Countless opportunities for Continuous Learning

Heath Davenport, of the Village of St. James, left, swims alongside Kat Ford, of the Village of St. James, while practicing scuba diving during a Dec. 18 Enrichment Academy class at SeaBreeze Recreation Center Sports Pool.

Remember that old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?

Don’t tell that to Suanne Weil — one of the most active seniors participating in the Enrichment Academy, which just passed the midway point of its inaugural semester in The Villages.

With a chock-full schedule of nearly 20 courses between them, the 83-year-old Village of Sanibel resident and her husband, Michael Rachor, are proving it is never too late to learn

something new.

“It’s become something for the both of us to share together,” she said. “I like the artistic and more historical ones. He enjoys the computers.”

Weil, her husband and several thousand other Villagers have jumped at the chance to engage in lifelong learning at the local recreation centers hosting more than 140 fee-based, noncredit courses on topics like current affairs, history, literature, foreign language, culinary arts, music, dance, hobbies and crafts.

They may be seeking new knowledge, discovering their untapped abilities or just having fun. But these students also could be improving their chances of living a healthier, happier life.

Keeping your mind busy

Numerous studies point to the benefits of senior enrichment.

A recent one funded by the National Institute on Aging, which included more than 1,200 seniors, found that increasing a person’s cognitive brain activity generally slowed his or her mental decline.

That translates to a lessened chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia — more than two-and-a-half times less, according to the study.

Local neurologist Dr. Alexander Smirnoff compared a brain that is actively fighting off the onset of dementia, or other tissue-related conditions, to an athlete training to gain more strength.

“You can look at it as equivalent to lifting weights in the gym,” he said. “When you lift weights over and over again, you are increasing the size of the muscles. The brain has the same response to repetitive demand.”

Evident by the number of courses selling out weeks ahead of time, residents like John Lanzer, of the Village of Lynnhaven, are taking notice of what the Enrichment Academy has to offer.

Lanzer is enrolled in Ageless Grace — a seven-week, hourlong class held Monday afternoons at Lake Miona Recreation Center.

The class is based on the phenomenon of neuroplasticity and it aims to exercise all aspects of the brain, including memory, analytical thinking and creativity.

“Originally, I signed up for this because the description talked about improving coordination and training your brain, but I had no idea that so much of this has to do with preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s,” Lanzer said shortly before the holiday break. “My family is riddled with the disease — all the men have it. So this is a perfect fit for me.”

“We don’t want our brains to turn to ‘mush!’” said classmate Julie Fisher, of the Village of Sabal Chase.

A complement to the lifestyle

The type of program exemplified by the Enrichment Academy has a following nationwide. A lifetime of learning is a concept accepted and venerated across the country.

Just in Central Florida, Lake-Sumter State College, for example, welcomes continuing education students for courses in writing, jazz music and more.

Beacon College — a small, private college dedicated to students with learning disabilities — is in the midst of its first-ever “Speaker Saloon Series,” offering free seminars to members of the community.

College of Central Florida in Ocala hosts noncredit courses in the areas of art, health sciences, business, technology and more.

Local libraries offer plenty of educational programs as well.

What makes the Enrichment Academy special, according to John Rohan, director of The Villages Recreation and Parks Department, is the convenience to Villages residents and the large number of opportunities it presents. The academy is part of the Recreation and Parks Department.

“All the recreation centers are golf cart accessible, which is very important,” he said.

Looking at the bigger picture, Rohan noted the academy is a perfect complement to The Villages lifestyle, adding to the long list of recreational and social amenities residents have come to expect.

The chance to test both your mental and physical capabilities in an environment completely geared toward learning is special, Rohan said.

“TEA is one of the pillars here for people who wish to continue to enhance and improve their quality of life, in this case through education and learning,” he said.

Trying new things

Rich Grant lingered poolside outside SeaBreeze Recreation Center in a pair of knee-length swim trunks with a tank of pressurized oxygen at his feet, arriving a few minutes earlier than the scheduled start time of his class.

He said the academy is helping him find his niche in the community.

Speaking from the perspective of a new retiree, Grant said he was drawn to the program by the sheer variety of course offerings. To be more precise, about 50 types of core courses and more than 400 class sessions were scheduled in the first semester.

“Having just retired in July, I’m anxious to try all new types of different things now that I have all this time,” Grant said.

Moments later he splashed into the water for one of the academy’s more oddball selections — an introduction to scuba, led by certified instructor Nancy “Heath” Davenport, of the Village of St. James.

Already registered for a Spanish travel course and “America’s National Parks: Through A Ranger’s Eyes” — an insider’s look given by a park ranger of nearly 30 years — Grant said he hopes to spark a new interest, perhaps even something that could lead to developing a serious hobby down the road.

“I signed up to find out if I wanted to take that next step,” he said.

Sitting just a few feet away, Rollie Williams said he wanted to improve his aquatic skills for an upcoming trip to the Caribbean. Exploring the ocean waters are at the top of his agenda.

“This allows me to get some sort of introduction, at least,” said Williams, who lives in the Village of Bridgeport of Miona Shores.

Plans for next semester

In the windup to the start of the first semester, recreation staff hosted an expo event in August at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square. The event drew a large crowd eager to get a sneak peek at course selections and meet the instructors.

Five months later, with many of those courses still underway, recreation staff say they are pleased with the outcome and response.

“Since we implemented this new division last fall, we knew it was going to be a herculean goal to launch. Our reward was seeing the great enrollment numbers,” academy manager Melanie Sarakinis said.

Challenges have included introducing a new web-based registration tool, reviewing the deluge of requests for new courses and the rare instance of a dead microphone battery in class. And now she is excited about what’s planned for the next round of courses starting in April.

Recreation staff once again will hold an expo event, dubbed the “Learn & Grow Expo,” from 8 to 11 a.m. Feb. 3 at Lake Miona Recreation Center, 1526 Buena Vista Blvd. Residents can learn about the program and review the newest academy catalog, which is expected to include a handful of new course options.

In addition to a new speaker series, courses will continue to be taught by fellow Villages residents, many of whom are speaking from decades of professional experience in their field.

Going forward, the program is building on its early successes.

“We are working with our instructors, marketing team and other team members to gain more direction, input and feedback to improve areas for the upcoming spring semester, and recruiting new instructors for additional course offerings,” Sarakinis said.

Ethan Palmer is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5342, or ethan.palmer@thevillagesmedia.com.

BREAKOUT BOX (MUST INCLUDE):

To register for upcoming courses, visit the Recreation tab at districtgov.org. From there, residents can view a full list of available courses and even sign up for future sessions online.

Registration also can be done in person at Lake Miona, La Hacienda, Eisenhower and Rohan recreation centers from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, or by mail to the Enrichment Academy, 984 Old Mill Run. Course catalogs are available at all recreation centers.

For information, call the district government office at 352-674-1800.