Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide

Older Adult Lifelong Learning:
A Health Club for the Mind, Body, and Spirit

Imagine the excitement of exploring the historical and cultural treasures of the Tuscan countryside, the thrill of taking part in a lively discussion about the life and works of Vincent Van Gogh, or the satisfaction that comes from helping a reluctant student discover the value of education. There's no doubt such experiences would spice up your life. The good news is that all this can be yours by indulging in lifelong learning.

Thanks to a vast array of opportunities available in the lifelong learning world today, older adults now have the chance to make their later years far more exciting than they ever dreamed possible. Incorporating lifelong learning into the "After-50" years means minds will be more stimulated, bodies more active, and spirits more fulfilled.

A healthy Mind/Body/Spirit connection is critical to getting the most out of life at any age. As people age, however, this connection becomes even more important. Lifelong learning, as older adults are discovering, can help strengthen that connection.

There are many different ways, both formal and informal, to engage in lifelong learning. Reading a newspaper or a good book, or working crossword puzzles are all considered informal lifelong learning. So, in some ways, just about everyone is a lifelong learner.

A study conducted for AARP by Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc. in 1999 bears this out. It showed that over 90% of surveyed adults age 50 and over do plan to continue learning as they age. When asked why, participants said they wanted to keep up with what's going on in the world. They also wanted to continue their personal and spiritual growth, and have fun by learning something new.

Although informal lifelong learning takes place regularly, this article focuses on three of the more structured or formal ways to reap the numerous benefits of lifelong learning. For example, older adults can take non-credit classes on almost any topic at local lifelong learning programs. They can also learn and explore the world through educational travel programs. Or, they can choose to give back to their communities by using their skills and experiences to help enrich the lives of others through meaningful civic service. Lifelong learning is really all about ways to keep the mind, body, and spirit stimulated, challenged, and fully engaged in the "After-50" years.

There are good reasons to do so. Research during the 1990s, a decade of pioneering brain research, proved that a stimulated mind promotes a healthy brain. The studies were conducted at many research facilities including Harvard, Duke, and Johns Hopkins Universities and showed that keeping brains stimulated helps retain mental alertness as people age. The brain's physical anatomy actually responds to enriching mental activities. Scientists have discovered that the brain, even an aging brain, can grow new connections and pathways when challenged and stimulated.

These studies point out the value of incorporating lifelong learning into later lives. Albert Einstein, Claude Monet, Arturo Toscanini, Hume Cronyn, and Pablo Casals, as well as many others, were all productive and vibrant well into old age. Every day that they used their skills and talents to produce great works, they were learning.

In the words of Dr. Paul Nussbaum, Director of the Aging Research and Education Center in Pittsburgh, PA, "…Every time your heart beats, 25% of that blood goes right to the brain. But while exercise is critical, it may be education that is more important. In the 21st century, education and information may become for the brain what exercise is for the heart." Just like the human heart, brains need to be nurtured. Lifelong learning, then, is like a health club for the brain.

Along with keeping brains alert and stimulated as people age, everyone knows the importance of keeping bodies active. Lifelong learning can help in this area, as well. Numerous programs offer ways to incorporate activity into daily life. For instance, spirituality, meditation, stress reduction, yoga, exercise of all types, the creative arts, walking clubs, and being outdoors are but a few of the many subjects available.

If learning through educational travel sounds more appealing, then be prepared to actively explore new and different places, not just ride from place to place on a bus. These lifelong learners are out and about, taking part in spirited discussions, talking with the locals, and examining unique places up close and personal.

Lifelong learning through work within the community is yet another way of staying active, interacting with society, and keeping connected to life. Dedicated volunteers are not watching life pass them by through their living room window. Lifelong learning is not only a health club for the brain, but for the body, as well. Regardless of the level of activity, lifelong learning promotes activity which is especially valuable as one ages.

Finally, lifelong learning engages the spirit. It provides the needed social interaction that is often lacking as people age. Older adults join lifelong learning programs as much for the social aspects as for the learning. Outdoor programs, field trips, luncheons, parties, and travel-far and near-give mature adults the opportunity to make new friends, engage in stimulating give-and-take discussion, and share in life's ups and downs with like-minded people. Life gets a little overwhelming at times. How better to get through those challenges than by sharing them with other lifelong learners?

Making lifelong learning part of one's later years also fosters a sense of personal empowerment and, increased self-esteem. It ensures continued growth and intellectual stimulation, leading to a more fulfilling, enjoyable, and enriched lifestyle. So, lifelong learning is truly a health club for the spirit as well.

Lifelong learners discover that their intellectual, social, spiritual and physical horizons have expanded beyond any previous expectations. David, a lifelong learner from New York, concurs. "We have a fantastic program for personal discovery," he says. "We base everything on the belief that our capacity to learn and grow does not decrease as our years increase. In fact, through learning and the adventures we embark on, we actually embrace self-fulfillment."
Lifelong learning after age 50 is vitally important. It helps develop natural abilities, immerses people in the wonders of life, stimulates natural curiosity about the world, increases wisdom, enables people to use their experience to make the world a better place, and helps older adults face the inevitable changes of society.

Without a doubt, lifelong learning is truly a health club for the mind, body, and spirit. Using this health club every day ensures that older lives will be richer and more fulfilled.

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