What are the Benefits of Lifelong Learning?

Many people decide to move to college- and university-related retirement communities

Oct. 10, 2018—Learning is not confined to a classroom or to a certain stage of life. It can take place throughout life and in countless situations. The voluntary, ongoing pursuit of knowledge and skills—whether for personal or professional reasons—is lifelong learning. Besides enhancing employment prospects, ongoing learning enhances personal development, social interactions and citizenship.

Many people decide to move to college- and university-related retirement communities “where they can take lifelong learning courses, mentor college students and even get a degree,” The New York Times reported in a 2014 article titled “Going Back to School, Without the Pressure.” “As baby boomers retire in large numbers, these communities will experience significant upticks in popularity,” senior-housing expert and George Mason University Professor Andrew J. Carle told The Times. “People want intellectually stimulating environments,” he added.

In a story titled “Why Boomers Are Returning to College,” PBS-TV’s “News Hour” related the story of Ray and Ann Goldwire, who retired to a resort-style community but “quickly grew weary of the activities that absorbed most of the retirees’ days. It was golf, golf, golf, bridge,” Ann Goldwire said. “Ray and I didn’t get along real well there.”

Sadly, it’s not unusual for older Americans to feel isolated from the rest of society when they retire. “We’ve built a lot of really beautiful retirement communities in this country, but unfortunately they are in many ways completely separated from the rest of society. A bird in a gilded cage is still a bird in a cage,” senior housing expert Andrew Carle told PBS.

Learning New Skills Throughout Life

Computerized brain games and other brain-training techniques claiming to prevent memory loss have become big business, but a 2014 news story aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition” suggests “you might be better off picking up a challenging new hobby.”

Dr. Denise Park, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, randomly assigned 200 older people to learn a new skill—either digital photography or quilting. They were compared to a social group that did things like watch movies or reminisce together and to another group that listed to the music or played easy games and puzzles. Only those who learned a new skill had significant gains. “We found quite an improvement in memory, and we found that when we tested our participants a year later, that was maintained,” Dr. Park said.

A recent Harvard Health Blog, titled “Back to school: Learning a new skill can slow cognitive aging,” makes the point that: “Active aging involves more than moving your body. You also need to move your brain.”

“New brain cell growth can happen even late into adulthood,” says Dr. Ipsit Vahiam director of geriatric outpatient services for Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “The process of learning and acquiring new information and experiences, like through structured classes, can stimulate that process.”

Classes can also sharpen your social skills and enhance your self-confidence. “It is easy to become more socially isolated as people grow older,” says Dr. Vahia. “A class makes you interact and communicate with other people on a regular basis through group participation, conversations and discussions.”

Posted by Larry Elveru