It’s Never Too Late to Go Back to School

These Mainers find that lifelong learning buoys their mind, body, and spirit.

Portraits by Benjamin Williamson

Like a lot of folks, Carol and Dick Davis fell in love with Maine as visitors, and for years, they dreamed of retiring here to enjoy the pristine landscape and laid-back vibe. But since they moved to Vacationland from Connecticut five years ago, they’ve enjoyed another, unexpected perk: the chance to go back to school.

The couple has loaded up on courses on Maine maritime history, the Katahdin region, women in the Civil War, neurology, French opera, and other topics at Midcoast Senior College, in Brunswick. Through the Association of Bowdoin Friends, they have taken workshops that covered topics like climate change, the 2016 election, and American art inspired by nature.

“We knew we’d love living in Maine, but the wealth of learning opportunities was a surprise and has enhanced the quality of our lives more than we could have imagined,” Carol says. “The classes give us a better understanding of the place where we live, the fun of learning something new, and the chance to share it with other people. We just feel that the possibilities are endless for us to keep learning and exploring.”

The Davises are part of a swell of Mainers taking advantage of opportunities for lifelong learning that abound in the Pine Tree State. In addition to Midcoast Senior College, the 50-and-over set can find classes geared to them at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the University of Southern Maine, and 16 other senior colleges based in Augusta, Bangor, Bar Harbor, Lewiston-Auburn, Machias, Portland, Farmington, and elsewhere. Organizations like Merrymeeting Adult Education, in Topsham, offer workshops and lectures, as do the community-service departments of individual towns and cities.

Officials who lead those programs say that they’ve seen demand for classes rise during the pandemic. Donna Marshall, executive director of Midcoast Senior College, says the move to Zoom made classes more accessible and allowed seniors to take classes even when they were spending winter elsewhere or couldn’t leave home. Now, after the organization returns to in-person classes, it will maintain some remote programming.

“Demand is definitely growing,” Marshall says. In a typical year, the college sees enrollment of 1,250 for its 70 classes, plus free lectures and clubs themed around subjects like writing, current events, and Shakespeare.

“We just feel that the possibilities are endless for us to keep learning and exploring.”

A mounting body of research shows that hitting the books during the retirement years helps boost quality of life with aging. In a study published in January in the journal Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, researchers concluded that formal learning opportunities later in life “contributed to increased well-being, quality of life, healthy cognitive function, self-dependency, and a sense of belonging in older adults.”

Ross and Nancy Crolius will attest to that. The New Yorkers retired to Topsham three years ago and have since taken courses in the early history of the Kennebec River region and philosophy at Midcoast Senior College. Now, Ross is taking a class called Roots of Antisemitism. Ross, who studied voice at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory and upstate New York’s Eastman School of Music, and, along with Nancy, spent 25 years in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, savors the opportunity.

“I don’t have a liberal-arts background, so this is a chance to expand myself,” he says. “The courses often inspire me to continue learning about the subject after the class has finished. It’s a way to keep the gray matter intact.”

Teaching has inspired Ross too. He joined the college’s volunteer faculty and taught classes in opera appreciation, which has led him to engage with the music in ways he wasn’t able to during his years of performing. “It gives me an opportunity to dig a little deeper,” he says. “I’m not just learning my part.”

Morton Achter also finds that teaching offers its own kind of enrichment. He taught music at the college level for 45 years. For the last 10, at Midcoast Senior College, he has enjoyed leading classes on subjects he wasn’t able to teach before, such as the Victorian-era comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

“Preparing for the classes has made me go back to the books,” Achter says. “I find it challenging and intellectually stimulating, and I’ve enjoyed that aspect of it a lot.” He also revels in meeting people who share his interests.

“I enjoy the social context of the classroom and the give-and-take with the students,” he says. “It’s fun to be back.”

At Home in Highland Green

The Davis, Crolius, and Achter families have more than just a love of learning in common. They’re also neighbors in Highland Green, the 55+ active-adult community in Topsham. The 635-acre campus includes more than 200 freestanding homes, a 48-unit cottage neighborhood, apartment-like independent-living residences, and, soon, assisted-living and memory-care facilities. The development backs up to the 230-acre Cathance River Nature Preserve, which is managed by the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust.

“You have this opportunity to engage with a community, which is harder to do if you’re just moving somewhere and planting yourself in a private home,” Ross Crolius says.

Highland Green was a second retirement move for the Achters. When they retired, in 2002, they moved from Michigan to New Harbor. In 2015, they moved into Highland Green, drawn to its proximity to Topsham and Brunswick and to cultural events at Bowdoin College and Bath’s Patten Free Library — and, of course, the sense of community.

“We had a wonderful house on the ocean, but any property on the water requires a lot of maintenance,” Mort Achter says. “And it was a bit isolating, especially in winter.”

The Davises were drawn to the other Highland Green residents they met while they were house hunting. “It struck us as a place that was intellectually lively and filled with people we’d enjoy having as our friends and neighbors,” Carol Davis says. “When we were ready to move, we didn’t really feel that we were leaving a place — we were looking forward to going to a place where we already knew people whom we were eager to know better, to having them be a part of our lives, and to being a part of theirs.”