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Helping seniors keep their minds young

Lynn Agress, left, and Liz Massanopoli at Baltimore Sun Media's Women to Watch 2019 event at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Lynn Agress, left, and Liz Massanopoli at Baltimore Sun Media's Women to Watch 2019 event at the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Steve Ruark/Baltimore Sun)

I recently lunched with my good friend Buz, 91, who lives at Broadmead Retirement Community. “In order to keep my mind sharp,” Buz told me, “I decided to memorize the 150 Psalms from the Bible.” He then recited Psalm 119, the longest.

Not to be outdone, I recited the Psalms that I knew by heart, with Buz joining in. It was great fun. In addition to memorizing the Psalms, Buz just completed another play. He has had several produced in his lifetime.

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“Anyone who stops learning is old whether at 20 or 80,” said industrialist Henry Ford, adding, “Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

For those not as self-motivated as my friend Buz, there are many stimulating courses to take and to teach all over town. Teaching in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program keeps me young. Because many of my students, or participants, as I prefer to call them, are older than I and are experts in their fields, I need to be at the top of my game, so to speak. Whether I am teaching plays, short stories or novels, I always re-read and research history and criticism.

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Several of my super-smart senior participants during the past 10 years include an 82-year-old Hopkins and Harvard graduate, who practiced law for 56 years before recently retiring; a retiree from Maryland Public Television; a former elementary school teacher and her husband, a retired emergency medicine physician, who now writes plays. Then there is the retired endocrinologist, who is writing short stories.

I am not the only instructor in the Odyssey program who finds great mental stimulation. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Sfekas, taught a popular course last year on the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi judges and recently taught “The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” a timely course that I took and enjoyed.

Pete Kakel, an insurance broker for 37 years, returned to university at 53, earning a doctorate in modern history, and has been teaching courses at Odyssey for the past seven years. Each course focuses on a historical event of the time: the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the New Deal. Discussions focus on how academic historians have explained these events.

In spring 2019, Dr. Kakel taught a course on the American Revolution that included an all-day trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

Douglas Blackstone, 72, Odyssey’s director, who himself possesses an interesting background — he is both a lawyer and former symphony horn player — says that each semester he includes a few courses on a current local, national or international theme. Examples include the Chesapeake Bay, nuclear proliferation, Martin Luther King’s 50th anniversary and this fall, the refugee crisis.

Odyssey, however, is not the only program in Baltimore geared to older adults. Courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, offered at Johns Hopkins and at Towson University, and the Notre Dame Renaissance courses, occur during the day in contrast to Odyssey’s courses, scheduled mostly in the evenings, making them more convenient for some.

The Community College of Baltimore sends instructors to retirement communities, such as Edenwald, where a good friend teaches a popular course on Historic Churches and Synagogues in Maryland.

Another popular program for learners of all ages is Kaleidoscope, run by Roland Park Country School, mainly for its alumnae and the surrounding community. In addition to traditional courses, Kaleidoscope offers “how-to” courses, such as culinary arts, parenting and Nantucket basket making.

In her review of Gail Collins’ “No Stopping Us Now,” “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, 78, says, “If you’re 70-plus, you could be speaker of the house (Nancy Pelosi), sit on the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) or work for ’60 Minutes’ (Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney lasted into their 90s).”

Or as researcher and writer Paula Spencer says: “The brain you have is the brain you build.” Whether you choose to memorize Psalms, write plays, take or teach courses, just keep on building your brain.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.” Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.

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