Educational classes help keep older adults sharp
When Eric Norrbom became a widower in 2015, he had two choices: stay at home alone or get back out there and keep his mind active with friends.
Norrbom, now 85, chose the latter, and now he’s a lot smarter as a result.
Through his participation in a continuing education program known as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Norrbom has managed to take classes about Theodore Roosevelt, the science behind science fiction, and the history of lizards, to name a few. He also said he has been able to stave off loneliness — an important reality, considering that he lives on his own.
“Taking classes, interacting with friends, talking with people about meaningful subjects in meaningful ways — these things keep me going,” he said. “I’m not sure what I would do with myself if I wasn’t able to do these other things.”
Norrbom isn’t the only older adult feeling that way these days. In Sonoma County and the surrounding counties, thousands of people over 65 are going through similar epiphanies.
Thankfully, several different initiatives in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties exist to help older adults navigate these challenges and combat loneliness. The programs span the gamut from book clubs to personal development classes and community music organizations. Most are open to people from all walks of life and many are free to attend.
And according to Nancy Emanuele, principal of the Petaluma Adult School, the programs work to help keep older adults young at heart — a reality that science has proven can in fact extend their lives.
“Research says human beings who are active physically and mentally and connected in their communities tend to be healthier emotionally and physically,” she said. “One could say (taking) classes (and engaging in activities) would help you more than sitting in a recliner and staring at the TV set.”
Heading back to school
Emanuele knows all about older adults who want to keep their minds sharp. Her program is the only formal K-12 adult school in Sonoma County, and it is part of a consortium of educational institutions county-wide.
The school provides a host of free and low-cost classes including high school diploma, GED/HiSET test preparation, parent education, English classes for non-native speakers, citizenship preparation, and career and technical education programs. There also are classes like metal working, wood working, conditioning, and “Discovering Birds of Sonoma County.”
According to Emanuele, “a significant portion” of the students in these classes are older adults. There’s about 75 seniors across all community education classes at Sonoma State University, but it often varies from year to year.
Petaluma Community Band is technically one of the classes, and Director Arlene Burney said half the band is composed of musicians over the age of 65. Some have been playing music their whole lives while others took it up after retirement and are still relative newbies.
“Playing music is a terrific way for older adults to come together and have fun and build a sense of camaraderie,” said Burney, who noted the band’s tuba player is 89. “It keeps them young.”
Attendance in the band directly dropped off during COVID-19 when band members were concerned of being exposed to the viruses, which can spread through the air from the instruments being played. During the early stages of COVID-19, the band’s teacher regularly contacted students via email and phone calls to stay in touch, relay updates, as well as gather input of their safety concerns.
Inspired by education
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is a program that is specifically designed for students ages 50 and above. It’s offered at 120 universities and colleges around the United States including Sonoma State University, San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. Typically, the local curriculum offers 18-20 courses a semester, but there are no tests or grades. Students just go to learn.
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University celebrated its 20th anniversary this year where Norrbom has been a student since the very beginning.
Today, he is considered an ambassador of the program, and he credits it with changing his life.
“I’ve made a lot of friendships, it’s kept me involved and active, and it’s taught me all sorts of wonderful things,” said Norrbom, a Kenwood resident who commutes to Rohnert Park daily. “I volunteer here and there but I’m not sure what I would do without these classes.”
When the fall semester ended last month, Norrbom was enrolled in seven different classes, including one about “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau and another about Memphis soul music. A third class spotlighted the United States Constitution and was taught by Judge William O’Connor, the nephew of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.