Education, we can all agree, is a good thing: it's the most effective way of reducing poverty; it helps children develop skills they will need throughout their lifetimes, such as communication, digital literacy, and empathy; it can help women do what they want to do with their lives.
But what about those adults who have already finished their formal education? Why should they continue to educate themselves?
Older people are not as likely to be learning
For many, formal education ends after secondary school or university. A very small percentage of graduates go on to study a PhD, although in England only 72.9 per cent will see it through to completion.
Of course, adults learn things outside of formal education such as how to manage their finances and make a success of their personal lives. Many will learn new skills in the workplace, and some do courses as part of their professional development.
But there comes a critical point in one's life when learning becomes optional rather than necessary. At this stage, adults can either make a commitment to learn something new or carry on with what they already know.
The health benefits of lifelong learning for older adults
Continuing to learn well into adulthood is beneficial to health and happiness. Studies show that adults who stay active (e.g., through dancing or learning a foreign language) are less likely to develop symptoms of dementia such as memory loss and difficultly with thinking.
Acquiring a new skill or developing an existing one can help improve and maintain our mental well-being. Consider the example of John Salinas. He decided to challenge himself in his nineties by learning about computers, proving that it is possible to learn new things as daunting as the latest technology. He says it has brought back a 'zest for life'.
Lifelong learning is also a great way to make new friends – think of all the people you could meet on a course or evening class. Studies have shown that those with more active social lives are twice as likely to outlive those who lead solitary lives. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that our social lives can more accurately predict life expectancy than our dietary and exercise habits.
Ways to encourage older adults to continue learning
Graduate programmes are filled with adults of all ages, and the average age of prospective graduate students is rising. Nevertheless, 'mature students' may feel uncomfortable in a university setting, surrounded by young adults recently out of secondary school. As an undergraduate university student myself, I've seen this with my own eyes.
One option for adults in the UK who want to continue learning and not worry about the judgement of others is to join the University of the Third Age (U3A), which is for those no longer in full-time employment.
Another option is to join a massive open online course (MOOC). These are free online courses offered by universities around the world to anyone with an internet connection regardless of age.
Finally, there are organisations, such as Social adVentures, that offer inclusive, accessible, and flexible courses for adults.
Social adVentures is a social enterprise based in Salford in the UK. It aims to give local people happier and healthier lives through a range of activities, courses and social events.
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