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:
- It is clear that engaging in learning is good for people as they age.
- While there are many lifelong learning opportunities available, many are formal programs that may not appeal to everyone.
- 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.