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Growing younger

ATWATER -- For centuries people have been searching for the "Fountain of Youth" but the elusive prolonger of life is nowhere to be found and may not exist at all. Still an Atwater man believes it's possible to halt the advance of time even in later years.

Sam Dolber teaches a noncredit Merced College class in Atwater called "Growing Younger." His philosophy is the mind is like a muscle and if we don't use it, we'll lose it. Various games, puzzles and mental exercises are just the ticket to grow younger, he believes.

"We cannot avoid growing older in years but we can always choose to stay young in spirit," Dolber said. "We do not stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing."

In the 1500s Spanish explorer Juan Ponce De Leon sailed the seas looking for the magical live-forever water source that the Puerto Ricans were talking about. He didn't find it but did discover Florida and died a young man from battle wounds fighting the natives.

Dolber, 79, has a general formula for staying young -- maintain a sense of wonder and hone the curiosity that drives people to explore new and different ideas and things. An anagram brain teaser, the game of battleship and word scrambles are among many possibilities that can keep a person amused and engaged for hours and days on end.

Retired English and drama teacher Jonathan Turner, 59, is one of Dolber's 30 students who attend the 90-minute Thursday afternoon sessions at the Atwater Community Center. As far as Turner is concerned, Dolber might have succeeded where Ponce De Leon failed.

"It's a great class," Turner said. "The guy (Dolber) has the vitality of a 30-year-old. His zest for life, enthusiasm and passion are contagious. It's the fastest hour and a half I've ever spent in a controlled classroom situation."

Dolber's students, primarily women, range in age from the late 50s to the late 80s. Eight to 10 people have been with Dolber since he began the class three years ago.

"Research shows the brain, although not a muscle, needs regular exercise and stimulation to maintain optimum health," Dolber said. "Just as muscles tend to atrophy and weaken with continued lack of use, the brain's capacity to function efficiently tends to diminish with the lack of meaningful mental activity."

The secret, he says, is to find mental fitness activities that you would enjoy doing even if you didn't know they were good for you and engage in them regularly. Play board and table games that are old favorites but make the effort to learn new ones.

"Solve puzzles and brain teasers. Practice old skills but learn new ones. Practice memory tricks that will help keep your mind focused," Dolber said. His game plan is to get people involved in activities that sharpen their memory.

Lela Martens, 77, has been going to Dolber's class since it began. She said she enjoys his whole format but her favorites are the games.

"I think we should exercise our minds. I enjoy all of it; he makes it interesting and holds your attention," Martens said.

Sue Kessler, 69, also is a retired teacher. She plays bridge, does a number of puzzles and regularly reads. She said people should be as active as they can and concedes exercise, in whatever form, is hard, not easy.

Dolber stays away from magic and sleight of hand. But card tricks and math puzzles are fair game. His first class was entitled recreational math but Dolber found the appeal was limited due to widespread fears of mathematics and broadened the scope as well as the title.

"I try to do things people enjoy doing," Dolber says. "I try to teach unique games, start out the class with humor and then warm-up activities like quickie puzzles. A lot depends upon my interests."

It's been said the teacher often benefits from what he imparts and Dolber concedes the class has made him sharper. He said he is challenged every week to come up with something new. During a career of teaching and consulting, he has never liked to repeat what was covered in a previous lesson.

In Dolber's rural Atwater home he has a room with two walls covered with books, three filing cabinets and a closet full of games. He is in the process of compiling a collection of mathematically-based magic tricks to put into a book.

This energetic pursuit of learning is what causes Turner to marvel at his teacher.

"I never really considered myself retired," Dolber said. "I know I'll probably die at the chalkboard with a piece of chalk in my hand."

Dolber said many glitches in memory are a lack of focus. Memories depend on the impact something had on one's life way back when. He said he started research on recreational pursuits and realized he could teach more with games, puzzles and brain teasers than strict instruction.

Peggy Merritt, 68, said Dolber's class is challenging. She enjoys the company of classmates and likes learning something new.

"It's an enjoyable learning experience," Merritt said. "I like the word games and puzzles. It's a good way to meet new people. With seniors, the more you use your mind the better off you are."

Here's another revelation of the growing-younger mantra: People think better when they are relaxed and rested. Curiosity is part of that younger elixir and social interaction is an important part of keeping one's mind active. Making conversation with others requires more thinking, Dolber said.

Dolber has seen research which says keeping one's mind exercised could delay the onset of Alzheimer's by as much as 10 years. The combination of physical exercise, diet and mental activity are part of the "growing younger" strategy and an antidote to "senior moments," Dolber said.

Dolber spent more than 25 years with the Merced County Office of Education as a consultant and briefly as director of educational services. He quit in 1980 and taught eighth-grade math at Atwater's Mitchell Senior Elementary School for eight years. For 12 years he was a student teacher supervisor at California State University Stanislaus in Turlock and still does consulting and staff development at CSUS.

Dolber's class meets Thursdays from 3 to 4:30 p.m. through May and resumes in the fall after a summer break.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger

can be reached at 209 385-2485 or