July 4, 2017 by Jean
For most of my life, I assumed that our ability to learn new things declines dramatically as we age, as expressed in the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” So it has been a surprise that my life in retirement focuses so much on learning new things. Yes, there are some things (like names!) that I have more trouble learning and remembering now than I did when I was younger. But for the most part, this stage of life feels like a “second childhood” in which I am a sponge absorbing new ideas, information and experiences.
What is it about retirement that makes it such a great time for learning? A big part is just having the time to indulge in learning activities. When I was working, I joked that I was a professional intellectual with no time to think; now I can luxuriate in time to pursue new ideas and think things through.
It helps, of course, that I am surrounded by opportunities to learn new things. My membership in the Portland (Maine) Public Library not only provides me with access to just about any book I could want; the library also sponsors lectures and workshops (like the Creative Aging singing workshop that I participated in two years ago). I’ve also been taking advantage of the wonderfully thoughtful programs sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council. And then there is Maine’s fabulous network of Senior Colleges. Not only have I been learning new things by taking courses there; I’ve also been deepening my previous knowledge by teaching courses. Opportunities to learn new things are also provided by my retirees’ reading group, my garden club, courses at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, my volunteer activities, and my choral singing.
The wonderful thing about retirement time is that it can be flexible time. Even as I participate in new activities, I try to keep at least half the days in each week unscheduled. This not only allows time to read and think, but also the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves at the last minute. Recently, while I was touring a garden with my garden club, a friend turned to me and asked me if I would be willing to learn about a historic herbarium housed at the McLaughlin Garden and give a brief talk about it for a symposium on native plants. “Sure,” I responded without missing a beat. When the alto section leader of the Maine Music Society Chorale sent out an email letting us know about a series of inexpensive vocal technique workshops (essentially group voice lessons) being offered during the summer, I immediately signed up for three classes.
While the excitement of learning new things in retirement reminds me of childhood, there is an important difference in the quality of my learning now. When I was young, much of my learning involved acquiring new information; and the excitement of that learning was the excitement of being introduced to whole realms of knowledge that were previously unknown to me. (I can still remember the magical evening when my eighth-grade big brother drew a thermometer and taught six-year-old me the concept of negative numbers.) At this stage of life, my learning is more likely to involve new syntheses of things I already knew. I delight in the Snap! I feel when a new idea suddenly leads me to see old information from a whole new angle.
I have been focusing here mostly on intellectual/analytical learning – the left-brained stuff that makes me feel most alive. But I’ve also been learning new physical tricks in retirement. Two years ago, with the help of a great physical therapist, I began to relearn how to stand, how to sit, how to lie down, how to bend, and how to walk. I’ve been improving my balance with a Tai Chi class and by practicing standing on one foot every day. In my vocal workshops, I am relearning how to breathe. With this kind of learning, I must get my left brain out of the way and let instinct and muscle memory take over. If relearning these basic physical functions isn’t teaching an old dog new tricks, I don’t know what is!