A greatly admired older friend of mine once said that a balanced life, after leaving full-time work, should be composed of one-third work, one-third play, and one-third giving back.

For those of us in our “After-50 Years,” the opportunity to make that balanced life a reality comes once we bid adieu to the nine to five world. After that, it’s time to find the tools we need to create new life balance. One of the most important of those tools is Lifelong Learning.

What is Lifelong Learning? Quite simply, it’s a belief or philosophy that espouses one simple fact: maintaining an active mind and youthful spirit through interaction with peers and experts in all fields of interest creates a balanced life. Distilled even further, it’s an opportunity to make your own unique contribution to society, to meet new people and to explore new ideas. I like to think of it as a “health club” for your mind, your body and your spirit!

Recent studies at the National Institute on Aging have shown that those who keep their minds actively engaged in new learning say they are happier and feel more fulfilled than older adults who do not. Dr. Paul Nussbaum, a well-known authority on brain research and aging agrees, saying, “In the 21st century, education and information may become for the brain what exercise is for the heart.”

Going further, studies conducted at Harvard, Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities have shown that keeping brains active helps retain mental alertness as people age. Scientists discovered that the brain -- even an aging brain -- can grow new connections and pathways when challenged and stimulated. The brain’s physical anatomy actually responds to enriching mental activities. Lifelong Learning is a fantastic way to provide enrichment for our hungry brains!

Lifelong Learning expands your intellectual, social, spiritual, and physical horizons far beyond what you might have previously thought possible. There are three major ways to use Lifelong Learning to enrich your life and create balance.

First, join a Lifelong Learning program. These programs are curriculum-based, non-credit, college-level programs usually run by and for older adults. They are open to mature learners, regardless of previous academic history. In other words, you don’t need any type of degree to participate. All you need is a desire to explore and have fun.

What makes these programs different from senior centers, community or adult education programs is that they are made up of older adults who are interested in learning for the sheer joy of learning. A strong volunteer aspect, a real feeling of community, and enriching social activities are also hallmarks of these programs. Members participate regularly and get to know one another as friends, co-volunteers, and classmates. If you are interested in learning more about Lifelong Learning programs, and want to find one near you, please visit www.elderhostel.org/ein/intro.asp

Next, take off into the world of educational travel programs -- fun and enlightening ways to learn about a country’s history, culture, and politics. These aren’t your typical vacations; while you do see beautiful and historic sites, you will also attend lectures, meet the local inhabitants and actively learn about the country -- the things they don’t show you on the usual tours. You will be challenged to expand your perspectives and global viewpoints. At the same time, you will develop lasting memories and friendships. If you want to find out more about educational travel programs be sure to visit www.roadscholar.org

Finally, get involved in meaningful community service; use your skills and experiences to help enrich the lives of others. Meaningful community service is all about engaging in whatever endeavor enriches your life and feeds your soul. In fact, volunteers routinely encounter new perspectives and ideas that challenge as much as they enlighten. There’s nothing like helping others to put your own life into perspective and find balance. If you want to begin exploring meaningful community service options in your community, your state, or even globally, please visit www.learninglater.com

Now, more than ever before, it’s vitally important to add Lifelong Learning to your “After-50 Years.” Doing so will foster a sense of personal empowerment and increase your self-esteem. It will also ensure your continued growth and intellectual stimulation. Lifelong Learning helps balance our minds, our bodies and our spirits. When we are balanced we feel great. And feeling great leads us on to explore other things. It's a wonderful circle of enhanced wellness that helps create an enriched later life. Using the Lifelong Learning “health club” means our minds will be more stimulated, our bodies more active, and our spirits more fulfilled.

As David, a Lifelong Learner from New York says, “We base everything on the belief that our capacity to learn and grow does not decrease as our years increase. In fact, through learning and the adventures we embark on, we actually embrace self-fulfillment.”

Author's Bio: 

Nancy Merz Nordstrom, M. Ed., is the author of Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years, published by Sentient Publications in Boulder, Colorado.

Learning Later, Living Greater introduces readers to the ideas and benefits of later-life learning. It challenges people to become involved in meaningful new avenues of productivity: learning for the sheer joy of learning something new, educational travel, volunteerism, civic action, and more. It shows them how to stay mentally and spiritually young. Learning Later, Living Greater is the guidebook for transforming the after-work years into a richly satisfying period of personal growth and social involvement.

Merz Nordstrom also directs the Elderhostel Institute Network for Elderhostel, Inc., North America's largest educational travel organization for older adults. She offers counseling to new start-up programs, provides resources and facilitates communication among more than 380 Lifelong Learning programs across the U.S. and Canada, and develops links between these programs and similar programs in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. She has also worked closely with developers establishing lifelong learning programs in Japan.

Nancy blogs and writes columns for several online sites that focus on adults over the age of 50. These sites include www.eons.com - www.egenerations.comwww.successtelevision.comwww.blifetv.com and www.growingbolder.com. She maintains a web site at www.learninglater.com
that provides information for the general public.

Merz Nordstrom has been interviewed extensively by the media about the learning in retirement movement. Articles have appeared in many newspapers and periodicals, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. She has done numerous radio interviews, local TV shows, and was a guest on the CNN Financial News TV show "Your Money."

A dedicated lifelong learner, Nancy returned to school after the unexpected death of her first husband, and at age 53, earned a M.Ed. in Adult Education. As a later-life student she became aware of the opportunities and challenges facing older adults, and has dedicated herself to the belief that lifelong learning is both empowering and life-affirming, regardless of age.