Not only can learning during the later stages of life bring happiness, wellbeing and a connection to the wider community for those studying, it can also reduce dependency on welfare
John Salinas says weekly ICT classes have given him a new lease of life, allowing him to benefit from community opportunities.
Professor Stephen McNair has spent half a lifetime's research proving it's better to be happy than rich – a state some say is best achieved through lifelong learning. Now, at last, the government has latched on to the idea and David Cameron is planning a happiness index as a measure of success.
McNair, a semi-retired National Institute of Adult Continuing Education research fellow, says that in all the guidance about wellbeing, education is central. "[It is] particularly important for those in the latter stages of life when one is less mobile and having to cope with the death of partners and friends: getting out of bed and feeling one has a purpose can be particularly challenging."
This is clearly not an issue for 84-year-old Jim Kelly, winner of an Adult Learners' Week award in 2010, who has in recent years dedicated himself to a wide range of study – everything from gardening to the 1688 "glorious revolution". After school days blighted by poverty and bullying teachers, the impetus to study came from his granddaughter Becky who, as a two-year-old, grew frustrated with his inability to answer her questions. "Don't you know anything grandad?" she would ask. Now, 14 years later, he tells the teenager he's pleased she asked that question.
Evidence of the benefits of learning during the latter stages of life is overwhelming, from research by the Alzheimer's Society showing delayed onset of the disease, to reduced dependency on welfare support.
Melissa March is executive director of Learning for the Fourth Age, a charity dedicated to bringing trained volunteers into care settings where they work with residents. "Our volunteers help people with everything from recovering piano-playing after strokes to wanting to tackle Welsh for the first time," she explains. "There is lots of interest too in IT and the connections that email can bring. Our work helps break down older people's fears about young people and opens our volunteers' eyes to the lives of older people with very different experiences from their own."
Such improvements bring genuine happiness, as 78-year-old Londoner Maria Tolly found. In 1989, health problems spelled an end to her career as a professional guitarist, until specialist music technology courses at Morley College and the City Lit restored her commitment to making music. "I was concerned that I might be sidelined," she recalls, "but actually studying at both institutions has proved that age is immaterial – I feel so connected to life thanks to a combination of forgetting myself and realising how much I still have to learn." Soon she had music commissions ranging from after-school dance groups to composing a song for the 100th anniversary of her local park. "I am now becoming interested in music videos and I am looking for collaborators."
John Salinas, at 91, is also embracing IT. Each week he drives to his computing class and has progressed rapidly from not even knowing how to plug in his laptop, to using digital photography.
"John is an inspiration in the learning group of over-60s participants by being an example of someone committed to learn, and not letting age or knowledge be a barrier to 'getting digital'," says Iona Gibbons, a community learning development worker with Bath and North East Somerset county council.
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For John, the benefits of lifelong learning are clear – the weekly classes have given him a new zest for life. "I want to remain active in myself for my own health but also access all the information that is on computers, to benefit from community opportunities and to meet other people who are in the same boat as me," he says. "I see my computer learning as now firmly part of my life and can share what I learn with my family and show them what I can do."
For 84-year-old Len Street, a committed contributor to the University of the Third Age (U3A) since its creation 19 years ago, it is the companionship while learning that leads to a healthier life. He currently runs opera and art-history study groups. "When people leave work it is often the company of others they miss most – education in older age can be a lifesaver."
The value of learning is no exaggeration, says Fiona Aldridge, Niace programme director and author of a recent report into lifelong learning in care settings. "The benefits of ensuring that ongoing learning is a part of a care package is hard to deny when one learns of some of the best practice in this area. It has significant benefits in terms of improving people's mental health and reducing their reliance on medication."