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Sylvia and Nat have always been involved in community organizing. In Los Angeles, they helped form a continuing education program for seniors. When they retired and moved to Berkeley, they were disappointed with the local resources for seniors, so they decided to create their own community of learners. After researching programs across the country, Sylvia and Nat decided to take advantage of their contacts in the academic world. Having U.C. Berkeley in the neighborhood meant they could get a wide variety of speakers for their classes.

The first few meetings of the group, formally called Alternative Lifelong Learning (ALL), were held in the houses of the five founding members in 1989. Then they hooked up with the local senior center and began holding classes there. It was a perfect match. The center could provide free meeting space, and the center director wanted to attract active seniors who could inspire other clients, many of them frail and elderly, to get involved. "It took off like wildfire," Nat says. "It really filled a need in the community." Membership is now at 250 and growing.

The core of ALL is the ongoing lecture series, some taught by members, others by outside experts who all speak for free. Lectures have covered everything from Hollywood to the ethics of cloning; from early twentieth-century architecture to growing up Jewish in China.The social interaction is perhaps the most impressive part of ALL meetings. Members are not passively absorbing information, they're sharing their knowledge, recalling past experiences, and challenging each other.

The buzz and energy of the meetings attract new members, many of them eager to become part of the social scene, says Sylvia. But unless new members have a real desire to learn, they'll quickly drop out. "We've heard the complaint, 'You people are too smart for me,' " Sylvia says. "Those people leave and join other groups. Once we had a series on biophysics and a woman admitted she couldn't understand very much of the lecture. 'But,' she said, 'It felt so good to sit there and use my brain to try and understand it.' That's why we're there—to fill the gaps in knowledge for the things we never had time to learn. In a way, it's a luxury."

Exercise and the Brain
Regular exercise can improve some mental abilities by an average of 20–30 percent. It also keeps you healthy and may help prevent strokes and other circulation disorders that can cause brain damage. "When you exercise, you're pumping more blood everywhere and keeping the plumbing from getting clogged up," says Art Shimamura, memory expert at UC Berkeley.

Memory and Sharing
Isolation is about the worst thing you can do to your brain, says Art Shimamura, yet many people isolate themselves when they retire. Memory never really takes hold unless you discuss experiences with others. Talking with friends about the plot of a book or sharing your feelings about a good movie requires that you organize information and relate the parts you think were most important. That creates new connections in the brain and strengthens your memory. You also keep in touch with your own life stories by sharing them with others.

Memory Diaries
Organization is a great memory aid. Writing things in an appointment book means you don't have to actively remember when you've scheduled meetings or activities. Similarly, having a dedicated place in your home for car keys or always parking in a consistent spot at work helps free your mind to focus on other things.

 

Memories Don't Always Retire When You Do
The memory skills you have when you're older depend, in large part, on how much you used them during your working life and how much you continue using them. Studies suggest that some of the memory lapses older people complain about are not inevitable. By exercising your brain—through continuing education or even by doing crossword puzzles—there's evidence that older people can keep mentally fit.

Ruts Aren't Always Bad
When people retire, they often give up the daily rhythms that anchored their lives. A daily routine gives you the structure on which to hang your memories. Having someplace to go every day, whether it's work or school or a community center, helps keep people connected with everyday life and their own memories.

Earliest Memories
Memories formed early in life can be among the most enduring. As we age, the part of the brain responsible for helping record new memories becomes less efficient. New information has more difficulty getting in, but memories that were stored in the past can remain intact. It's one of the reasons elderly people often remember startling details about their youth but sometimes forget what they had for dinner the night before.

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