Why Education is Important for Older Adults—And How to Get Started

The pursuit of knowledge is a beautiful thing. Apart from just keeping busy or staying social, education sparks curiosity and forces us to use our most powerful muscle: our mind. And there’s no shortage of research to suggest how important it is to stay sharp and never stop learning; lifelong learning is connected to improved cognitive function, healthy emotional wellbeing and positive self-perception.

Education stimulates real growth

When you learn something new, at any age, your brain produces new cells and builds new connections. The entire process is a little more complex and technical, with literally hundreds of connections forming, working and dying at the same time, but studies have shown that older adults who keep learning are less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. Additionally, challenging yourself with new subject matter can be highly rewarding. When you are engaged in a subject and feel successful in your work, your brain actually produces some of the same chemicals as falling in love—though, to be fair, it’s maybe not quite that intense. Either way, education in later life is a way to form a real emotional connection to new experiences and information, and those feelings can positively impact how you perceive other activities in your day.

You’re never too old to learn something new

One common misconception about learning in later life is that older adults don’t make great students. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they joke. But this just simply isn’t true. Of course, seniors have always known that, but now we have science to back it up. While younger minds are quick and computational, able to produce new ideas like rapid-fire, scientists have discovered that older people are more reflective and philosophical. All this to say younger people aren’t better students or better thinkers, they just process things differently.

There’s more than one way learn

If you have concerns about fitting into a classroom setting, it may be helpful to know there are generally three forms of learning, and you’ve probably been doing two of them for years. Education can be formal, non-formal and informal.

  • A formal setting is usually the most rigorous, often resulting in a credential or a degree. This would be a traditional, and very direct, way to approach lifelong learning.
  • Non-formal education is offered in group settings, in a dedicated learning environment, but doesn’t necessarily result in a formal certification or award. Instead, it hinges on self-motivation.
  • Informal learning is something we’re all familiar with, but don’t even realize it’s happening—learning from our experiences. This is an unconscious information gathering, something most people do throughout life.

It’s important to keep in mind that, generally speaking, older adult education programs generally refer to formal and non-formal learning, though there is plenty to be said about challenging yourself with new experiences at any age.

So, with all this in mind, here’s how to get started:

1. If it’s been a while since you attended a seminar or took a course, it can be intimidating to jump right into a new subject. Quell any unease by finding ways to get better at something you already know or love. Take a hobby and turn it into a study. If painting is your passion, look into some art history classes. Love gardening? Audit an agriculture program. The list goes on and on, but in general, there’s always a way to learn more about the things you do every day.

2. Once you have an idea of subjects you want to explore, think about what setting will be best for you. There’s certainly a big difference between the amount of work you’d put in to weekly book club discussions versus pursuing a master’s in English. Keep in mind, the goal of lifelong learning is not necessarily about anything that can be measured. Continuing education is part of keeping a nimble mind, not jumpstarting a career.

3. Finally, look at ways to enhance your lifelong learning experience. Make it social by inviting friends or loved ones to enroll with you—or make it a friendly competition of who can score higher grades. Don’t be afraid to venture out of your community, either. With such excellent programs available throughout the Boston area, like BU Evergreen and the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, your classes can be as fun as they are academic.

Keeping in mind the value of discussions and seminars, events at One Wingate Way are led by some of the top specialists and thought-leaders in the area, and cost nothing to attend. Our enrichment events and interactive workshops are designed to include both the popular activities and offbeat subjects, certain to stimulate meaningful conversation. RSVP to one of our upcoming events here.