Elder Journal: Linfelong Education: The Importance of a Curious Mind
September 2003

Lifelong Education:  The Importance of a Curious Mind
By Paul Takayanagi
September 2003

It used to be that the word “education” primarily conjured visions if school children all lined up in neat rows, learning their lessons from the months of September to June.  As soon as people graduated from high school, they were off to work, to be married, and to start families.  A few went on to college and obtained degrees that would, hopefully, serve them in their chosen careers.  After graduation, “education” was a thing of the past, something only young people did except for the occasional “on the job training” a worker may have to take to stay current.  That neat scenario of “education” is at least a couple of decades old, if not a couple of generations.

Now, children are learning their lessons year round in public, private or alternative schools or being home schooled.   The majority of Americans graduate from high school and also go on to college.  An undergraduate degree is no longer the primary “ticket’ needed to get a good job.   A graduate degree, work and life experience and a lot of extra curricular activities, like public service or volunteer work, are often required to obtain a highly placed position in a company.  Education is an ongoing activity as people move through life because of technology updates, industry developments and career changes.

A recent study showed that rather than a simple linear “step” model of education, work and retirement which at least two generations of Americans experienced in the 20th century, currently people are experiencing a cyclical model of education, work, transition, education, work, transition, education, etc. throughout their working years.  Many of the current generation of older Americans worked at one job for one company their entire career and then retired.  Now, Americans are expected to change their jobs up to 10 times in their career years.  This is especially true of younger people just entering the job market.  The linear step model of life is no longer possible or even desirable by many young people’s standards.

One of the positive changes for education that has occurred is that the concept of “lifelong learning” has taken hold for many older Americans.  Elderhostel, one of the most successful lifelong learning ventures in the world is entering its fourth decade of existence.  Tens of thousands of people worldwide enroll in Elderhostel’s many educational offerings from wine making to classical studies to travel opportunities and more.  There are even Elderhostel “groupies” who enroll in program after program every year with the same group of people.  The programs are often on college campuses around the world and it’s a chance to relive college years for people who went to college or experience college life for the first time for people who didn’t.

Here are some facts about lifelong education and older adults:

  • 62% of persons 50 years and older want to learn new things for three reasons; to keep up with what’s going on in the world; for their own personal or spiritual growth; for the simple joy of learning something new.
  • A large number of adults 50 years and older want to learn new things for job enhancement; 74% of persons 50-59; 45% of persons 60-74; and 33% for those age 75 years and older.
  • Future generations of persons over 65 years old will be more educated, more financially successful, more familiar with technology and more interested in “lifelong learning” than any previous generation before them.

It used to be that older adults were seen as outside the purview of technology changes like VCR’s, computers and digital cameras but no more.   The senior market has been one of the fastest growing segments of new computer and other technological product users for many years.  Millions of older adults email their families, friends and former colleagues every day.  Here are some facts about technology and older adults:

  • 36% of persons 50 years and older use the Internet to learn new things
  • 65% of persons over 65 years who currently use computers surf the internet several hours per day.
  • 73% of persons over 65 years who currently use computers use the internet for educational purposes and attending online schools.
  • Current generations of persons over 65 are becoming more familiar with computers and other forms of technology than previously expected.
  • Future generations of persons over 65 will have a higher degree of familiarity with using computers and other forms of technology for educational purposes with a corresponding higher expectation for educational programs utilizing technology.

Lifelong education is also a concept that is applicable to persons with dementia.  While studies have shown that it is unlikely for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and related to dementia to learn new things in the same fashion as they have in the past, these individuals are able to learn in new and different ways.  Routine often makes up for memory and new learning.  When you reinforce a new pattern with a person with dementia through intensity and repetition, that person is sometimes able to “learn” something new like a floor plan of a new environment or the face of a new professional caregiver in the home.  Here are some real life examples of this kind of learning:

Joseph is a seventy five year old retired engineer who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease two years ago.  His wife, Agnes and he have been married for fifty-five years.   They lived in the same house for fifty-three years of their marriage.  Two years ago, just before Joseph was diagnosed with dementia, they moved to an apartment to be closer to their daughter and her family.  Joseph had many problems negotiating his way around the new apartment initially.  He would get up from a chair and not know which way to go for the bathroom or the kitchen.  Now, after two years of living there, while his dementia has become more serious, he is able to negotiate his environment physically.  If he’s asked which way is the bathroom or kitchen, he is often not able to articulate that information but as soon as he gets up and starts walking to one or the other, he does find his way.


Darlene is an eighty eight year old woman diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia.  This form of dementia is characterized by hallucinations and visions.  Darlene often believes that she sees her mother who has been dead for over fifty years.  Darlene is a retired school teacher and has always liked to read, do crossword puzzles and learn new things.   Darlene has had in-home care for a number of years.  In the beginning of her dementia, she was able to discern between the caregivers and know their names well.   While the majority of caregivers have changed over the years, there are a couple who have remained constant.  While Darlene does not remember their names anymore, she does respond to their faces and she is more easily cared for by these caregivers than new ones who just start out in her home.  After a caregiver has been in her home a number of times and for an extended period, however, Darlene does respond to her or him more effectively.

More and more studies are showing that a person’s natural curiosity for new information and knowledge may have a preventive effect for developing dementia in later life.  A naturally curious mind throughout life can enhance a person’s feelings of self esteem and well being.  If you haven’t learned something new for awhile, September is the perfect month to enroll in an extended learning class at your local college or to peruse the Elderhostel catalogue at www.elderhostel.org.   Lifelong learning is a good thing!

About the Columnist:  Paul Takayanagi is a holistic gerontologist with a Masters degree in Gerontology from San Francisco State University.  He has taught at San Francisco State University and at the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; Chabot Community College; and the Graduate Theological Union.  He was also the Education Director of Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay in Berkeley, California.  He is an active member of the American Society on Aging and was recently a Chairperson for their Summer Series on Aging held in San Francisco in June 2003.  You can visit Paul’s web site at www.livingoveraging.com.


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