Life can feel hard when we’re young. With qualifications, apprenticeships, university degrees and entering the world of work, we can feel overwhelmed with expectations and routines. We dream of life without demands, of sunning ourselves on beaches and pursuing our hobbies without a single interruption. Yet, being young also has its privileges. The very things we complain about, such as having to go to school or work, offer a routine and sense of purpose which can increase our mental wellbeing. We might not feel our best on some days, but the regularity of taking the bus to work, or attending a course where people are expecting us to be there, can be comforting. These activities also increase our social contact. This is important for staving off loneliness in, which can be as harmful as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
In contrast, older members of society, whether they’ve just reached retirement age or are well into their eighties or nineties, are less likely to have these routines of work and study, and the automatic human contact they bring. Our society, increasingly fast-paced and digitised, is also lonelier than ever. Independent shops, once the hub of the community, have steadily been replaced by large chains. Where elderly people might once have chatted to local shopkeepers, they are now faced with automatic check-out machines. In the past five years, social care for the elderly has been cut by £160 million.
Education and learning can be a fantastic antidote to loneliness and mental illness in old age. Taking a course or class can really bridge isolation in retirement, as it allows you to socialise with others and keeps your brain active, preventing illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. In fact, taking educational courses and classes in old age is the most effective way of promoting brain development. Games such as puzzles and crosswords can improve working memory, but according to Dr Vahia of the Harvard-affiliated McLean hospital, “classes offer a complexity factor that have long-term benefits, [and] engage cognitive skills, such as visual comprehension… and attention to detail”.
The wisdom, life experience and maturity that people gain over living for a number of decades also means that the elderly make exceptional students. David Latchman, master of Birbeck College, writes, “The older the student, the more they appreciate the opportunity to study”, also stating that, “Those students who left school at a young age and missed out on university aged 18 are often more enthusiastic about education than their peers. Younger students frequently say that their learning is enriched by the contributions in the classroom from older students with considerable life experience”.
There are a range of educational opportunities that elderly people can choose from. Local libraries often run classes, for example, in computer literacy. They will also have details about courses available in your local area. You could find yourself studying anything from cake-decorating to the American civil war. Or you might return to university and gain a degree in a subject you’ve always dreamed of studying. The possibilities are endless.
Online learning courses are also an excellent choice for elderly students. They are flexible around other activities and allow those who are housebound to engage and exercise their minds. Oxford Open Learning provides highly-qualified, individual tutors for its students, which gives an important source of motivation and human connection. Whatever you decide to do, engaging your brain and socialising with your fellow students can be a wonderful experience.
If you’re interested in finding out more about education in old age, here are some useful links.
University of the Third Age: https://www.u3a.org.uk/
Age UK: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/work-learning/education-training/classes-and-courses/
Emily Beater is a freelance journalist and copywriter. She has written for the New Statesman, The Guardian, Times Higher Education and BBC News, and has produced content for a range of educational websites and publications. Emily has a genuine love of writing and a passion for using language to explore social and educational issues. She is completing her degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.