Keeping ‘the Whole Brain’ Healthy

The benefits of lifelong learning

By Meg Rothstein

Opportunities for continuing education abound in the Madison area—and even a bit farther afield. And, for seniors, some of these educational offerings are free or at a lower cost. So dive in and keep your mind aflight!

Early one recent morning, Jo Ann Woodford sat down at her computer in order to compose an email to her fellow classmates. “Hello Writers!  I’ve been working on a new novel…” Woodford, 73, retired from her office job two years ago. To nurture her lifelong love of putting pen to paper, she’s enrolled in writing classes through UW Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison College and Upper Iowa University over the past two decades. The structure and camaraderie afforded through these courses propel Woodford. “My writing really took off at 50!”

Through her years as a student, Woodford’s discovered a lot about the art of being one. “Something important, for me at least, is that I’ve found that I don’t have to like a person in order to learn from them or listen seriously to what they have to say.”

That said, Woodford’s genuinely enjoyed many of her instructors’ personalities as well as their instruction. For example, she’s signed up for indie workshops led by several instructors she’s connected with while attending the annual Writers’ Institute and Write By the Lake—both offered through Continuing Studies at UW.

Julie Tallard Johnson teaches at both, and Woodford says the two have really developed a bond. “I’ve learned not only about creative writing—writing from the gut and heart—from Julie, but she has also stirred up confidence within me,” Woodford says.

Outside UW, Johnson conducts transformational writing circles for writers and others looking to hone their creative and spiritual pursuits. She does this along with operating her mental health and wellness counseling practice based in Madison and Prairie du Sac.

From a therapist’s perspective, Johnson sees myriad benefits to enrolling in classes later in life. “Meeting up with other writers encourages and supports one’s creative process through participation, active listening and accountability. This accountability to show up for ourselves and others is fundamental to our creative, spiritual and mental health. Also, gathering with others helps keep the whole brain stimulated. There is evidence that being part of such circles, where there is an expectation to be engaged in conversation and active listening, keeps our brains healthy.”

As a teacher (her preferred title is “writing sherpa”), Johnson is committed to holding space for older students. Many if not most of her students are over 55, she says. “Students who bring in more life experience of course have a great deal to share with others. The beauty is in the exchange of experiences and ideas.”

Jane Collins, professor of community and environmental sociology in the UW School of Letters and Science, agrees. “I find that older students add so much to our classroom discussions. Not only do they bring life experience, but they have often lived through historical changes that we talk about [in class].” The University of Wisconsin allows residents 60 and older to sit in on courses, free of charge and sans exams, at the discretion of the professor.

Collins recently offered space in her environmental sociology course. Downtown resident and semi-retired graphic designer Carrie Scherpelz audited the course. Scherpelz stresses that one needn’t have extra funds for books in order to take advantage of auditing for free at UW. “The big lectures tend to be the ones open for auditors,” she says. If you feel the need to study beyond attending lectures, one can make it work with an hour or two per week on campus, she says. She’s been engrossed in subjects ranging from music history to the history of American capitalism. “As I got to be the age where I could audit, I decided to take as many classes as I could.”

Her focus on history helps Scherpelz grapple with these times, too. “I’m trying to make sense of our current climate. In doing that, it really helps to go back.”

Professor Walter C. Stern, assistant professor of educational policy studies and history, teaches a course Scherpelz recommends auditing called “History of American Education.” Stern says he supports auditors and the university’s commitment to seniors returning to the classroom. “Providing space for auditors who are over 60 is an important embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea—that the university’s influence should extend far beyond campus and the classroom,” he reflects. “It’s important that we open our classrooms to members of that community who are seeking new learning experiences.” Along with Johnson and Collins, Stern sees older auditors as real assets to classroom culture. “Through their presence, they send the message that learning is a lifelong pursuit. While we gain experience as we get older, neither age nor experience guarantee that we have all of the answers.”

Indeed, it’s never too late to learn new things. “That’s a lesson that benefits both me and my students, regardless of how old they are.”


By Katie Buhman

Looking for more ways to keep learning? Check out the following opportunities locally and beyond!


Programming in and around Dane County Connect with other passionate individuals as you explore topics like philosophy, meditation and literature in classes that are anywhere from three to 10 sessions. Delve deeper on trips and tours to world-class museums and Broadway shows. Or share your own knowledge by proposing and teaching a course for a semester or interim session.


Madison Embrace your inner artist over the summer by learning new techniques and styles. Take a two- or three-day session and paint in watercolors, acrylics or try out making a collage. Enjoy classes at Elver Park or at an artist’s studio and expand your knowledge of painting and art.


Fish Creek, Door County Engage with a huge variety of art forms and styles in classes that are offered from spring through fall. Try your hand at photography, metals, painting, clay and more. Explore art exhibitions and guided tours or enjoy an art-centered event with family and friends.


Mineral Point Gain knowledge in diverse art forms like pottery, welding and jewelry as well as improv and poetry. Enjoy courses that last for a couple days offered from June to November. Dig deeper into your art on multiday retreats and workshops while exploring the local community.


Provided through UW-Madison Continuing Studies Travel to countries throughout the world and experience different languages and cultures. Take a few days or a few weeks to go on a trip planned for you. Broaden your horizons and focus on the arts, history, archeology and more, all on an expert-guided tour.

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