of Life”—remains one of the program’s more popular offerings. The university’s department of Regional and Continuing Education reached out to the Osher Foundation in 2003, and upon receipt of a $1 million endowment four years later, Prime Timers became the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Chico State.
This fall, OLLI will offer 86 courses—double what was available just one year ago. The increase is partly a product of an active curriculum committee, but mainly due to participants stepping up as leaders.
“OLLI just does phenomenal things, and the feedback we get from our members supports that,” said Debra Barger, Chico State’s dean of Regional and Continuing Education. “I think it’s a very powerful concept of giving that … is also part of the strength of the program, not just from the standpoint of shared learning but also individually. Volunteerism is very powerful for mind and body.”
Ann Nikolai, OLLI’s program director for the past year, has seen many members come out of their shells after assuming the responsibility of a class. They receive support and encouragement through the Peer Leader Mentor Program, which Sue Monroe helped launch.
“It’s the miracle of OLLI,” Nikolai said. “Courses bubble up from people’s own background as retired professors or teachers, or from people who simply have a passion to share something in which they have expertise. … Birding and wildflower classes are examples of classes people offer because it’s their own love.
“For me, closing in on 50 myself, working with people like this is such an inspiration,” she continued. “In very short order, it’s become not only my job, but my community, too.”
Stew, a retired geology professor from Central Michigan University, teaches a popular earth-sciences course that typically includes field-study trips to the North State’s national parks. Sue, a retired teacher and marketing executive with a zeal for ancient times, teaches a variety of history and art classes.
Neither is teaching this fall, though both are preparing courses for the spring session (Stew on comparative planetology, Sue on Renaissance history). Instead, they’ll partake in courses offered by their peers. Some of the classes offered on the fall 2013 schedule are Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Elementary French, World of Opera, and Do I Want a Smartphone?
“The only thing you’ve got holding people to your class is the quality of the class you present,” Sue said. “There’s no requirement that anybody come; there’s no certification or grades given. So, the quality of the classes tends to be very high, because the people who aren’t good at presenting classes don’t draw an audience.”
Shortly after the Monroes moved to Chico in 2000, Sue enrolled in an Italian class at Butte College and kept hearing from her instructor about the variety of lifelong-learning classes the instructor was taking at Chico State.
Sue decided to check the program out. Soon she was participating both as a student and a teacher. “I went to class with her,” Stew said, “and I said, ‘Well, I can do this—I’ll offer a class, too!’ And I did.”
Members pay dues of $100 per academic year, which allows them to attend up to five classes for both fall and spring terms. This year, for the first time, OLLI offered classes in conjunction with the Butte County Library at each branch. OLLI also has expanded to hold regular classes in Oroville and Paradise.
“It’s a marvelous program to allow you to learn new things without having to make major commitments,” Sue said. “You can attend the classes on your schedule; attendance isn’t mandatory, so you go when you can. It is a wonderful outlet for meeting people in the area who share common interests and who are engaged in life.”