Sustaining a Passion for Learning Across the Lifetime


The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” isn’t true—It’s never too late to learn. “Learning across the entire lifespan is incredibly beneficial,” said Dr. Suzann M. Ogland-Hand, a clinical geropsychologist in Grand Rapids.   

Studies have shown that leisure activities like continued learning can reduce the risk of dementia by 38%.  Fortunately for Grand Rapids seniors, there are numerous continuing education opportunities available—from classes at the local colleges to courses offered by community groups.  Residents of Holland Home’s Raybrook Campus don’t even have to leave their building to take advantage of educational opportunities thanks to a new program called the Raybrook Enrichment Academy for Living or REAL.


Culture of Learning


REAL was born in 2014 during a strategy session. “We set goals,” said Marenta Klinger, director of resident life,“ and brainstormed ways to achieve them.  One of our goals was to bring the whole Raybrook community together—from independent living to memory care—through learning opportunities on campus.”

“Our dream was to create a culture of learning for everyone,” said Judy Scholten, director of Raybrook Estates and Homes. “We want our residents to have a fulfilling life, and continued learning is part of that.”

The REAL program is set up much like a college curriculum with a course catalogue issued every month. There are three sessions, each three months long—summer, winter and fall.  So far, 87 different courses have been offered with attendance at some of them reaching 100 people. Classes range from history to art to yoga.  Approximately one class per day is currently being offered. 


Residents Take the Lead


REAL was originally staff-driven, but residents soon became involved. “We used to be the leaders,” Klinger said, “but now the residents are leading as was our dream.  We’re here to support and walk alongside them.” Some classes are taught by outside instructors, but an increasing number are led by the residents themselves many of whom are former educators.  “REAL has been a way to tap into the talents and interests of our residents,” said Klinger. 

According to Klinger, being actively involved with REAL gives residents one way to contribute. “The message from American society can sometimes feel like if you’re older, you’re perceived as useless,” said Ogland-Hand. “A program like REAL can help to counter that with the reality that seniors have tremendous gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.”

According to Klinger, it’s been interesting to note which classes have drawn the most attendance. Spiritual topics are popular especially when the instructor ties another topic to their faith. For instance, a Grand Rapids police officer delivered a lecture entitled The Bible and the Badge where he talked not only about his job but also about how his faith impacts what he does.


Expanding Horizons


The classes have served to expand the horizons of the Raybrook residents and introduce them to other cultures. For instance, the residents planned a series on understanding Islam which is on the schedule for November, and one of the more popular classes was led by an instructor who shared his experiences teaching in Egypt for many years. 

“For residents who don’t drive, the classes bring something new to their lives—something different from what they’d see on television,” said Bob Yonker, a Raybrook resident and one of the resident instructors having led a course on the influence of the Netherlands on early American history.

The classes have also engaged people socially. According to Yonker, he’s lived on the Raybrook Campus for ten years, but he’s met more new people through the REAL classes than in all the other years combined.  “It makes living here so much better.”  According to Ogland-Hand, being socially active through a program like REAL helps seniors to develop new relationships. 

“The classes have stretched me,” said Raybrook resident Jane Iwema. Iwema takes three classes per week and will rearrange her schedule to accommodate a course she is particularly interested in. “We can’t wait for the catalogue to come out each month to see what new courses are being offered.” 

The classes are open to all residents including those with dementia.  According to Ogland-Hand, people with cognitive loss enjoy and can benefit from learning.  And the other residents have become more comfortable interacting and communicating with those with memory loss.   

The classes are having a ripple effect—spawning a quilting group and increasing attendance in book clubs. The program is now available on the Breton Woods campus and has been renamed the Resident Enrichment Academy for Living.

According to Ogland-Hand, continued learning keeps both your brain and your body healthy. Even if you are not a resident of Holland Home, you will find many opportunities for continued learning in Grand Rapids.


Learning Opportunities for Grand Rapids Seniors


CALL: The Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning (CALL), offers programs created for those 50 and older, and you don’t need to be a Calvin College alum to attend. There are noontime lectures as well as courses on art, literature, history, etc.  More information can be found on their web site:

OLLI: Aquinas College offers the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) with 160 courses per year covering science, history, philosophy, religion, art, music culture and more.  More information can be found at

Grand Forum: Grand Forum is an education outreach program of Grand Valley University designed for adults 55 and older. Classes are led by university faculty, community leaders, Grand Forum members, independent scholars and local professionals and cover such areas as the arts, business, current events, history and science.  Grand Forum web site is:

Older Learner Center: The Older Learner Center at the Grand Rapids Community College offers adults 45 years and older opportunities for life-long learning and enrichment.  The Center also sponsors numerous, public forums, conferences, training and events within the community on issues relating to aging in America.  More information can be found at

Forest Hills Senior Center: The Forest Hills Senior Center offers bi-weekly lunch and learn programs, day trips and special events along with a diverse schedule of courses. To learn more, visit their web site at

As Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”