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Granny's cure for wrinkles

... is learning, obviously. James Sturcke on a formidable 73-year-old PhD student who stole the show at a conference to discuss how to recruit over-50s

Grandmother-of-four Irene Ison sat up in her chair among the conference delegates and announced: I did my O-levels in my 40s, A-levels in my 50s, my first degree in my 60s and my Masters in my 70s. I'm now doing a PhD into eccentricity among the elderly.

At a time when the population is ageing, the 73-year-old was the oldest person spending a day exploring how to attract the over-50s to learning and keep them.

Held to coincide with the UN International Day of Elderly Persons on October 1, the conference took place at the Create Centre in Bristol - a converted tobacco warehouse which champions recycling and making use of scant resources. Signs boast that even the toilets flush with rain water collected from the roof.

Mrs Ison, from Coventry, continued: "The trouble is they either want to put me with other oldies in so-called lifelong learning classes where you do flower-arranging or you go on general courses where you can get discriminated against by teachers and students for being old.

"I want to know what young people are learning. I want to be up-to-date. I don't want to be treated as somebody else. I want to be treated with everybody else. Learning prolongs good health. Every time you learn you lose a wrinkle.

"But I've now got a problem that I can't get a supervisor for my PhD because the Government won't fund one for students over 70.

The National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, which organised the conference, agrees there are considerable health benefits from learning in later life with corresponding reductions in care costs and dependency.

But although the Government wants people to stay working longer and last week (October 2nd) announced pound;30,000 pay-outs to people deferring retirement until 70, few older people are learning new skills.

According to Niace, while half of workers aged between 25 to 54 are involved in or have recently participated in learning, that number drops to less than one in three for those aged 55 to 64, one in five for 65 to 74 and one in 10 for the over 75s.

In an attempt to redress the balance, Niace has set up the "Older and Bolder" programme to help people over 50 get on courses.

Jim Soulsby, programme development worker, said: "It might have passed you by but 1993 was European Year of the Elderly. Back then, retirement was about elderly people disengaging from working life. That has now changed.

"It's a rapidly moving world and the demographic implications of an ageing population are getting closer to home. Education for the elderly used to be seen as a reward during retirement when you took up hobbies. Now it is seen as a way to help older people improve their lives. It is about equipping them with the knowledge and contacts to do what they want."

Empowering of the elderly was a recurring theme during the day and the demand to further it is increasingly recognised.

Among the delegates Gill Wheeler, who manages a Salisbury-based training consultancy, has teamed up with Age Concern to run a two-day course for older people.

She said: "We help build confidence and skills to enable older people to become more involved in the decisions that affect their lives, like dealing with bureaucracy."

Among the first successes was prompting the local district hospital to redesign its patients bedside booklet to make it easier for older people to understand.

Meanwhile Frank Baynham, from Forest of Dean Housing, is piloting a scheme to get sheltered tenants on line. He said: "Less than one in 15 of our tenants has direct access to the internet. In a spread out community like ours it is not good enough to say they can get it at the local library.

"We are going to install computers at our 22 sheltered sites so that the residents can contact us with queries quickly and easily.

"We want them to use this system to access online services, enhance their employment prospects, possibly set up e-businesses but also to be able to contact family and friends.

"And that's the key to getting them involved. Tell them they can use the internet to receive pictures of their grandchildren in New Zealand and they are mad for it."

In an attempt to help boost similar projects, Niace is about to publish a guidebook called Facilitating Older Learners.

Author Ann Ankers, who likes to underline a point by calling herself "officially retired" in her biographical notes, said: "It is essentially wasteful to cast aside people of a certain age when they still have a lot to offer society. In fact they have more experience than the rest of us.

"A civilised society should give opportunity to everyone to learn for learning's sake including people who have retired."

She expects the resource pack will become a useful tool for training providers. And as Paula McElearney from Worcester College of Technology, pointed out, it is not just the elderly who benefit.

She told the conference: "People are constantly forgetting that elderly people are a massive consumer area. If they learn to use the internet they will get involved with e-commerce. People should not forget the grey pound is huge."

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