Yesterday, the latest OASIS catalog came with a huge variety of courses designed for, and mostly presented by, seniors. Being human, I quickly scanned through it to find the listing for the new course I will present starting in February. This should be a fun thing. The emphasis is on major computer applications that can be downloaded and installed for free.

In six weeks the course will go through Ubuntu, LibreOffice, Audacity, Inkscape, Blender, GIMP, and whatever else we have time for and interest in — maybe Scribus.

Then I remembered the difficulty I had answering a question earlier this week. Another senior that I had just met at dinner and I were getting to know each other. He asked when I had retired. That seems like a natural question, but I did not have a good answer.

The problem is: How do you define retirement? There seem to be two types: one is a continuation of, and even expansion of, life after ceasing to hold a regular employment; the other is a slow shutdown of mental capacity leading to premature death. Often these two different things are linked. When a person is self-defined as doing a particular job (e.g., “I am a teacher,” “I am a plumber,” etc.), retirement from that job can have devastating consequences. Instead of entering the golden years, that person enters the foggy years and slowly fades away. Other people relish the change in life and reach out and grow in retirement. Many of them end up taking classes at OASIS — some are my students.

Yes, I am officially retired in the sense that I no longer bring home a regular paycheck (except for my Social Security monthly payment), but my friends and I often wonder how we ever got anything accomplished when we were working at regular jobs and had kids at home because we seem to be busy all the time now. (Of course, some of my retired friends do have kids at home now — but that is a sign of our times.) Many of us do odd jobs to pick up some extra money. Almost all have hobbies and interests that include a heavy dose of volunteer work.

None of the free applications I listed above existed before I retired. This means that I learned how to use them recently, and often with only online tutorials to help. Almost certainly none of the students in the class will have used any of them with the possible exception of LibreOffice (or its relative, OpenOffice). With luck, some of them will start using GIMP to restore damaged photographs and even make dynamite graphics with Inkscape or Blender, but the main goal is to expose them to what is possible. They can then go as far as they want.

How Do You Define Retirement?Most of my students are technically computer illiterate or semi-literate, but they seem to share an abhorrence of boredom. They want to keep learning and enjoying life even if they are not as athletic as they used to be. They recognize that computer literacy is a useful skill. They want to advance beyond checking email and simple surfing. There is one problem.

Many seniors do not seem willing to submit to practice. They have lived a long and fulfilling life and do not want to start over again learning from scratch when that means practice. There is a real difference between learning a new phone number and learning GIMP; between learning the names of new movie stars and learning how to layout a spreadsheet. I see this in myself. Although I certainly know the names of all the keys on a piano and might even be able to tell you which note was sounded without looking, I will never be able to play anything more complicated than “Chopsticks” simply because I am not motivated to practice.

On the other hand, I really like seeing what new features are available on Ubuntu or any of the other applications in my course. Once I got over the frustration of having my favorite HP LaserJet start mis-picking, the learning process of finding, buying, and installing an anti-paper jam kit is fun. (Side note: the designers of the LaserJet must have had small hands. If you have replaced the pickup roller on one, you know what I mean.)

So what does retirement mean and how can we use that understanding to help seniors become more computer literate and pick up the skills they will certainly need as time goes on?

Key to teaching seniors is that, more than college age students, they must be interested and even see some positive results immediately. Working for delayed goals is always necessary, but when working with seniors, we need to be aware that delayed goals are not as enticing as they were when we were all twenty and starting a career. That is not to say I think young people are more patient — the contrary is often true! I am saying that in my experience, having a series of positive accomplishments that can be used immediately is more important to keeping their continued interest. That is retirement.

For me, learning how to post blogs is boring. Getting the passwords right and finding the right tabs to click does nothing for me. Writing and sharing is rewarding, and replying to intelligent comments is very rewarding. Perhaps for me that is a definition of retirement — mixed in with a lot of other things, like the cruise to the Caribbean that my wife and I will take in January. Our friends are sometimes surprised that we are taking our free diving equipment. “You still do that?” they ask. Well, yes, we do, and I have a nice collection of videos and photographs of tropical fish that we have seen over the years. One of my favorite pictures was taken a few inches above the water as I prepared to dive and follow Patricia into the La Jolla sea caves. She is barely visible ahead of me. That is also retirement.

How Do You Define Retirement?

Well, that is my last post of 2011. Happy new year and welcome to 2012.