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Education might help you remain in control

There's an aspect of aging we don't talk about very much. It's the importance of "control."

Older adults with a strong sense of situational control see difficult circumstances differently. When something unexpected happens, they recognize the challenge and rise to it. Aging people with a diminished sense of control see threat and respond accordingly — often at their peril.

Researchers at Brandeis University suggest it may have to do with the amount of education they have. Apparently, people with more education feel a greater sense of inherent control. They live longer and score better on overall happiness indexes, as well.

This business about feeling in control is big.

If education makes the difference between being challenged and feeling threatened, there are always opportunities for us to acquire continuing education. My gosh, major universities such as Harvard now offer free online classes. Yes, free! (www.extension.harvard.edu/open-learning-initiative)

Your local Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (http://extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/) has a bevy of engaging, low-fee classes that can fill you up with knowledge and help you rise to life's challenges. And those are just a few examples of the bountiful educational opportunities that exist in Southern Oregon.

I may sound like I'm overstating, so let me give you a small but potent example. I took an Extension class many years ago on "organizing your pantry." In retrospect, I'm not even sure I had an actual pantry to organize at that time. But that two-hour class was full of practical approaches that are still with me. The information is imbedded in my psyche in a way that seems to make me better able to organize almost anything. We are in the middle of moving our entire household across town over the next few weeks and it is fairly chaotic. I use those long-remembered organizing tips every day lately.

Registering for some kind of class has the potential to bump up feelings of control. Let's say you take an online class through a distant university or on site at our local Extension office, and as a result you're able to drop a conversational tidbit about something you learned, such as an effective method to eliminate the irksome ants climbing out of the wall behind your kitchen counter. Maybe you identified a simple solution to dealing with a constipated computer.

You talk about it (if you learn, you must teach) and people hearing you decide to initiate actions they would not have taken as a result. They teach and tell others, and affirm you for making a positive difference in their lives with an "atta boy/girl."

You feel better — more ready to deal with whatever comes next.

That's powerful stuff. It might even create a feeling of situational control that spreads into other aspects of your life. Could it be your new knowledge makes an impact that affects the whole community in unintended ways and changes the world a little. This is entirely possible. I know these things. I took a class.

Feelings of lost control are inevitable with aging. We lose our capacity to hear well and our vision fails. We have less stamina. And more aches and pains. Things happen we cannot predict, and how we deal with them affects the quality of our aging life. It's a challenge. Bring it on.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.