July/August 2009

Learning for a Lifetime
By Jennifer Mellace
Aging Well
Vol. 2 No. 3 P. 22

Regardless of the setting, older adults benefit in a variety of ways from opportunities to master new information or learn new skills.

Albert Einstein once said that “wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” Perhaps it’s these words that drive so many aging adults to seek lifelong learning programs that go above and beyond the classroom. Frequently, individuals with degrees who have followed a career path and have since retired continue to seek the excitement and challenge of learning new things. And what’s available to them certainly won’t disappoint.

From the well-known Elderhostel, an educational travel organization for adults aged 55 and over, to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) located on 123 university and college campuses in 49 states, including the District of Columbia, the call for ongoing education is being answered. Lectures on current events, history, international politics, as well as courses in music, literature, and science, have lifelong learners embracing this ever-changing, information-rich society, keeping their senses active and their minds full of ideas. And this quest isn’t just helping them psychologically. Credible medical research suggests older adults with active minds are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments.

In fact, research conducted by neuropsychologist Robert S. Wilson, PhD, at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, found a cognitively active person in old age was 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than a cognitively inactive person in old age. Wilson says the study also found frequent cognitive activity during old age, such as visiting a library or attending a play, was associated with a less rapid decline in cognitive function, a transitional stage between normal aging and dementia, and a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment.

Kali Lightfoot, executive director for OLLI at the University of Southern Maine, agrees that the benefits of lifelong learning are tremendous. “There are major benefits for lifelong learners, including the intellectual stimulation they receive,” says Lightfoot. “Emerging research tells us that using the brain in novel and complex ways protects against the effects of aging.”

Lightfoot also remarks on the social aspect of older adult learning experiences, noting that as people age, they tend to move to new places and/or retire, leaving behind a network of coworkers and friends. But engaging in lifelong learning lectures automatically helps people find others who share similar interests. The positive results from this are huge, she says.

60 Is the New 40
According to “The State of Aging and Health in America 2007” report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Merck Company Foundation, the number of older Americans is expected to reach 71 million, or roughly 20% of the U.S. population, by 2030. In fact, the report states that the current growth in the number and proportion of older adults living in the United States is unprecedented in our nation’s history. What are the contributing factors? Longer lives—life expectancy in the United States has increased from 47 for Americans born in 1900 to 77 for those born in 2001—and aging baby boomers. Both are expected to double the population of Americans aged 65 and older during the next 25 years.

And while some of this growing population may believe that their prime years are behind them, many others feel they’re just getting started. For years, reports have indicated that staying active mentally and physically exerts a positive influence on how individuals age. In fact, Elderhostel released a study showing strong correlations between lifelong learning and its positive effect on healthy aging.

The report started with a survey of the population at large aged 55 and over and divided this population into four lifelong learning categories: focused mental achievers (13% of the population), contented recreational learners (34%), anxious searchers (23%), and isolated homebodies (18%). The study also identifies a fifth group, the pessimists, who represent 11% of the population.

After identifying the five segments, researchers surveyed a second sample, this time limited to Elderhostel participants. Eighty-four percent of Elderhostelers fell into the top two categories, with 49% in the focused mental achiever group (more than in the top two groups combined in the general sample) and an additional 35% in the contented recreational learner group. These groups were characterized by extraordinarily high levels of activity, high levels of formal education, high measures of optimism and life satisfaction, and according to Elderhostel, hold the secret to understanding why lifelong and later life learning remain keys to healthy aging.

“We’ve known since our founding that Elderhostelers are different from other people,” explains Peter Spiers, Elderhostel’s vice president of communications and marketing and the study’s author. “Elderhostelers are almost impossibly hale, hearty, curious, and tenacious and often active well into their 80s and 90s. They’ve redefined what it means to be old in our society. As the baby boom generation hits its 60s, we wanted to look for guidance on how to age with equal success.”

With 8,000 in-depth and behind-the-scenes learning adventures offered in all 50 states and more than 90 countries abroad, Elderhostelers are given the opportunity to discover the people, cultures, environments, and histories of the places they visit through detailed lectures, course-related field trips, cultural excursions, and extracurricular activities.

“All our programs include a strong educational element,” says Elderhostel public relations specialist Despina Gakopoulos. “Mental stimulation is always included, and the physical aspect really depends on the program. We offer options across the board for all activity levels.”

Tom and B. J. Middleswarth of Belleville, PA, first traveled with Elderhostel in 1989. From Florida to North Carolina, Massachusetts to California, they’ve traveled to more than a dozen locations to learn mostly about music, but also art, history, and even wine. “Elderhostel and other learning programs like it stir up the capacity to learn more,” says B. J. Middleswarth. “The people we traveled with were all interested in learning, and everyone was very nice. It was a great experience.”

