Aging Well: Continuing education is a path to many goals

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Continuing education

Half-price tuition: Seniors 62 and older living in district (Steamboat School District RE-2) receive half-price tuition on credit courses at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat. For more information, call 870-4444 or visit www.coloradomtn.e...

Free tuition: Moffat County residents 62 and older receive free tuition on credit and noncredit courses at Colorado Northwestern Community College. For more information, call 824-1135 or visit www.cncc.edu.

Editor's note: This column has appeared previously in the Steamboat Today.

Benita Bristol, 85, always has understood the importance of higher education.

She and her late husband, Everett, helped found Yampa Valley College - now the Alpine Campus at Colorado Mountain College - in the late 1950s.

But it wasn't until Bristol was almost 60 and her four children were grown that she had the opportunity to pursue her associate's degree at the school.

"It was so rewarding, and it was such fun - I just loved my classes," said Bristol, who received her degree with an emphasis in business and political science at age 63.

Never too late

Whether it's to fulfill a dream of a college degree, change careers or simply add new skills, activities and interest to daily life, nontraditional students ages 50 and older are proving education is a lifelong opportunity.

In 2007, 95-year-old Nola Ochs of Hays, Kan., received her bachelor's degree from Fort Hays State University, becoming the world's oldest college graduate.

Ochs' white hair and cloth tote bag may have stood out among her iPod-wearing counterparts, but her wit, charm and life experience - including firsthand recollections of the Dust Bowl era - helped her meld with other students.

In Bristol's case, it was her business sense that helped gain the camaraderie of her twenty-something classmates.

"I was an old lady, and the kids kind of avoided me until we got to test time in our accounting class," she said. "They realized I was answering a lot of questions : It wasn't long until I was just one of the kids."

Bristol had wanted to attend college when she was younger, but she couldn't afford university tuition. Instead, she attended Barnes Business College and worked as a bookkeeper for 50 years.

An empty nest and supportive husband inspired her to take classes at CMC while working and traveling. She has continued taking academic and lifestyle courses since graduating more than 20 years ago.

"I like to think I'm a little more alert than I would be otherwise and that my outlook on life is a little broader than if I just sat at home and knitted," she said. "We all need to do something we enjoy - this is my outlet."

Higher education may do more than expand one's outlook and skills. A 2005 University of Toronto study showed more years of education were associated with more active frontal lobes in the brains of older adults. The study suggests this activity may help buffer people from cognitive declines as they age by providing them an alternative cognitive network.

Eye on the goal

Building up cognitive "reserves" may be an added perk for 56-year-old Monica Hose, who is 25 credits away from receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in interdisciplinary studies - with emphasis in sociology and English - from Adams State College.

Hose, who lives in Eagle County, received her Associate of Arts degree from CMC - she attended classes mostly at the Roaring Fork Campus in Carbondale - when she was 47 and then put her education on hold until her daughter completed college.

She now is balancing coursework - including one to two hours of homework each night - with family and a full-time job working with special needs children.

"It's my turn to be selfish and take care of me, and I've always wanted that degree," Hose said.

Being selfish, in Hose's case, has taken a lot of determination. She is pursuing her degree via distance learning, completing reading and coursework at home and corresponding with professors through e-mail and telephone.

"It's about discipline and desire and looking back at what I've already done," Hose said.

Independent work has made Hose appreciate the classroom and onsite college experience. She hopes to eventually move to a university town to pursue a master's degree in library science and maybe end up working as an archivist for a company.

Keeping active and alert

Community colleges, while offering convenient and affordable paths to higher education, also offer a more interesting and fulfilling lifestyle through a wide variety of recreation and other courses.

John Jepkema, 78, of Craig, is a retired math teacher with a bachelor's and a master's degree. Photography, computer courses, hiking and backpacking are just a few of the many courses he's taken at Colorado Northwestern Community College since retiring.

Jepkema enjoys the social interaction with other participants, as well as just getting out.

"It keeps me active and mentally alert," said Jepkema, who just returned from a class backpacking trip to Havasu Falls.

Moffat County residents 62 and older receive free tuition for credit and noncredit courses at CNCC, but that's just an added bonus for Jepkema.

"I would sign up for the classes whether they were free or not," he said.

Some states have statewide programs waiving tuition for senior citizens attending public colleges. Colorado is not among them, but seniors should check with individual colleges and universities to see whether they offer tuition waivers or discounts.

- The Associated Press and SeniorJournal.com contributed to this story.

Do you know anyone age 50 or older who is a good example of Aging Well? Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults ages 50 and older. Let us know of potential candidates for our spotlight feature by calling 871-7676 or e-maling tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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