Lifelong Learning: The Essential Element of an Engaged and Active Lifestyle

By Sandra von Doetinchem

It is my greatest pleasure to contribute to the American Society on Aging as the Chair of the Lifetime Education and Renewal Network (LEARN) Council. I would like to thank the whole council for their enthusiasm, amazing work, deep expertise in the field of lifelong learning as well as for the time they have devoted to LEARN. I would also like to thank Terri Tobey, who will complete her service for LEARN at the 2020 Aging in America Conference.

In addition, we are welcoming our newest appointees to the council: Joshua Berrett, Janna Overstreet, and Holly Riley, whose terms begin right before the conference. Please join me in wishing them all the best, great success, and an enjoyable time working on the council.

The 2020 Aging in America Conference is coming closer and I hope that you can join us in Atlanta, GA. I am thrilled to present to you the program that the LEARN council designed, which will all take place on Wednesday, March 25 in the Learning Center by the Centennial Ballroom, under the sobriquet Lifelong Learning: The Essential Element of an Engaged and Active Lifestyle, wherein we will explore innovative lifelong learning programs that help to reduce social isolation in old age, provide personal enrichment, meet intellectual demands, and mitigate generational misunderstandings. Additionally, we will explore how the arts can enhance brain function, psychological state, and overall quality of life in the later life stage.

In advance of the LEARN day, LEARN council members will also address the topic through several blog contributions that I hope you will find illuminating.

Benefits of Lifelong Learning for the Society and the Individual

Lifelong learning has become a glamorous term in adult education. Although in the U.S. the term is nowadays mainly used in regard to learning in older adulthood, lifelong learning emphasizes that humans learn in different contexts and forms over the entire life span.

These days, learning in late life gains especially importance when keeping demographic and workforce developments in mind. Many developed countries in the world, including the U.S., experience an aging of their populations, which results in a reversal of the population’s age structure. Important factors for this global population growth and aging are decreasing fertility, declining mortality rate, and an increased life expectancy due to improvements in public health and health care. While the number of adults in retirement age increases, the number of individuals in working age decreases. Also, the time spent in the post-occupational/retirement phase has become an independent life stage that needs to be filled with meaning. These developments consequently lead to the questions of how the workforce and current retirement systems can be maintained in the future as well as how retirement time can be filled with meaning. As a strategy, society and educational politics need to increasingly acknowledge and utilize the skills and knowledge of the elderly as an important resource through, e.g., “Encore career” opportunities or volunteer work, as well as provide possibilities for ongoing participation in organized education and professional development over the life span.

Furthermore, lifelong learning can contribute to active aging. In this regard, research suggests that continuous learning provides numerous benefits for the older individual in regard to cognitive functioning, health and well-being, civic participation, and self-confidence.

Characteristics of Older Adult Learners

Characteristic for learning in older adulthood is a high level of autonomy and self-directedness. While learning in younger age often occurs in mandatory and specific institutional settings, older adult learning is much more voluntary and driven by intrinsic motivation rather than external factors. In addition, the individual biography and life experiences gain relevance for learning with increasing age. Since the individual tends to only learn what appears to be relevant and integrable, learning in older age can therefore be understood as a highly individualized and self-structured process, for which the learner is self-responsible. However, older adults learn differently than younger individuals as the brain and its memory functions are subject to aging processes. A decreasing functionality of the short-term memory affects learning abilities in old age. Learning processes become more prone to interference and recently learned items may be harder to recall. In addition, simultaneous information is more difficult to learn and the pressure of time negatively impacts the learning results. To address the decreasing memorizing abilities in old age in educational settings, instructors need to provide sufficient assistance in the learning process by repetition and additional time. Furthermore, clear and structured collateral materials, as well as a positive and intimate learning atmosphere, can enhance memory and learning performance.

Educational Preferences of Mature Learners and the Importance of Intergenerational Learning

Understanding the characteristics of older participants in lifelong learning is of great importance to educational administrators, policy makers, and instructors as it does not only help to develop course offerings that are oriented towards a specific target group, it also informs marketing strategies aiming to increase enrollments of older adults, which have been traditionally low. However, while much research has been devoted to the motivation and participation patterns of younger adults in working age, comprehensive and representative data on the participation patterns, educational behaviors, and interests of older adults in organized education exist only marginally. According to Findsen and Formosa (2011, p.121), this general lack of data on older adults in organized education “reflects a neglect of the importance of adult education/lifelong learning for people post-work (…)”. Considering the discussed positive aspects of learning in later life for the individual and society, more research on education in old age appears crucial.

However, existing study results suggest that older adults appreciate the possibility for active engagement in the classroom and discussions with other classmates. They value didactical and personal qualities of the faculty and even give an enthusiastic, empathetic, knowledgeable, and effective instructor often times a greater priority than the actual course subject. Research also suggests that older adults appreciate possibilities for intergenerational learning and communication with younger individuals. Nevertheless, this preference is not generic for all subject areas. The findings also emphasize that older learners typically prefer age-homogenous over age-heterogenous group settings in subjects with perceived performance differences between the generations, such as computer courses or exercise classes. 

In general, health and well-being courses, such as exercise, nutrition, and brain fitness programs, are the most preferred subject areas of older adults. Literature explains the interest of older adults in health-related courses with a greater awareness of the personal health situation in old age and a desire to learn more about how to live with increasing impairments.

A preference for older adult learners for socializing opportunities in class and intellectual interest also finds expression in their motivation to participate in lifelong learning. In this regard, research suggests that older adults are especially motivated to take courses because of intellectual stimulation, curiosity, social contacts, self-maintenance, and coping with life transitions, such as retirement.

If you would like to learn more about the educational preferences of older adults and innovative ways on how these preferences can be met, please join Susan Hoffman, Director of UC Berkeley’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and me at our AiA conference session on Intergenerational Learning Re-imagined: From Research to Innovative Practice Approaches, March 25, 2.30-3.30pm.



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Sandra%20von%20Doetinchem%2001.jpegSandra von Doetinchem MEd (Dipl. Päd) is a passionate lifelong learning researcher and advocate for lifelong learning since many years. She is a Program Specialist for noncredit education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and has previously worked at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, UC Berkeley. Sandra serves as Chair of the LEARN Council, American Society on Aging. She holds a Master's degree in adult/continuing education from the University Duisburg-Essen, Germany, and is an external PhD candidate in educational sciences (focus: participation of older and oldest-old adults in organized education) at the University of Tuebingen, Germany.