Adult Learning for Older People

Much of our education system is really just training.  Especially in times of economic recession, people think of learning as something you do to equip yourself for paid employment. Young people at school or at university may occasionally be permitted to wander a little off piste, but adults are not supposed to do this

Politicians and business people use the phrase “adult learning” as though it means “re-skilling.” And the phrase “lifelong earning” is used as though it means a constant process of learning new skills as workplace technology moves on.  Even the adult learners’ organisation NIACE, which exists, as it says, “to encourage all adults to engage in learning of all kinds”, tends to talk more about employability than pleasure

We are increasingly losing sight of the idea of education as a good in itself. The evening classes which people used to enjoy no longer get subsidised.  Yet surely civilised society should give people the chance to learn something just because it interests them, just because they’re curious, just because they want to know

If that applies to adults of all ages, it applies especially to those in their third age – when they no longer work full time or have responsibility for dependent children.  For them, learning for pleasure can be a lifeline. Research has shown that learning in your third age is good for your health, and postpones the fourth age of dependency. It is good for your mental and physical health, so long as you do it willingly

Recent research from a team including Dr Craig Ritchie of the Centre for Mental Health at Imperial College London, shows that increasing the involvement of people of all ages in education, especially literacy, would on its own bring about an 18% drop in the number of expected new cases of Alzheimer’s disease over the next seven years

When you reach the fourth age, when you are no longer able to live independently, learning remains valuable. Recent studies have shown that people in care homes are much less reliant on drugs and other medical interventions if their brains continue to be stimulated by learning new things

The older person’s brain is, according to Gene Cohen’s book “The Mature Mind” (Basic Books 2005), much more flexible and adaptable than we once thought. It continues to develop throughout life alongside our personalities, creativity and psychological selves. But it needs exercise

What we call informal adult learning provides that exercise. Informal adult learning has no set curricular and offers no qualifications. No one provides quality assurance, and if an Ofsted inspector gets involved, it must be because he or she has retired and wants to find out how the other half lives

Informal adult learners are open to new experiences.  They listen to one another, form careful opinions based on such experiences, and do not to let other people tell them what is or is not worth learning. They are in charge of our own learning.  They do not prescribe certain ways of learning as superior to others. They learn by doing, by sharing and by laughing. They believe that the desire to learn is part of our normal, human inheritance

Gene Cohen’s views have been formed from large scale research projects he has directed about the aging brain, from cutting-edge neuroscience research, and from his experience as a psychiatrist of treating older adults for 35 years. He rejects phrases like “Over the hill” and “Out to pasture,” and he rejects the idea that ‘successful aging’ amounts to nothing more than slowing the inevitable decline of body and mind.  They are based, he says, on false reasoning, insufficient research and a preoccupation with disease and pathology

All that is music to the ears of the 320,521 members of the University of the Third Age. Many of them have been helping academic researchers to open up more avenues for older people.  Some of them are helping researchers at Staffordshire University Faculty of Health who are studying physical activities in the U3A, and their effect on general well-being. Others are involved with the Department of Clinical Psychology at Liverpool University, investigating the effectiveness of a memory training programme called Mind Gym developed by Aughton and Ormskirk U3A

At the University of Westminster Department of Business Psychology, U3A members are taking part in research on the design and use of “smart clothing” for older people – that is, clothing that is electronically equipped to monitor the wearer’s well-being, so that people can live alone for longer

Alan Morris, a long-standing member of West Bridgeford U3A and a former member of the U3A national executive, writes : “We all know the tough and irritating things about aging, but there are good aspects to the second half of life.   We need to cast aside the wholly negative views and open our minds to some of the amazing new scientific evidence becoming available about growth in later life.   We need a new way of thinking about the mature mind: a positive and optimistic view based on modern research and experience.”

For more information, contact U3A

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