Beyond Elderhostel
While traveling offers one way to learn, some older adults may choose to stay closer to home, while others simply can’t travel. For those individuals, lifelong learning programs offer courses on college campuses or bring learning opportunities to the individuals. Connie Corley, PhD, is the program director for the California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) Lifelong Learning Program, as well as a professor of social work and the associate director of lifelong learning at the university’s Applied Gerontology Institute. Her work with the CSULA program offers older adults an array of classes and special events in literature, history, science, writing, spirituality, healthy living, music, art, and dance.

“We look to engage retirement communities, senior centers, and adult day healthcare centers,” says Corley. “We bring people from across the community together and also offer classes on campus for those who can make it. Our courses are intellectually stimulating and targeted toward seniors. The classes encourage peer interaction, social engagement, and give people something to look forward to.”

Many instructors at CSULA are retired educators, but they also include some well-known artists, including the real-life Gidget, surfer Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, and 80-year-old Ardie Bryant, the legendary tap performer known as the innovator of modern jazz tap and the “ambassador of tap.” In his early career, Bryant performed with premiere jazz artists, including Duke Ellington, Nat “King” Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker.

And the students? With some five to 35 participants per venue, most range from their late 50s into their 90s. In fact, the oldest student recently celebrated his 93rd birthday. “These programs allow people to stay connected and allow others to continue on with a new career,” says Corley. “Many of our instructors are retired professors who want to continue to excite people who want to learn. And it’s not only about those students taking the course but also about the emeriti professors who are staying active and drawing people back to school.”

Often defined as the lifelong voluntary and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons, the term “lifelong learning” recognizes that learning is not confined to youth or to the classroom but continues to occur throughout life and across a range of situations. At 73 years old, actor Alan Alda considers himself a lifelong learner. In his book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, Alda describes how he encouraged his daughter Elizabeth’s graduating class to be lifelong learners. “I know people who are growing in their 60s,” he told the graduates. “Be supple. Be loose. Life is one surprise after another.”

And although some college graduates may completely heed these sentiments, others aren’t quite ready to think that far ahead. But the fact is, there will come a time where continued growth may be a lifeline. In New York City, a nonprofit social service organization called DOROT provides a wide range of services for older adults, including University Without Walls (UWW), which allows homebound individuals to participate in ongoing education via telephone.

“The telephone is a great equalizer,” says Andrew Martin, director of government relations for the organization. “The anonymity of it allows some with degenerative diseases to still participate and feel comfortable. The human voice is an effective way to communicate and brings an entire new dimension to learning.”

Established in 1989, UWW connects older adults who may have otherwise been completely isolated. Conducting its own research, DOROT found that 28% of Americans over the age of 65 live alone, and that this number jumps to 32% in New York City, where elders are also likely to be poor and disabled. Although older adults and the disabled can live alone without being socially isolated, these are leading indicators of the potential for social isolation, which has been proven to increase the incidence of depression, suicidal ideation and suicide, mental health disturbances, malnutrition, reduced life span, as well as magnifying the devastating effects of falls in the home. And isolation can also result in extreme enervation, giving rise to a host of diseases and infirmities, including various forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“We provide people with a unique cultural and educational connection to their community,” says Martin. “We offer information and support on health matters and engender a sense of belonging that helps build incredible relationships. We also build self-esteem and help these people feel confident.”

UWW students choose from 230 courses in art, music, literature, creative writing, history, science, current events, politics, Judaic studies, support groups, and more. Professionals in the arts, healthcare, and other fields teach the broad curriculum, offer psychological guidance, and help foster a sense of emotional connection among the participants. Instructors often encourage one-on-one study group calls, sometimes leading to daily calls among many older adults. And in addition to those from the New York metropolitan area, older adult students from around the country have participated.

While costs of lifelong learning programs vary, most attempt to keep the fees to a minimum. Some even offer scholarships. UWW asks students to contribute a small registration fee of $10, plus a $15 fee per course. However, it also offers scholarships to participants in need.

Bonnie Jacobs, director of education services for UWW who has been with the program for 20 years, and the rest of the team realize that taking a class by telephone is sometimes a reach. But they’ve seen such success with the program that they can’t help but be excited. “We know once someone participates, they’re going to love it,” says Jacobs. “They become engaged and have a place to have a voice. We tell people to try it. It’s no large commitment, no large cost, and, more often than not, they will love it.”

Jacobs also discusses the importance of keeping the mind active through the use of games such as Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit. “In addition to science, literature, and other courses, we also play games and participate in read-alongs and sing-alongs. Because these people are homebound, we try our best to take them on an escape. We instruct all our facilitators to be very verbal. We learned from blind seniors that specific description of colors and more help everyone, including those who can see. These vivid descriptions just help them see more.”

Never Stop Playing
American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” For lifelong learners, they play the game of knowledge. Whether on foot, in classrooms, or via telephone, they continue to challenge themselves and resist the negative effects of aging. And with our ever-changing world, the supply of new and challenging information is limitless.

— Jennifer Mellace is a Maryland-based freelance writer whose articles have been published in various regional and national publications.