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The New Age of Ageing

By Gina Gotthilf

Section: Features

January 30, 2009

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For most students, aging entails legal drinking, independence and an expanding range of new possibilities at its best. At its worst comes the need to retire pajamas and Birkenstocks on weekdays or a necessity to survive parties without the aid of student-run medical organizations like BemCo. Birthdays, therefore, are usually prime reasons for celebration.

For other students at Brandeis, more birthday candles on the cake may bring a one-way ticket to Florida, a knitting kit or rocking chair deluxe at its best. At its worst, aging can mean social marginalization, a need to resign independence completely, diminishing opportunities and a future life devoid of meaning. For these students, the benefits of growing older don’t necessarily tip the scale.

But this need not be the case, and may in fact be a backward view of aging if you ask students of “Continuing Journeys,” a course offered at Brandeis’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. In this course, men and women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s discuss ways to incorporate meaning into the years ahead, as well as practical solutions to the physical consequences of aging that lie beneath the wrinkles.

“We’re on the cusp of big change taking place,” BOLLI Director Sharon Sokollof ’91 said.

BOLLI is one of 119 OLLI institutes in the United States. From the belief that learning has no age limits, the OLLI program offers an array of learning opportunities for retired, semi-retired and other adults throughout the country.

Though “Continuing Journeys” is unique to the Brandeis branch of OLLI, the course was originally developed based on ideas present in “Elderquest,” a project developed in 2006 at the University of Massachusetts with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The original course featured a list of films and stories that featured literal journeys undertaken by fictional, elderly adults.

Previous generations were once programmed to believe that growing old entailed a narrowing of possibilities and the closing of one’s surroundings as children left the house.

Yet those who have recently retired or bid their children farewell are leading lives very different from those of their parents. Life expectancy has generally increased, women have become a significant part of the work force and the concept of a life-long career is practically extinct.

“We are the first long-lived, post-professional generation, and we are still interested in making meaning,” Sokollof said. “Suddenly we’re released, we’re economically ok and therefore don’t need a job at McDonalds. There are no more kids, longevity has been expanded… what are we gonna do with all those years?”

Though retirement generally leads to social marginalization, BOLLI, and more specifically “Continuing Journeys,” aims to help students see that they can still contribute to knowledge and society.

Esther Scharfman, one of the course’s three instructors, said the course is designed to raise both consciousness of the aging process and expectations of what may be ahead. “We’re interested in making life a little more meaningful [for our students] than they thought they could [themselves]” he said.

Before joining BOLLI, Charlie Raskin, another instructor, learned a lot about the practical ramifications of aging during the 15 years he spent administrating affordable senior housing. He now uses this knowledge to educate his students on the different possibilities available to them once living at home is no longer an option due to medical or financial conditions.

Raskin said he attempts to help his students understand how to move forward in life and what to do when they can no longer move, literally.

The fact that aging adults are willing to face and discuss their age openly is a significant mark in a shifting paradigm, Sokollof said: “Our members would never take a course about aging a few years ago.”

The course is currently filled to capacity due to unprecedented demand. A spot in “Continuing Journeys” has become such a hot ticket precisely because of the changing times facing the elderly today, according to Scharfman. “It’s the new age of aging,” he said.

Yet facing one’s age in this context may not be as trivial as finally admitting that you are no longer 29 years old. Beyond one’s loss of identity as a professional and full-time parent, dealing with the aging process also entails facing mortality.

“When you talk about these things, it’s painful,” Sokollof said.

But addressing such sensitive topics is vital to reaching fulfillment at an advanced age, Raskin said. As such, he addresses the importance of knowing what one desires to pass on to future generations.

Though young adults are often encouraged to think about who they are and who they want to be, Sokollof said older adults often forget to ask equally important questions such as: ‘Who am I now?,’ ‘Where have I been?,’ ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘What do I want to leave behind?’

Yet despite the serious nature of the class, discussions are often tempered with a dash of humor to lighten up the mood. During one class, Raskin described, students were shown PowerPoint slides describing the differences between men and women’s brains. The men’s brains were filled with tiny boxes, while the brain of a woman harbored a convoluted mess of emotions.

When asked about the underlying significance of the presentation, as with BOLLI in general, he chuckled, “it was just great fun.”

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