Guest Blog: To live is to learn – A lifelong learning journey at the Centre

By Marta Owsik

Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death
~ Albert Einstein







Learning is the lifelong journey of acquiring knowledge or skills. It happens formally in schools and informally through life experiences, family and friends. In July 2015, lifelong learning was officially added as a fourth pillar of active aging to the World Health Organization’s Active Aging Policy Framework.

The Centre for Elder Research has a longstanding interest in lifelong learning and has worked on several funded research initiatives dating back to 2007. We recently completed an exploratory study for which we invited a select group of individuals to participate, as both learners and co-researchers, in 12 weekly sessions.

Participants came from very different backgrounds, were of different ages, at different stages and most did not know each other before the sessions began. Bringing together different perspectives and different experiences led to lively discussions and rich learning. Although Centre staff facilitated the sessions, they were relatively unstructured to allow the process to evolve organically.

First, the study group reviewed and discussed the literature on lifelong learning and came to a few conclusions:

  1. It is clear that engaging in learning is good for people as they age.
  2. While there are many lifelong learning opportunities available, many are formal programs that may not appeal to everyone.
  3. Older adults over the age of 75 appear to be quite neglected both in the literature and by existing lifelong learning opportunities.

The study participants decided that the major problem needing to be addressed was one of accessibility. Those aged 75+ may experience more barriers (external and internal) when it comes to actually accessing existing lifelong learning programs and many programs are not sensitive to a variety of needs, interests and learning styles.

So, study group developed a model for lifelong learning that is truly accessible for older adults of any age, including those age 75+. At its core, their model is one that is customizable, flexible and portable. As such, it can be designed to address an individual’s unique interests and needs, can accommodate a variety of learning styles and can be taken to where the learner is most comfortable, whether that be in their home or at the local library. The group believed that these features could overcome potential barriers and be inclusive for all types of learners.

This lifelong learning project was definitely a journey for the group, complete with detours, bumps and discoveries. Not only did we learn about the subject, we also learned about ourselves, each other, and group dynamics. It was interesting to see how important this subject was to the group members (who, by the way, had the best attendance records the Centre has ever seen!) and how flexible they were in their understanding of what learning is.

“A lot of what I’ve learned…” one participant explained “I didn’t think about it as learning at the time…but as part of living”. I think that sums up lifelong learning and this project quite nicely.

Marta Owsik works as a project coordinator at the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research.


Technology and Aging: Using the Internet to Support Lifelong Learning Opportunities

network-782707_1280As we have discussed in previous blogs, studies have shown that lifelong learning has many benefits including: increased knowledge and critical thinking skills, improved health and well-being, longer life span, greater likelihood of community and civic engagement, increased creativity, and greater self-fulfillment.

For older adults that may be unable to attend traditional classroom settings, museums, and art galleries (due to mobility or transportation issues among other contributing factors) the Internet is filled with endless opportunities to engage in new learning experiences. To increase accessibility for individuals with physical challenges, Microsoft Accessibility allows older adults to personalize and customize their computers to make them easier to see, hear, and more comfortably use”.

According to a Pew Research Report on Older Adults and Technology Use, 59% of older adults report they go online. The report also reveals that “among older adults who use the Internet, 71% go online every day or almost every day, and an additional 11% go online three to five times per week. These older Internet users also have strongly positive attitudes about the benefits of online information in their personal lives. Fully 79% of older adults who use the Internet agree with the statement ‘people without Internet access are at a real disadvantage because of all the information they might be missing’, while 94% agree with the statement that ‘the Internet makes it much easier to find information today than in the past’”.

The list below is a small sampling of websites that offer easy access to stimulating lifelong learning opportunities for older adults:

Simon Fraser University (SFU) Seniors Lifelong Learners Society (SLLS)
The SFU SLLS website offers free forums on YouTube on topics ranging from The History of Human Desire to The Social Life of Taste.

Ted Talks
TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less).” With over 1,900+ talks to choose from, individuals should have no problem finding something inspirational.
11 Greatest Ted Talks for Anyone Over 50

Virtual Art Museums
Most major art galleries and museums offer online opportunities to view collections. For example, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, presents virtual tours of exhibitions along with audio and written guides. The Louvre in Paris offers virtual tours on the history of the Louvre along with galleries and collections.

Universities and colleges offer online interactive programs and courses for older adults who want to start or complete a degree. For example, Harvard Online Learning offers free and paid “extensive, world-class online learning opportunities”.

Lifelong Learning Through the Arts

indexImage credit: Gary Porter

Studies have shown that lifelong learning offers increased knowledge and critical thinking skills, improved health and well-being, longer life span, greater likelihood of community and civic engagement, increased creativity and greater self-fulfillment. Engagement in the arts fosters good health and life satisfaction. Combine the two and you have The Milwaukee Creative Trust.

