Francine “Frankie” Friedman is passionate about her college education, from the courses to her classmates. It’s also a stress-free experience, with Friedman not required to take exams or write papers, and she can drop a class simply because it doesn’t hold her interest.
An octogenarian living in Cedarhurst, Friedman has been taking courses since 2010 as a participant in Nassau Community College’s Senior Observer Program, which enables Long Island residents, who are at least 60 years old, to audit courses for free. This past summer, Friedman, who retired in 2002 after more than two decades as a tax assessor, has taken a communications and a personal health class.
“I don’t play canasta or mah-jongg, and I don’t shop or do lunch, but I love to learn and interact with the students,” said Friedman, a Hofstra graduate with a master’s degree from Queens College. “It’s wonderful for me.”
While young people across Long Island are preparing to head back to school, many local retirees mirror Friedman in making education a year-round activity.
Learning simply for the sake of learning, these older individuals quench their thirst for knowledge in college courses; lectures in community centers, libraries and houses of worship; and in seminars at hotels, entertainment spaces and museums. They also crisscross the country, as well as the globe, on organized trips with a pedagogic bent.
As seniors tell it, their educational quests have enhanced their lives in myriad ways, enabling them to explore issues that have long interested them; learn about subjects they had previously known very little, if anything, about; enjoy friendships with classmates who share their enthusiasm for learning; and keep abreast of everything from scientific inroads to pop culture. And since teaching a subject is said to be the best way to learn it, seniors are also stepping up to podiums to share their research with their classmates.
According to Sara J. Czaja, director of Weill Cornell Medicine's Center on Aging and Behavioral Research in Manhattan, learning later in life can provide critical life-enriching benefits.
“In some community centers, classes present an opportunity to meet new people with similar interests, and learning activates many parts of the brain,” Czaja said. “It’s a myth that old people can’t learn, since the brain has elasticity.”
But based on the center’s recently completed study, which focused on teaching 98-year-olds how to use the computer, “older adults process information more slowly than younger adults.”
Nevertheless, Nassau Community College’s recent registration figures, along with anecdotal evidence, point to a welcoming atmosphere for senior students — despite the generations’ different speeds in absorbing new material.
Last spring, 209 Long Island retirees audited Nassau's courses, a 13 percent jump from 185 in spring 2018, reported Elizabeth Hawley, associate dean of Lifelong Learning. And in the 23 different study areas that seniors explored last spring, History/Political Science/Geography attracted the largest number of these older students, followed by art and foreign languages.
“Seniors bring a lot of knowledge to what they are learning in class but also practical, real-world experience that you can’t get from a textbook,” Hawley said, noting that the Senior Observer Program draws people with different life experiences, including those who have lived through World War II, owned businesses or worked in as such professionals as teachers, lawyers and accountants. “The faculty enjoys having them participate in class and appreciate the additional knowledge they bring to a subject.”
For Friedman, the age gap has enabled her to keep pace in a changing world.
Case in point: In a women’s studies course, when the professor asked the students who was their heroine, Friedman responded with “Eleanor Roosevelt,” which elicited a “’who’s that’” from half the class, she said.
In the same vein, “Who’s that?” was Friedman’s reaction when the majority of her fellow students said their heroine was “Lady Gaga.”
“That got me to say, ‘Wow,’ and to go online and research her,” Friedman said.
Hempstead resident Barbara Stevens, 69, who retired as an assistant director at the Nassau County Department of Social Services, credited not only the talks but her fellow members at the Molloy Institute for Lifelong Learning (MILL for short) with expanding her knowledge.
“I have learned so much from the lectures, including about sleep apnea, storms and hurricanes, and cancer research,” said Stevens, who received her undergraduate degree from the New York Institute of Technology when she was 40 years old. “ I’ve also learned about different cultures and their teachings from going to the lectures and also from meeting the other people in the program.”
Last spring, Stevens, who attends MILL on Tuesdays, joined the program’s curriculum committee, which chooses lecturers and topics.
As Stevens tells it, MILL has widened her circle of friends while making her feel “more well-rounded.” Plus, the education program, she said, has benefited her loved ones.
“My 49-year-old daughter asks me every Tuesday about the lectures,” Stevens said, “and I pass on information I’ve learned,” including the how-tos on managing finances and avoiding scams.
Last June, Plainview residents and retirees Bob Gottfried, 69, and his wife, Ellen, 68, trekked to the Watson Hotel in Manhattan to attend two classes — one on George Washington and the other on the Civil War. Both were under the auspices of One Day University, which offers seminars in major cities and at different sites, including universities and entertainment spaces.
