This month, thousands of seniors across the province will head back to school, transforming college and university campuses that have traditionally been focused on the learning needs of youth aged 18-24.
This trend is expected to accelerate as more British Columbians enter their golden years. The province already boasts one of the longest life expectancy rates in the country, together with one of the healthiest populations. But as new figures from Statistics Canada show, the boomer revolution is also about numbers. Beginning in 2011, the first wave of baby boomers will turn 65; by 2036, the total senior population across Canada will reach 10 million.
The increasing popularity of lifelong learning programs for boomers and older adults has made the SFU Seniors Program - which specializes in intellectually stimulating non-credit courses for adults 55 or better - a success. Attracting some 2,500 adults annually in over 65 unique non-credit courses, the program also hosts a series of free public forums during its busy fall and spring terms, and a Canada-wide outreach project.
The boomer generation is increasingly enthusiastic about lifelong learning, says Acting Director Dr. David Gordon Duke. “In 2009, we saw our fall enrolment jump 62 per cent over the previous year - the largest jump ever in the program’s history,” he says. “Today’s seniors don’t want leisure topics. In fact, most say they don’t want recreational courses at all. They want to learn about the world, exploring topics across every discipline, including history, the sciences, philosophy, sociology, music and beyond.”
But for many older adults, who they learn with is as important as what they learn. Married couple Jan and Barry Stevenson are one such example. Jan is a retired teacher, who enrolled in her first Seniors Program course on the Middle East in 2006.
“At first, I attended on my own,” says Jan. “It was time to start thinking about the future - and mowing the lawn did not appeal! Returning to the classroom was a great way to share my ideas with others, and grow my mind by learning from my classmates.”
But Jan found her dinner table musings about the Middle East - gleaned from her weekly course material - soon captured the imagination of her husband of 41 years.
Barry, a recently retired hospital administrator, saw the program as a way to explore the many liberal arts subjects he wasn’t able to enjoy while completing his science degree decades earlier.
“I had always studied what I needed to learn for career advancement,” he says. “Now it was time to learn for personal as well as professional development.”
The couple decided to register for their next series of seniors' courses together - delving into the intriguing world of visual anthropology - then switching gears completely to a diplomatic history course entitled China-Canada Relations: From Mao to Now.
“The anthropology course raised important issues of ethics, privacy and control in our society,” says Jan, “whereas the diplomatic history course was like peering into a seemingly secret world of high-level negotiations on everything from trade treaties to war and conflict.”
But learning more about a wide variety of subjects was just the beginning. The couple also realized that studying together helped them gain new insights into one another.
“We found that we are very different learners,” says Barry. “Jan is very reflective; a quiet learner who tends to listen and offer fewer contributions in class. I tended to challenge ideas more directly, and engage in dialogue; I think we complement each other well.”
Jan says that lifelong learning has also sparked a new interest in sharing her ideas with others. “Barry and I talked to many of our friends about the Seniors Program. Sometimes, [friends] think they’ve entered a lecture series!” she jokes.
The couple has also experimented with purposely sitting apart from one another in classes. Jan says doing so has made it easier for both of them to meet new people. “By sitting in different areas of the classroom each week, we had valuable opportunities to meet new friends.” Barry agrees, “You meet seniors from all walks of life and experience - learning for oneself, not only for professional pursuits, can open up entirely new possibilities.”
Similarly, retired nurse Hazel Nicholson says that learning is all about building friendships, as well as knowledge. She joined the Seniors Program after moving to Vancouver from the Island in 2009. The courses came up in discussions at the United Church, but she was hesitant at first about enrolling in courses.
“I knew SFU had a good reputation, but I was a bit nervous, since I knew it would be rigorous,” she recalls. “It worked out well, though. I felt like I was eased in gently; I’ve been out of school for so many years.” Hazel likes the lecture style of the program, which ensures students can absorb information, and then contribute their ideas to the discussion when it feels right.
Hazel soon found the program is a great way to meet new people and share ideas. She decided to start with a composition course called Music and Meaning: Exploring How Words, Music and Expression Come Together.
“People are really interested in talking about what they learn here,” she says. “When you come in each week, people acknowledge you. You become part of the program.”
In a world where increasingly busy lives leave less time for meeting new people, Hazel says the courses make conversations easier. “There’s a nice mix of male to female ratios. People even exchange phone numbers and make new friendships along with new learned information. A whole world of possibilities have begun for me after 65."
For more information on the SFU Seniors Program, visit their website at: www.sfu.ca/seniors or call 778-782-5212.
SEPTEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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