Aging and Adult Learning

seniors“You don’t stop learning when you grow old; you grow old when you stop learning”.   The Seniors Program at Simon Fraser University has carried this phrase as their motto for decades. Enrolment of mature student fifty five or older in this program has increased by over 300% between 2000 and 2005. (Canadian Counsel of Learning, 2006)

We will be investigating aging and the adult learner in three stages. First we will be looking at motivators for the aging adult to re-enter a formal learning environment. Second a thorough look at some of the challenges they will face in terms of both their internal environmental subsystems and external environment. Lastly we will investigate strategies for instructing aging adults specifically related to memory retention.


Canada’s population is rapidly aging, and in about 10 years it is projected that senior citizens will outnumber children. As this trend continues to happen, finding ways of maintaining quality of life well into the senior years has become a matter of urgency for adults entering middle to late middle age. However for the older adult, re-entering the learning environment today is more than just for the purpose of improving qualifications. They are now viewing life- long learning for the purposes of self-actualization and forming meaningful relationships.

Learning weather purposeful or not is about growing and developing. It is about moving or advancing from one stage to a higher seniors 4stage along ones “hierarchy of need.” However Maslow in his paper ‘Theory of Human Motivation’ does suggest that this might not be a fixed hierarchy. He suggests that apart from physiological needs… which would totally dominate the individual’s consciousness if it is fully lacking… the psychological needs are not always sequential and may be based on the perspective of the individual in question. (Maslow, 2000) For some individuals self-esteem might be more important than love, while for others, creativity might not mean self-actualization but their own creative drive might be a means for achieving self-esteem or even confidence. Applying this concept to the older adult learner means that certain aspects of the adult must be taken into consideration. For instance: are the motivators for re-entering the learning environment physiological or psychological? If these needs are physiological in nature how predominant and immediate is the hunger or the need? For the individual who has been starved his entire life of having his basic needs met, getting to a level in which he is now able to supply these needs due to his own efforts and on his own volition might constitute, in his case… self-actualization. The same can be said for the older adult who with specific physiological and psychological obstacles where just the accomplishment of the act is the purpose of the act itself.

However returning to school midcareer is no longer ‘exotic’ but has taken on the face of necessity.  The typical student is getting older because the typical individual is living longer. Maggie Jackson and Dave Copeland stated in their Globe and Mail report. ‘Retirees and stay-at-home moms sequence in and out of the labor force, 50-somethings think of themselves as midcareer and all levels of schools have evolved to attract older or working students’ (Maggie Jackson, 2009) Among the 50-somethings, and older, seniors 3the decisions are driven not only by personal changes, like the empty nest, but also by ‘asynchronistic’ (Merriam S.B., 2007, p. 321) or off-time changes. Death, divorce, technological and economic changes are usually out of sync with the older adult’s ‘temporal progression’ (Merriam S.B., 2007, p. 321). At a time when they should be thinking about ‘moving to Miami and fishing all day’ life requires them to re-educate. Thus the older adult is saddled with some very different challenges to learning than would be seen with the younger synchronistic learner.


Challenges to the aging adult learner do not exist independent of each other. These issues can only be addressed from a biopsychosiociocultural and familial standpoint. From a biological stand point the aging learner must face deteriorating health such as loss of vision, problems with mobility and general illness. Memory and retention becomes an issue. However what is just as important to look at is the part these biological disabilities play in elevating the psychological and cognitive challenges presented to the aged learner.

Adults between 40 and 65 years old have a well-developed sense of self and become concerned {if not preoccupied} with physical changes. Adults older than 65 years have cognitive changes such as a decreased ability to think abstractly and process information. (Bastable, 1997) For the former group, that well defined sense of self causes specific errors in thinking such as… ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ while eliciting fears of being un-teachable. The latter group on the other hand… ‘Once a man twice a child’… comes to mind. Here the learner is faced with decreased short-term memory increased reaction time, increased test anxiety. For both groups the psychosocial challenges for both the instructor and learner are decreased risk taking tendencies and selective learning based on selective perception (which I will elaborate on when we look at strategies).

Environment, both internal and external plays a big role in terms of challenges to the aging adult.  Regarding Human Occupation, environment is seen as intimately linked with performance of occupation, which in this case is the act of learning. In terms of internal environmental subsystems apart from the biological subsystems previously mentioned, there is the volition subsystem which comprises personal values interests and even biases. Then there are the habitual subsystems which contain habits and internalized roles which may act as motivators but also as barriers to the older adult learner. Learning as an adult may be very dependent on how one was taught as a child as could be a culturally defining influence on how the individual learns as an adult. But for the aging adult, is this cultural or is this emotional? What is being implied is that some of the greatest challenges the aging adult learner might have to face are themselves, their own values, habits, and prejudices.

In terms of the external environment, the challenges can range for transportation issues to sociocultural issues as well. The baby boomers are specifically the demographic we are speaking about. This is the sandwich generation and these adults in their early fifties and older have to deal with growing children and aging parents simultaneously. Technology advances by leaps and bounds, and they are faced by the daunting fact that their children will become their bosses and worst when they choose to further their learning, their children are their instructors, and now even the face of the classroom has changed.


The aging adult learner with presenting challenges still has an awry of experiential knowledge available. Some older adults have forgotten more than most of us know, and I believe that knowledge becomes wisdom when we have spent enough time using it.  With this in mind some strategies I would propose explicitly would involve having the adult spend as much time as possible with the material being taught.

  1. Posters of all the material previously taught permeating the room. Color coding the material and grouping them based on similarities
  2. Keeping in mind that visual acuity decreases significantly past the age of fifty, lessening the time that the adult spends reading the text and increasing the time the learner participates in the learning process; the material is better retained.
  3. Teaching methods that require the learner to use multiple sensory inputs such as constructing and exploring, listening as well as verbalizing increases retention significantly.
  4. Draw on meaningful experiences. As much as possible have the learner associate what is being learned with what they already know. Learning by association is a proven method of improving retention.
  5. Repetition of course objectives, of things learned from previous sessions, including memory games and exercises, (like A-Z of what they have learned) not only builds confidence but allows the learner to spend time with what they have learned and thus incorporating it into their internal volition and habitual subsystems. (values and habits)

In conclusion: In viewing the aging adult learner it is even more important to view the individual in a holistic way.  The learner in a biopsychosociocultural way helps us to understand the whole person and the entirety of the challenges they face. In this way we can better incorporate strategies that work specifically for them.


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