Back-To-School Boomers: Local Lifelong Learning For Retirees

The many miles of beautiful lakeshore, the wide array of local leisure activities, and relatively affordable housing are among the reasons the Traverse City region has made national “best places to retire” lists in recent years. Now that multitudes of Baby Boomers began retiring in 2011—and since this retirement class has higher expectations about staying active than those that preceded them—northern Michigan boasts yet another regional draw for those nearing the end of their careers: an increasing array of lifelong learning opportunities.

Though the concept of lifelong learning is not new, there is currently higher demand for it, and locally the LIFE (Learning Is ForEver) Academy of Northwestern Michigan College’s Extended Educational Services (EES) and the College of Creative Arts (CCA) at Interlochen’s Center for the Arts are heeding the call.

The LIFE Academy began in the late 1990s with a handful of programs, said Bill Queen, EES Program Coordinator, when an increase in the number of retirees locally was noted.

“We recognized the need and value for continued learning for those who are moving to the area or moving out of careers and wanting to continue to learn. Since inception, we have had an advisory committee that has been very helpful in identifying courses, topics and special events that we can offer.”

This advisory committee comprises EES staff as well as volunteers from the community – usually retired professionals with a broad range of careers, life experiences and interests.

“The common bond is their thirst and love for continuing to learn,” he added.

The CCA at Interlochen was launched 10 years ago, said Leslie Donaldson, who has been serving as the director of the program for the past two years. CCA course development is guided by surveys completed by program participants and by telephone calls and emails from individuals looking for a specific type of class.

“We try to offer something that makes sense for us as an institution and for participants looking for particular experiences,” said Donaldson. “We take community and participant feedback very seriously.”

ICAWritingThough the target age range for the LIFE Academy is 50 and older and for CCA is 45 to 64, neither program, as put by Queen, “checks ID at the door.” All CCA’s programs are available to individuals age 18 and older, and there has been a share of enrolled students both younger and older than the target market. However, “We try to gear programs around the busy individual by offering a short workshop experience or a weekend program that one could fit into a busy lifestyle whether working or retired,” said Donaldson. “So many retirees are busy with traveling, visiting family, volunteering, and other pursuits, so we try to gear programs to meet the needs of those working or retired.”

Similarly, noted Queen, “LIFE Academy is geared format-wise to times that are conducive to those no longer in the working world and who can take a morning or afternoon class, and the learning approach is geared toward older adult populations.”

Both programs offer something for everybody. LIFE Academy offers 63 classes geared toward computer learning, arts enrichment, fitness and wellness, and even foreign affairs and the historical and economic climate of the United States.The CCA offers a range of classes in soft pastels; calligraphy and hand-lettering; digital audio; ukele, including a daylong event in November; and modern dance and health, taught by a professional dancer and physical therapist, that demonstrates how movement can play a role in a healthy lifestyle at an older age.

But the programs each have one program that has become distinctly popular. At CCA, the creative writing program – including a creative writing boot camp and workshops taught by writers both national and local – has been a remarkable hit. At LIFE Academy, it’s the Naturalist Certificate Program, which capitalizes on the area’s surrounding nature, includes courses in native trees and shrubs, trail marker trees, wildflower and tree identification, the story of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and leading an outdoor learning experience.

NMC“People want to learn about the environment and, given their curiosity about the environment, they may also want to volunteer in organizations around the area,” said Queen. “They have the desire to know what’s in our backyard, and then take that a step further and share that knowledge with others. And then they get a certificate to acknowledge their achievement.”

Both programs are growing. “We’ve always had a successful summer season of programming, where we draw people from all over the country to take classes here,” Donaldson said, “But I’ve been working on growing the program to be year-round.” The CCA just began its second fall season of programming after last year’s new offerings were very well received. CCA enrollment increased from 618 in summer 2014 to nearly 800 in summer 2015, and fall enrollment was on pace to match or exceed last year’s totals. At LIFE Academy, from 2009-2010 to 2014-2015, enrollment went from 2049 to 2442, and its Naturalist Certificate Program grew from 161 to 223 participants (net growth of 39 percent).

For information about the LIFE Academy, call 800-748-0566, ext. 1700. For information about the CCA, call 231.276.7200.