Learning a new skill later in life can be fun

It is never too late to learn something new.

That is the mantra that many area residents live by, and in resolving to learn a new skill this year they have opened up new opportunities, met new friends, conquered challenges and become happier in the process.

Though the process can often be intimidating and sometimes downright embarrassing, those who stick with it often find that learning a new skill is great for one’s self-esteem.

“I think it takes a lot of internal strength and confidence to admit you don’t know how to do something and then go out and learn it anyway,” said Jennifer Shoup, aquatics coordinator for the Marietta Family YMCA.

It is not uncommon for adults to learn to swim at the YMCA. In fact, Shoup recently had four adults finish private swimming lessons.

Newport resident Joseph Gordon, 43, was one of them.

Ironically, Gordon spent 20 years in the United States Navy but never learned to swim. Now that his knees have begun giving him trouble, he is hoping to replace running with swimming.

At first, the prospect was intimidating, he said.

“People are going to see you in the water trying to do something that kids do and you’re just learning it…It’s just getting past those fears and doing it,” he said.

Gordon said he is glad he took the chance.

“When you’re running you’re watching the clock, asking if it’s over. Now I have to watch the clock when I’m in the pool so I don’t stay in the water too long,” he said.

Rehashing the anxiety of learning a new skill can be a good thing, said Williamstown resident Janet Bland, 49.

An English professor at Marietta College, Bland and fellow professor Jolene Powell took one another’s classes-Bland taking Powell’s introductory drawing class and Powell taking Bland’s creative writing class.

“I was in there with the art majors and I typically spend my whole day as the expert. I felt actual fear,” recalled Bland.

But that fear helped Bland better understand how her students must often feel when taking new classes and developing new skills. It motivated her to start a habit of dedicating herself to a new skill every year.

In the past she has learned how to blow glass and play the guitar. This year she is going to tackle acrylic painting.

“I think it is important to try to keep your brain alive,” said Bland.

Keeping the brain active is one of the great benefits of learning something new, especially later in life, said Ali Doerflinger, an associate professor of psychology at Marietta College.

“It’s harder for older people to learn new skills because our pathways are so well established that it’s harder to change those neural networks,” she said.

However, learning those new skills is like exercise for one’s brain.

“There’s lots of good evidence that people who continue to pursue activities and read protect themselves against the kind of dementia that comes with age,” she said.

Marietta resident Judy Van Dyke, 73, took a knitting class years ago at a shop in the Frontier Shopping Center but the skill never took.

A year ago, Van Dyke decided to give it another whirl and joined a knitting class at the O’Neill Center. This time she stuck with it.

“It’s a real challenge to concentrate. It seems like we move awfully fast in this country at this stage. To try to stop and keep your mind focused is a challenge,” she said.

With the help of knitting instructor Nancy Matheny, Van Dyke worked diligently Friday on a pair of moccasins for her granddaughter.

Knitting is not the only new experience Van Dyke has tried lately. About a year ago she joined the choir and the O’Neill Center and began taking a variety of exercise classes.

Van Dyke is reaping the benefits of the changes in some very tangible ways. She is both mentally and physically healthier. The other day she said her husband commented that she is walking much better and her thyroid is functioning, resulting in her doctor reducing her thyroid medication.

“That’s my goal. I’m looking forward to getting rid of as much medication as possible,” she said.