For over 60,000 older adults across Canada, the phrase “back to school” has become a lifelong motto. Enrolling in a wide variety of undergraduate, graduate, and non-credit programs, more seniors than ever are looking for dynamic and intellectually stimulating learning opportunities from coast to coast.
Like most other provinces, British Columbia has a thriving older adult population. By 2036, the province will be home to over 750,000 seniors. Aging baby boomers are a big part of this emerging trend, with an estimated 1,000 boomers turning 60 in Canada each day.
Despite rising obesity rates, older adults still enjoy far greater longevity than past generations. According to Statistics Canada, men and women can expect to live well into their seventies and eighties respectively - at least 15 years longer than those retiring in the early 1950s. Ottawa also suggests that the rise of the knowledge-based economy has resulted in more seniors entering their golden years in better physical condition - ready to take on new challenges in later life.
Health research reveals that lifelong learning may be one of the best ways for seniors to stay healthy. *Mental Fitness for life: 7 Steps to Healthy Aging*, for example, links lifelong learning with improved memory function, increased alertness, and enhanced creative thinking skills. It is also credited with reducing loneliness and anxiety in seniors. Some have even suggested that learning can boost immune systems.
Since the 1980s, the federal government has been examining the leisure activities of Canadians, and the results suggest that seniors are often more engaged in learning than younger people. Published in 2005, *Aging Well: Time Use Patterns of Older Canadians* found that older men and women, on average, enjoy about twice the amount of daily social, physical and cognitive leisure as opposed to those aged 35-44. Whereas younger Canadians devoted about 2.5 hours per day to active leisure pursuits, including reading and educational activities, men and women over the age of 65 enjoyed about 4 hours per day.
Yet, despite the proven health benefits of lifelong learning, government policymakers still focus most of their energy promoting physical exercise and healthy eating habits. To be sure, with heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer on the rise, such approaches make sense - but if healthy living is truly about promoting overall wellness, governments ought to invest more in lifelong learning programs.
For 35 years, the SFU Seniors Program (now located at Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver) has been dedicated to providing intellectually stimulating, academically oriented courses to lifelong learners 55 or better. In addition to its daytime non-credit courses, the program offers a variety of community outreach services, including free forum events and a unique series of educational DVDs covering topics such as Multiculturalism, elder abuse, democracy, the afterlife, and 21st century grandparenting.
Over 2,000 older adults enroll in classes annually, which span a wide variety of topics, such as Psychology, History, Opera, English Literature, Political Science, and Art History. Students range in age from 55 to 94, with the largest cohorts between the ages of 61-69 and 70-79.
Carolyn Maclean, a long-time student in the Program, has completed 96 classes since 2000. She contends that part of the program’s success is its excellent instructors: “There are so many intriguing experts who contribute their time to teach us - they encourage us to see things in new ways each day,” says Carolyn.
As part of its 35th anniversary preparations, the Seniors Program conducted a series of surveys to learn more about the diverse backgrounds of students participating in the program. Perhaps not surprisingly, the surveys suggest that older adults have different expectations of the learning experience compared with younger people. For example, while students 18-24 are increasingly trending away from liberal arts programs in favour of business, mathematics and science programs, seniors attending credit and non-credit courses overwhelmingly enroll in liberal arts courses. Equally important is the student-instructor relationship in the classroom: seniors say they want instructors who value and integrate their expansive experiential contributions into classroom discussions.
Learning “what they have always wanted to” is perhaps the most common refrain of seniors, with about half of those surveyed agreeing that course topic is the most important factor influencing their registration choices. Even more crucial is class size, however. About three quarters of seniors surveyed said they prefer smaller classes (no more than 40 seats), with only 16 per cent expressing no preference. Contemporary lifelong learners have also embraced the Internet like never before. Three-quarters of those polled confirmed they regularly surf the net, with about half of all registrations now processed online. Web-savvy seniors have also tripled the program’s annual website visits since 2007, showing that the Internet is no longer an obstacle to learning.
Seniors Program students are also incredibly cosmopolitan, with the vast majority saying they regularly attend arts and culture activities in and around the city. Some of their favourite activities include attending the Vancouver Symphony, Playhouse, Recital Society, various Opera events, as well as film, jazz, and Shakespeare festivals. They are also a bookish crowd. Students listed over 50 different international magazines and newspapers on their regular reading lists.
More can be done to support lifelong learning programs. Although senior programs across Canada report a steady increase in their enrollments, few have the necessary funding support to meet the growing demand. By contrast, 89 per cent of American community colleges say they are actively developing more courses for older adults, while over half of these same colleges are launching senior-specific marketing campaigns. Investing more in innovative lifelong learning programs today will ensure meeting the growing demand for services in the coming years.
For more information on the SFU Seniors Program, visit www.sfu.ca/seniors or call: 778-782-5212.
SEPTEMBER 2009 - VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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