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Omaha Magazine

Building Connections Through Lifelong Learning: Continuing Education Expands Options and Builds Community

Sep 30, 2020 11:28AM ● By Jenna Gabrial Gallagher

Essayist Michel de Montaigne once said of Socrates, “There is nothing more notable than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.”

Older adults in Omaha are following this Socratic method for enriching their lives and engaging with others through myriad continuing education opportunities throughout the city—and the offerings just keep growing.

“The Kroc Center has always had a history of robust programming for physical activities that appeal to older adults, including aquatic exercise, strength maintaining, and Zumba,” said Glenda Wood, who recently started her third year as senior life specialist at the Kroc Center, “I came onboard to create a more holistic approach.”

This has included partnerships with organizations including the Visiting Nurse Association, the Alzheimers Association, and a local law firm specializing in elder law to host lunch-and-learns on topics related to aging issues—from brain and body health to finances to sharing final wishes with one’s family. They have offered a Life Stories series, in which participants gather for eight weeks to write on a different autobiographical topic each week, and various sewing, quilting, and crafting classes, often led by older adults themselves. “We’re trying to build toward a volunteer army of people who want to share their interests and talents with others,” Wood said.

In addition to the programming specifically created for people over 55, one of the goals of the Kroc Center is for all programming to be intergenerational. Older adults are also regular fixtures in arts programming, such as pottery classes and a drum circle, alongside younger students, and sometimes it’s all in the family. “One of our members, who is 65, would come to our Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Tai Chi class and she started bringing her mother, who is 88, to our Wednesday Crafts and Conversation class,” Woods explained. “As a caregiver, she really appreciated that this gave them both a way to get out of the house.” ›

Wood said that the social element is as important to older adults as the learning, which is why programming with meals, including a potluck the first Wednesday of every month (during nonpandemic times) is always a big draw. “If you offer food, more people will attend.”

That’s how Donna Van Riper, a retired music teacher, started getting more involved with older adult education. Van Riper, who is 76, was first drawn to the Kroc’s aquatics classes after a serious pool accident at her former health club. “At first I only interacted with the staff. They would notice that my walking was improving and they’d encourage me. Then I started waving to people in the classes as I walked down the hallway. Eventually, I went to a potluck, and started getting to know people, and now I try to go to as many classes and lunch-and-learns as possible,” Van Riper said.

Although the Kroc reopened on June 1, not all of its programming is back up and running, and many older members are still cautious about returning to public spaces. Van Riper has stayed in touch with her Kroc friends over the phone and via a private Facebook group that Wood set up for that purpose. “Just the other day, I was walking in the park and I ran into someone I know from my cross-country skiing aquatics class. We both just had the biggest smiles on our faces. We all have a real connection,” Van Riper said, later noting an incoming call was from a 92-year-old friend she knows from the pool.

Gary Girard, executive director of continuing education at Metropolitan Community College, said that the sense of community is also central to the DNA of MCC Explore, Metro’s lifelong learning program for students aged 62 and older. “We have offered a watercolor course for older adults for about 10 years and we started to notice was that it was the same students enrolling in it, quarter after quarter. They were developing their own social network and becoming more and more advanced in their work. That indicated to us that our older students wanted more community-related courses.”

Like at the Kroc Center, MCC Explore’s financial classes, including those centered around retirement planning, Medicare, and Social Security, are popular, as are classes on aging wellness and lifestyle topics. The college has partnered with organizations such as Home Instead Senior Care to answer the call for classes that meet the needs of the modern aging population. “We have a community of learners who increasingly want to remain educated and it’s our responsibility to provide relevant courses that make them engage in critical thinking,” Girard said, adding that technology courses are also a hot ticket. “There’s a pretty significant number of the Baby Boomer generation who want to stay relevant and connected,” Girard said of classes such as Appy Hour for Seniors, which is designed specifically for mobile smart phone users and meets on Zoom.

With several campuses and satellite campuses around the city, MCC is able to offer a level of flexibility that appeals to older adults. They even have a variety of “lost arts” classes, such as upholstery, spinning, and weaving, in the New North Makerhood District. “We’ve had several older folks enrolled in courses, like upholstery, that started as a hobby and turned into a second income for them,” Girard said, adding that one student, in her mid-80s, created a handmade wedding basket, full of gifts she had learned to craft from various MCC classes, for her granddaughter. 

With a few exceptions—like the Italian wine pairing class that traveled to Italy for nine days—most of MCC’s classes are available at half-tuition for students over 62 years old, which makes continuing education more accessible to those on a fixed income. 

Accessibility is also central to the mission of Arts for All. “Our classes are very affordable, but we don’t turn anyone away if they can’t afford the tuition,” said Juliana Taber, who directs the nonprofit with classes in churches and community centers throughout the Omaha area, as well as on Zoom. They have held art classes specifically designed for visually impaired students and routinely make modifications to musical instruments and art supplies to accommodate the needs of students. 

“We see a lot of older adults joining younger family members, such as a grandfather who’s been taking guitar lessons with his two grandsons, as well as retirees who are getting back into a hobby or finding new ones, now that they have more time. So much of it is about staying active and the social aspect,” Taber said.

Like at the Kroc Center, Arts for All encourages the students to become the teachers when they’re particularly passionate about a subject. “We have several seniors that are teaching for us part time. They have the experience and skills to share and we are lucky to have them.”

That feeling is echoed by those in every echelon of continuing education for older adults throughout Omaha. As Van Riper put it, “You come back home from a class and you feel nurtured for the whole day.” 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the October 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.