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At Senior Living Communities, Lifelong Learning Promotes Healthy Aging By Nancy Kennedy
By Nancy Kennedy

Nanci CaseFor most people, the joy of learning never goes away, thankfully, and at many of the region's senior living communities, lifelong learning is both a pleasure and a part of a healthy lifestyle. The health benefits of lifelong learning are countless: it not only can help one stay mentally sharp but can also be critical to emotional health. Lifelong learning programs provide a means of stimulation and social engagement that can improve mood, prevent or reduce depression and motivate self-improvement. Lifelong learning programs for older adults foster a sense of community and connection that enhance quality of life and according to some experts, may even stave off illnesses and debilitating conditions. Studies have shown that cognitively active seniors are 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and dementia than seniors with less cognitive activity. Nanci Case, vice-president of sales, marketing, development and fundraising for UPMC Senior Communities, says that continuing education programs at UPMC help people develop new interests – and it's never too late for that. "If a resident enjoys learning about a particular topic at one of our seminars, he or she may go further with it, reading about it and researching it on their own. That happens often and keeps the brain active."

Activity programs at UPMC facilities, including lifelong learning programs, help prevent the social isolation that is all too common among seniors. "Withdrawal and isolation are unfortunately a response that we often see in older adults for whom getting out is challenging," Case explains. "It may be due to physical limitations, such as reduced mobility or chronic pain, or it may be the result of no longer being able to drive or find reliable transportation. When you reside in UPMC Senior Communities, those obstacles are reduced or absent."

Lowell SwartsCase believes that keeping the brain active promotes healthy aging, but that a sense of connection to others is critical. "If you've been living alone, always eating meals by yourself, you can feel disconnected from life. At our facilities, you never have to eat alone. You can eat with others in the Dining Room and enjoy a conversation."

Each UPMC Senior Community facility has its own schedule of programs offered throughout the month. Topics represent a wide range of interests: local history, health and aging, and nature topics are popular. "We had a program on the Irish potato famine that was a huge draw," Case states. "Pittsburgh history is always appealing. We've done the history of Kennywood and both the Heinz and Westinghouse corporations; programs like these draw as many as 200 people." UPMC Senior Communities also offers The Legacy Lineup, an annual schedule of music, seminars, theatrical productions and films that take place in the beautiful Legacy Theatre at Cumberland Woods Village in the North Hills. Programs that are part of Living Legacy "go on the road," says Case, rotating to other facilities in the UPMC Senior Communities network.

At Longwood at Oakmont, a continuing care retirement community in Verona, lifelong learning is a part of everyday life. Longwood's program of diverse learning opportunities offers something for everyone's taste and is entirely resident-driven. The presentations feature highly credentialed speakers, often experts in their fields from the region's universities, museums and non-profit organizations. History, the arts, technology, politics, current events and science topics are popular at Longwood.

Lowell Swarts and his wife have lived at Longwood since 2007. He is co-chairman of the Continuing Education Committee, along with fellow resident Anne Ducanis, and says that planning the program is a collaborative process. "We have a group of ten who meet monthly. We solicit ideas and assign members to follow up. The quality of our program is high; some of the speakers attract 30 or 40 people. We charge a small fee because we are independent and have our own budget." Swarts enjoys the diversity of the presentations. "We have superb music programs, featuring advanced amateurs to professionals. We had a program on Scottish history that was quite popular, and presentations by the Audubon Society are well received. Recently, we learned about the roots of the conflict in Ukraine and about shale drilling."

Longwood's program provides not only a range of topics, but also a selection of learning formats. There's a monthly lecture program; a weekly selection from a library of The Learning Company DVDs; and an in-house television program on Fridays. Lindsay Coulter, director of sales and marketing at Longwood, says that the program is a highlight of life at Longwood. "Everyone is familiar with the phrase, 'use it or lose it.' At Longwood at Oakmont, our residents and staff have embraced 'using it' by developing and investing in fun and enriching lifelong learning programs. The programs are conveniently located right on our campus and the residents have taken ownership of creating opportunities for learning new things."

Some continuing education events at Longwood at Oakmont and UPMC are open to the public. Visit www.UPMCSeniorCommunities.com to learn more and to check for events that are open to the public. To stay up to date on upcoming Longwood programs, visit www.longwoodatoakmont.com.

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