Magazine article Aging Today

Older-Adult Learning: Shifting Priorities in the 21st Century

Magazine article Aging Today

Older-Adult Learning: Shifting Priorities in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

Although I've been involved in gerontological education for years, my work in adult learning is really the focal point of my career, and, I might add, my true love. I know the power of education and lifelong learning and how they can open the minds and hearts of older learners, regardless of income or education level.

The main premise for this lecture is that, with the aging of the baby boomers, adult learning and adult education are being mainstreamed even as funding is cut for many excellent older-adult education programs. My other premise is that we, as gerontologists and educators, need to shift our thinking from circling the wagons and yearning for better days to exploring ways to infuse adult learning into new arenas. Many who continue to be successful have already moved in this direction.


I thought it might be useful to consider the recent history of adult learning and aging. I call the 1970s the Discovery Era-the "a-ha" moment in older adult education. At that time, the idea that older adults could continue to learn after age 60 appeared to be a revolutionary discovery. Of course, those of us who were working with older adults knew it all along. We had seen for ourselves how lifelong leaning had the ability to enhance the quality of life among older people and how learning seemed to keep them healthier and more satisfied.

Those of us who had been working in the field suddenly found new acknowledgement from our peers and others. Money flowed into programs and services. Books were published with titles such as Never Too Old to Learn. The National Endowment for the Arts, in conjunction with NCOA, established the National Center on Arts and Aging. The National Gallery in Washington held a major exhibition of work by masters of fine art done in their later years. It especially generated new interest in the magnificent cutouts created by Henri Matisse toward the end of his life, when he could no longer paint.

A spurt in growth in national educational programs for older adults brought about Elderhostel and AARP's Institute of Lifetime Learning. The U.S. Administration on Aging funded an initiative on education for older adults in association with the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges. Also, NCOA received funds from the National Endowment for Humanities to establish educational programs in senior centers.

We also challenged stereotypes about what older-adult education programs were all about. Earlier literature virtually treated these programs as little more than an advanced form of bingo for the better educated. One manual on how to set up an older-adult education program outlined things like having a bathroom nearby and designing programs so people didn't have to sit for more than a half hour. Perhaps this advice was not so bad-but the manual contained almost nothing about content or curriculum.

Older-adult educators discovered the work of academics at university schools of education and applied the adult-learning theory called androgogy (parallel to pedogogy for the young) to the older population. Some of the adult-learning principles we developed work well with individuals of all ages. A few examples include:

* Put learning in a broader context-draw from experience;

* Allow learning to be self-paced, so people can review and absorb information at their own speed;

* Organize material, letting learners know what they can expect.


The early 1980s briefly offered what I think of as an Era of Contentment in older-adult education. Congress passed the Lifelong Learning Act as part of the Higher Education Act. The White House sponsored the mini-conference "Lifelong Learning for Self-Sufficiency" in conjunction with the White House Conference on Aging, with funding from the Johnson Foundation. Elderhostel was growing, and increasing numbers of older students were attending college classes for free or reduced tuition. …

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