Seniors & Aging

College-level classes at WWU help widow adjust to life in new hometown of Bellingham

Name: Karen McGuinness.

Age: 69.

Hometown: Born in Emporia, Kan.; lived in Southern California most of her life before moving to Whatcom County.

Family: One brother.

Dramatic change: In September 2006, McGuinness and her husband decided Bellingham was the perfect place to retire. They bought a house, packed up their belongings and were ready to make the journey.

Two weeks before the move-in date, her husband died of a heart attack.

“He didn’t make it, so I came up alone in December without a single friend,” she says. “I had to fill the void of what to do with myself.”

Life after a death: “I had this realization that I had never done most things by myself,” McGuinness says. “I’d never been to the movies by myself. It felt wrong to be sitting in there alone.”

She decided the only way to make friends was to try something new. She enrolled in the Academy for Lifelong Learning through Western Washington University. It’s a program designed for adults who want to take college-level classes for their own interest.

In college again: When McGuinness went to college in her 20s, she earned a degree in anthropology and went on to get her master’s degree in public administration. Her late husband was a retired college professor, so she felt comfortable with the Academy for Lifelong Learning format.

“I went to college alone and managed to make friends,” she says. “What’s so hard about going to class by myself now to make friends the same way?”

Learning about new things: McGuinness says she never expected to take some of the classes offered by the Academy for Lifelong Learning. She has taken classes in geology, volcanology, the Missoula floods and even commercial fishing.

“I had absolutely no interest in fishing up to that point and just thought there’d be a lot of single men in the class,” she says. “The class was more interesting than I thought. I learned a lot about how fishing impacts the economy up here.”

Quality education: “The professors at the Academy for Lifelong Learning are always shocked to see that the students actually pay attention and engage the material,” McGuinness says. “We’re not exactly playing on our electronic devices.”

McGuinness found that as she grows older, she’s going back to books she read in her 20s with a new appreciation. She says people who are retired have more time to focus on truly learning a topic, without the stress of trying to earn a college degree.

Traveling companions: McGuinness has been to every continent at least once, and is going to Africa again in September. She travels through the WWU Retirement Association, which takes groups on guided tours.

“I try to make two big trips per year,” McGuinness says. “What’s different about traveling with this group is that we have professors there with us who can tell us all about the culture.”

Staying active: McGuinness says taking classes and trying new things as you age is essential. She’s now a golf enthusiast and an avid downhill skier.

“My husband always tried to get me to ski with him,” she says. “We have a mountain in our backyard here, so I was gonna do it. I couldn’t find another crazy soul to try it with me, but I go once a week anyway.”

Healthy brains: McGuinness’ father had dementia, so she tries to keep her brain active to ward off the disease.

“I fear it’s in my blood, which is why I take as many classes as I can,” she says. “The Academy for Lifelong Learning is a health club for the brain.”