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Lifelong learning in later life: Active aging through learning

Read the latest blog by Satya Brink on the role of learning in active aging!

Lifelong learning in later life: Active aging through learning

A meaningful life through active aging

Since you only live once, it makes sense to make life the best it can be.  The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests the strategy of active aging to achieve this goal. 

Active aging results from knowledge and actions that optimize opportunities for a satisfying and enjoyable life while aging. The key elements of active aging are:

  • Autonomy: the ability to make daily and long-term decisions about one’s own situation in order to lead a successful life   

  • Independence: the ability to perform the functions of daily living by oneself 

  • Quality of life: the physical, mental, social wellbeing in one’s living environment and socio-economic context

  • Healthy life expectancy: how long people can expect to live in the absence of disabilities.

WHO suggests that the three major outcomes from the practice of active aging are health, security and participation. Since individuals have no personal experience with aging, the worthwhile knowledge and behaviours have to be learned.

Lifelong learning

Lifelong learning is the incorporation of continuous learning throughout life. People have never lived this long before in history and the life span continues to increase around the world. So, the content and process of learning is adapting to longevity to provide long life learning which supports active aging.

Aging is the ultimate step in human development and learning enriches life by allowing every individual to reach their life potential.  A quote attributed to Albert Einstein states: “Once you stop learning you start dying”.

Learning is an adventure of the mind that is not age limited. Learning develops competencies to successfully deal with the contingencies of life, and therefore increases life expectancy. Learning draws from the past, projects into the future while preparing a person with competencies to live in the present. It opens up one’s world, provides joy in knowing and confidence in action.  The learning advantage supports the process of “becoming” through personal development while making one’s prolonged life meaningful.

Lifelong learning is a shared responsibility

Learning is a mutual responsibility and a collective obligation. Responsibility is shared between each individual regardless of age, society and the state. For active aging, it relies on the energy, motivation and actions of retired and older individuals.

  • Individual: Learning is voluntary, self-directed and often self-funded.  Continuous learning is necessary to manage the demands of life. It is linked to the obligation to share knowledge with others and to contribute to society.  

  • Society: There are many actors and stakeholders involved in learning that direct, support or participate in learning for active aging. Their involvement varies from organizing formal and non-formal courses in person or online, managing delivery, designing resources and teaching.

  • The state: In order to raise the level of learning among the population as a whole, the state provides leadership and is responsible for policy, co-ordination for multi-sectoral providers, funding and incentives, quality assurance and credit recognition. Governments are responsible to ensure opportunities for learning, the efficiency of resources, research, standards and consumer protection.

The value of learning for active aging

One is never too old learn. Learning is accumulated over the life time, improving, correcting and updating knowledge and experience. Though one is constantly learning, how much is gained by the individual and society will depend on what and how much is learned by a person while developing and aging. Learning enables a person to cope with the unpredictable challenges of life and to take advantage of opportunities to control their destiny. It increases their practical capacity to contribute to current society and to transmit experience, ideas and innovation for life in the future.  

Learning has intrinsic value where there is pleasure and satisfaction in learning and wisdom is an end in itself. This is a vital part of understanding one’s self and developing one’s potential in relation to one’s capacities as one ages.  Learning also has instrumental value due to the end results gained from it. Both types of returns work together to support active aging.

Learning goals for active aging

There are four goals related to the roles in society required by active aging. Every individual has their own pattern of learning to meet these goals, depending on the opportunities and the time, energy and capability for learning available in one’s life. There are no rigid expectations of how these goals should be met but it is clear that learning makes the results of meeting these goals more successful and satisfying.

Learning for successful active aging roles

To engage in active aging, an individual is expected to manage their own learning. This includes scanning the time and context of life, evaluating needs and interests, researching the options that could satisfy the needs, choosing an option, the time and type of learning, engaging in learning and integrating learning to add to personal competencies. The choice from an array of possibilities is based more on the desired competence rather than age. Societal actors and governments support learning that promotes active aging.