The Creative Trust is a collaboration between local long-term care homes, the University of Wisconsin (UWM) Peck School of the Arts and local arts and culture institutions. Their shared goal is to “foster life-long learning through the arts”. To do this they share ideas, opportunities and create innovative, intergenerational arts programming. According to an article in the Journal Sentinel “The Creative Trust is one reason Milwaukee is seen as a hotspot for creative aging initiatives”.

Current programs at the Creative Trust include:

  • Let’s Talk Arts. An interactive workshop inspired by current arts/culture projects at UWM.
  • Arts Partner Fellowship Program. Older and younger artists pair to complete a new project.
  • The Flourish Fest: Celebrating Creativity as We Age. Showcasing Creative Trust efforts during the month of May.
  • Arts at Home. A pilot initiative to bring creative engagement to people living in their homes.
  • TimeSlips. UWM students facilitate creative storytelling sessions.

Luther Manor located in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin moved to a person-centred care model 12 years ago in an attempt to pursue new activities that would more fully engage their clients with dementia. Person-centred care values the client as a unique individual with unique life experiences, needs and strengths. Today, the arts are thriving at Luther Manor thanks to some of the Creative Trust programs.

One of the creative programs offered at Luther Manor is TimeSlips Storytelling. The Creative Trust describes the program as opening “storytelling to everyone by replacing the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine”. UWM students facilitate the storytelling sessions. The sessions are “prompted by an inspiring image or question, the storytelling sessions are vibrant and playful. This year, student facilitators can select images from local art museums to prompt stories”. The final week of classes wraps up with a ‘Celebration of Storytelling’ designed by the student facilitator.

Check out the Luther Manor website for inspiring videos that illustrate the powerful benefits of creative aging.

The Powerful Benefits of Lifelong Learning

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty.
Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”
Henry Ford

Since 2004, individuals of all ages have been celebrating Lifelong Learning Week in Hamilton. Hamilton’s Adult Basic Education Association has created an online calendar (101 pages!) that lists free learning opportunities throughout the community during the week of September 15th to 21st. Brantford and Norfolk County are also involved in Lifelong Learning Week activities.

As we know, lifelong learning increases your knowledge and critical thinking skills but what else does learning have to offer? A Canadian Council on Learning report entitled, State of Learning in Canada: Toward a Learning Future found that, “the value and contribution of learning is evident at all stages of life”. The report reveals a series of benefits associated with lifelong learning. Those benefits include improved health and well-being, longer life span, greater likelihood of community and civic engagement, employability, higher earnings, increased creativity and greater self-fulfillment.

According to an article by CARP titled Lifelong learning with CARP, “A George Washington University Medical Center study even found that lifelong learners were less likely to visit a doctor, take medication, experience depression, or suffer from low levels of morale”.

There are physical, social and emotional benefits of lifelong learning, but what about cognitive benefits? An article in Aging Well magazine entitled On the Road Again — A Journey of Lifelong Learning by Barbara Worthington, discusses the findings of the Rush Memory and Aging Project. The study conducted in Chicago over a 5 year span found that, “cognitively active elders, whose average age was 80, were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than those who were cognitively inactive”. The study also found that, “frequent cognitive activity during old age was associated with a decreased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a transitional stage between normal aging and dementia, as well as a slowed decline in cognitive function”.

Now that we know the powerful benefits of lifelong learning here are just some of the exciting learning opportunities available for older adults:

–       Road Scholar offers educational adventures created by Elderhostel, the not-for-profit organization created in 1975. Some of the most popular types of learning adventures include food & wine, history and culture, intergenerational, photography and walking.

–       The Ontario Third Age Network consists of self-managed older adult (50+) learning groups that provide opportunities to share learning experiences in a wide range of subjects.

–       The Catalist is a national extension of the Third Age Network.

–       Lifelong Learning Mississauga offers informative and affordable lecture series and workshops. This fall’s topics are the English Language and Planet Earth.

–       Routes to Learning Canada is a travel organization for older adult learning adventures.

–       The Academy for Lifelong Learning is based at the University of Toronto campus and provides daytime workshops. The Academy is a centre for intellectually curious adults interested in exploring and understanding the world and meeting others who share their interests.

To enable lifelong learning opportunities for individuals with limited financial resources, the Canada Revenue Agency created the Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP) which allows individuals to withdraw funds from their Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) to finance training or education for themselves or their spouse or common-law partner.

How will you celebrate Lifelong Learning Week this year?