Longtime fans of One Day U, the Gottfrieds have attended 25 of its talks over a span of seven years. Together, they have explored diverse topics, from politics to science.
For Bob Gottfried, a former immigration lawyer, the most memorable One Day U classes included a music seminar that featured singing by the instructor and a psychology lecture that provided a prescription for a happier life — “surround yourself with people who are positive and drop those who are negative,” Gottfried recalled.
Taking that remedy to heart, Gottfried said that he has lost touch with “people I don’t look forward to seeing.”
In addition, the Gottfrieds’ shared interest in learning has periodically inspired them to journey to upstate Jamestown to spend two, three or nine weeks during the summer at the Chautauqua Institution, which runs a host of lectures, workshops and cultural events.
And as a member of the Quest for Learning Community, part of the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education and where members teach one another, Bob Gottfried has learned from peers in an acting workshop, as well as in courses that focused on such subjects as literature and Islam.
“Learning has allowed me to expand outside of my academic field,” said Gottfried, who currently serves as Quest’s president. “And now my retirement is seeing our grandchildren, traveling and learning,”
For her part, Ellen Gottfried, a former hospital social worker, said that her participation in Hofstra University’s peer-teaching Personal Enrichment in Retirement Program has enabled her to indulge her appetite for learning and enjoyment of teaching. Her talks have centered on such disparate subjects as black migration from the South to the North, water in the Middle East and Israel before God.
“I’m interested in a lot of things, and the more I research topics, the more I learn what I knew nothing about,” she said.
Even before retiring, Huntington residents Lesley Delia, 65, and her husband, Jeffrey Stark, 71, made learning an integral part of their lives; she had been a lawyer in New York State’s court system, and he had been a telecommunications consultant.
Besides frequently attending the rabbi-led adult education classes at their synagogue, the Huntington Jewish Center, the couple have journeyed abroad for intellectual growth.
Via Road Scholar, a travel education program that was previously known as Elderhostel, they learned about great Impressionist paintings in France, ancient history in Greece and wildlife in the Galapagos.
Separately, Stark said he learned bridge at the Huntington Public Library, and together Stark and his wife took canasta lessons, also at the library.
In the fall, Delia plans to attend a lecture on the Second Amendment, and she and her husband are going to register in the fall for a talk on China in anticipation of traveling there in the future; both talks are offered by the Hutton House Lecture series, a noncredit program at LIU Post’s Lorber Hall.
“It's more fun trying to wrap your head around something new than doing something that isn’t,” Delia said. “We only get one life and should make the most of it.”
Moreover, she said that her educational pursuits have inspired former colleagues. “’When we retire,” they have said to Delia, “ ’give us retirement lessons.’ ”
Where seniors learn
While school bells beckon young people to return to the classroom, older adults can get into the back-to-school spirit with educational programs. Here are some that are popular with seniors:
• Hutton House Lectures is a noncredit program presented at C.W. Post’s Lorber Hall, liu.edu/CWPost/Academics/School-of-Professional-Studies/Hutton-House-Lectures; 516-299-2236.
• Molloy Institute of Lifelong Learning (MILL) is part of Molloy College and offers a peer-based learning model, molloy.edu/academics/undergraduate-programs/continuing-education-and-professional-studies/personal-enrichment/molloy-institute-for-lifelong-learning; 516-323-3940.
• Nassau Community College’s Senior Observer Program allows Long Island residents who are at least 60 years old to audit courses for free, ncc.edu/continuingeducation/senior_observer.shtml; 516-572-7472.
• National Geographic Adventures offers educational trips throughout the world, nationalgeographic.com/expeditions); 888-966-8687.
• One Day University runs seminars by professors who have received top grades for their teaching abilities from students, onedayu.com; 800-300-3438.
• Personal Enrichment in Retirement (PEIR) Program, part of Hofstra University’s Continuing Education, encourages members to teach courses and share their expertise, hofstra.edu/academics/ce/lifelonglearning/peir/index.html; 516-463-7200.
• Quest Learning Community, part of the City College of New York’s Center for Worker Education, is based on a peer-to-peer teaching model, questcontinuingednyc.org; 212-925-6625, ext. 229.
• REAP, or Retired Energetic Active People — Institute for Studies, is part of the Great Neck Community Education Program and features lectures given by its members as well as outside speakers, reapli.org; 516-441-4949.
• Road Scholar is a not-for-profit organization that hosts learning adventures in the United States and beyond, including Greenland and Cuba, roadscholar.org; 800-454-5768