When you’re a grown-up, school is fun. Even the tests.
Take Hilary Fried, for instance. He’s focused on a test and it’s decision time. That tile his classmate and wife just put down on the table…should he pick it up, or not? He goes for it, eliciting a groan from his wife, Laurie, and the two other players as he comes a step closer to making mah jongg, which wins the game.
Win or lose, the Woodmont couple is having fun…and that’s the highest passing grade. And while it’s not their reason for participating, the Frieds and other lifelong learners are staying healthy, better able to participate in the community and saving healthcare dollars.
Hilary and Laurie learned mah jongg in a class offered by the Institute for Learning in Retirement of Greater New Haven (ILR), a 30-year-old non-profit lifelong learning organization that offers classes in topics ranging from the arts to zoology. Its roughly 400 students, most of whom are older, meet via Zoom or at venues around the area. Dr. Joel Feimer, a retired professor, is president of ILR and teaches literature classes for the program. He says a curriculum that includes literature and mah jongg, along with 46 other classes this semester, is exactly what members are looking for.
“There are people who are interested in expanding their understanding of literature and people who are into the arts, birdwatching, history, travel and what not,” he says. “It’s kind of neat because we do have those kinds of choices. Our people are intellectually curious.”
That describes Hilary and Laurie. They got involved in ILR the same way many others do – a friend told them about a class. They had dabbled with mah jongg with another couple. They enjoyed the social aspect, but when the pandemic hit, they stopped playing. Their friends discovered the ILR class and suggested that the couple join.
“I jumped on that,” said Hilary, who adds that he has seen some other classes he wants to take this semester.
For Laurie, the ILR class was something to help her keep busy and a new interest to explore. Laurie has a jewelry business that keeps her engaged, but like many retired people, she likes staying active and exploring new fields. “I’m happier when I’m doing something and not sitting around,” she said. “If there’s something that interests me, I seek out how to do it.”
Like all ILR classes, mah jongg is taught by an expert. Dr. Karen Fenichel, of Orange, enjoys the game and has learned everything she could about it. A retired dentist, she is experienced at teaching adults, including dental assistants and dental hygienists at colleges in New Jersey. She also taught mah jongg at adult education programs there.
“You need to be able to react quickly, be good at sorting and be flexible with your strategy,” she says. “That keeps you thinking and exercises your mind. Equally important, the social aspects of games like mah jongg help you make new friends.”
That social aspect is important to all ILR classes. People enjoy the variety of classes because they can find things that are important to them while meeting new people with similar interests.
Feimer’s literature classes, for instance, never lack enrollment. His students follow him from semester to semester as he explores different works. Feimer takes his classes step by step through the literature.
A recent class on Dante had 15 people enrolled and he anticipates strong enrollment in this semester’s Reading the Mabinogion: An Introduction to Celtic Myth. That class runs on six Thursdays, starting May 5.
The Mabinogion is filled with stories written centuries ago in Wales and Ireland by people who resisted the Roman invasion and subsequent occupations. They tell of the interactions between humans and gods, and is credited with giving birth to the legends of King Arthur.
“It’s what literature would have been like just after the Romans left,” says Feimer. “The stories go back to the 11th Century. Students are interested in exploring the literature. It’s exciting stuff and it’s a lot of fun. It’s like fairy tales.” He adds that fairy tales mean more after some life experience.
Like Fenichel, Feimer is an experienced teacher. He taught English literature to undergrads and graduate students for many years, has published essays on medieval and modern literature and co-edited a text on composition. Most importantly, he teaches his passions.
“The classes I teach, I teach from my heart,” he says. “These are things I love and I’m ready to share them.”
Whether teaching or learning, lifelong learning is all about what appeals to the heart. No longer are students checking off classes for graduation. That’s important because these classes do more than teach new skills. They keep minds intellectually active and help students develop social contacts. New Haven County is home to 155,000 people over 65 whose minds could benefit from being kept active. And, like the doctors and scientists who study lifelong learners, the people in the classes know what they are doing beyond having fun.
“I’m into doing what’s good for me,” says Laurie Fried, “including keeping my brain sharp.”
Those who study aging agree that older adults who participate in lifelong learning stay healthier. A University of Texas study, for instance, shows increased memory skills for lifelong learners. A Case Western study demonstrated that Alzheimer’s Disease is less likely among those who participate in lifelong learning. Other studies show that a person with a positive perception of their own aging lives 7.5 years longer. And an article in Ageing and Society, a peer-reviewed journal covering gerontology, cited benefits of lifelong learning, saying it helped “sustain their psychological wellbeing” in later life. Even among those with “chronic conditions and other challenges,” lifelong learning helped people focus on wellness rather than illness.
Scientists and doctors haven’t put a dollar figure on the benefits of staying active through learning, but it’s clear that society benefits from maintaining the health of its older adults. Fenichel, however, may have landed on another strong motivation for involvement. “When you stop learning, you become stagnant,” says Fenichel. “The world is changing around you. Even if you’re getting older, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to keep up.”
Pictured: Laurie Fried looks at her mah jongg tiles while instructor Karen Fenichel talks with Laurie’s husband, Hilary, during a practice game