To be relevant for active aging, learning must address the intersecting circles of roles played by older people. The path chosen for learning is personal so no path is wrong.  Learning methods can be combined in individual ways.  The examples provided below under each of the four learning goals are topics of particular interest to those that are actively aging. They are unlikely to be of interest to younger people. Some of these may be learned in an hour-long session while others may require a few hours a week for a few months. Formal learning is not the only option. Though most learning is intentional, incidental and unplanned learning can occur from lived experience. 

  1. Life management: Learning to understand aging in relation to an individual’s specific situation and responsive adaption at a pace commensurate with changes in the living context to succeed in life.

  • Managing health and wellbeing:  Understanding age related health conditions; self care, including diet and medication; exercises, fall avoidance; information on sensory loss and mitigation; ability to make informed decisions about palliative care and assisted death; maintaining an active social network of active agers. 

  • Prudent financial management: Personal finance – budgets, loans, taxes; pension management; investment instruments; divestment; prepaid funerals and burials; safe use of banking services; protection against scams and fraud.

  • Wise consumer: Cost and energy saving purchases – car, home insulation; informed decision about when and where to downsize or to move to collective housing; online purchasing of age-related products, circular economy (reduce, reuse, recycle).

  • Legal: Purchase or sale of property; wills and estate planning, bequests, major donations.

  1. Personal development: To lead a life of purpose by directing personal growth, first by understanding the natural, economic, social and political world in which a person needs to succeed and second to develop one’s interests, talents and natural abilities to thrive in that context. 

  • Information and communication to understand the life-world context: informed, political and scientific advances related to health and aging; evaluate the accuracy, reliability and credibility of information in order to use or share valid appropriate information; media literacy.

  • Personal interests: Updating skills; improve digital competence; passion projects such as memoir writing, genealogy or painting; learning a second language.

  • Recreation and culture: Theatre, art museums, libraries; choices that increase social activity such as choirs, book clubs and learning circles; learning through travel (Roads scholars).

  1. Societal contributions: To learn to maximize knowledge and abilities to contribute to family, community and society commensurate with personal capacity.

  • Care giving: Caring for a spouse with special needs; seeking complementary professional and social services care (e.g. respite care).

  • Grand parenting: Care and nurturing for mutual benefit of child and grandparent.

  • Work: Knowledge and skills that can be used for current occupation (full or part-time or consulting) or for second (encore) career. 

  • Volunteering: Skills in demand in the community or on-line such as editing, teaching English/or other as second language.

  1. Legacy for the future: To transmit experience, ideas and infrastructure for future generations.  

  • Next generation: Provide a family history, photographic record, family artifacts, genealogy to younger generations.

  • Carriers of culture and tradition: Transmit family traditions, traditional language, music and cuisine to the larger family.

  • Citizenship responsibilities: Knowledge about current issues such as climate change and solutions for the future in order to make good voting choices; socially responsible investment; sharing memories of collective history.

  • World citizen: National and international philanthropy; activism for collective wellbeing and survival of the species.

Learning inequity

There are consequences to the aging person and society if learning does not sufficiently contribute to quality of life. The human capital of individuals declines over their lifetime due to outdated information and skills and the lack of necessary learning can reduce their autonomy, life expectancy as well as their satisfaction with life. Their capacity to age actively is reduced. The lost opportunity leads to loss of multiple benefits while aging.

This is especially problematic if there are particular conditions such as low income, disability, ethnicity or living conditions that are associated with low learning. Learning inequities may concentrate in certain groups or even certain locations creating pockets of learning poverty. Learning poverty results in poor access to information, health care and services, social networks, community participation and cultural life. These will result in reduced choices and opportunities, physical, social and financial insecurity and risks of powerlessness and exclusion.

The costs to society are high if there is learning deprivation among people who are aging. Society loses the contributions of people who are actively aging as well as having to cope with and subsidize an unequal society. The aging population could be marginalized and undervalued with poor connections to other generations in society.

Active aging is a learned life skill

Active aging is an important life skill for everyone since aging is universal. The famous American film star Mae West said: “You only live once but it you do it right, once is enough.” If learning promotes active aging, each person would work on a personal masterpiece on the canvas of life.   

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