Grey heads should not neglect the grey cells

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Too many myths surround older people's suitability for education and training. Jill Parkin debunks a few

You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Everyone knows that. Hmmm. Do they actually know it, or do they just think it? As the population ages and pension prospects shrink, many older people need to learn, whether to extend their earning years or simply enrich their lives. Niace, the organisation whose job is to promote lifelong learning for adults, says that people over 55 are the least likely to embark on adult learning. Yet men of 65 can now expect to live another 16 years and women another 19. So Niace has looked at what gets in the way of later learning and what can be done.

The project has involved exploding a lot of myths, all too often believed by young people, by those who train and teach older people and by the older people themselves.

Myth 1: Older people are all the same. No one would dream of saying this about everyone under the age of 40, but there's a tendency to think anyone over 60 has the same outlook and interests, when really all they may have in common is the fact that they've managed to live this long without being knocked down by an under-25 driver.

Myth 2: Older people have nothing of value to say. Unless they're living history and it's on the curriculum. Oldies suddenly find themselves hauled into primary classrooms to show their ration books and make fairy cakes out of carrot and dried egg. Apart from that, they are too often ignored by a generation that doesn't realise the future is built out of the past.

Myth 3: It is not worth while encouraging older people to learn. Less politely: why invest in them if they're going to die? Well, they might be working until they're 70; they will stay fitter if they learn to keep active and so cost the health service considerably less than the diabetic and overweight younger generation; and they may well be looking after their grandchildren, doing voluntary work, or sitting as a high court judge.

Myth 4: Older people have less brain capacity and cannot learn anything new. In fact, recent research suggests that if you keep on using your brain, it will make new neuron pathways until very old age. And then there's experience. Anyone who has watched the oldies' version of University Challenge will know that they may be slower to the buzzer, but they have a lot more in their mental files.

Myth 5: Older people forget things. Eleven types of memory have been identified. Some are affected by age; some are not. But then oldies have committed all sorts of stuff to their - usually very efficient - long-term memory that youngsters never learnt. Also, when you've been round the block a few times, you get something else: wisdom. It stops you running up credit cards; driving while eating apples while having mobile phone conversations; and believing botox is a good idea.

Myth 6: Older people have mobility problems. Many older people are now taking exercise, walking, swimming and using the gym during off-peak times.

The image of later life as a time of inactivity and of exercise as undignified is on the wane, as the younger generation increasingly occupies the sofa, lifting nothing heavier than the Play Station handset and the Pringles box. As for indignity, a few post-sixty stretches and flexes have nothing on postnatal aquarobics.

Myth 7: Old people live in the past. Reminiscing can alienate the younger generation, but then they would rather spend the time on the Friends Reunited website - reminiscing. In fact older people are the most avid consumers of newspapers, magazines and news programmes. Interest in and knowledge of current affairs is something you grow into. Having said that, yoof culture is for yoof, which thankfully grows up eventually.

Myth 8: Older people are not interested in learning anything new. In fact many see retirement as a chance to do just that, though they talk about it in terms of 'taking up': taking up golf, French conversation or needlework.

The Open University is very popular among older people, as are IT classes at local adult education centres. But if there's one thing older people have learned, it's the value of time, and they probably won't be wasting it learning how to work an iPod or a video phone.

Myth 9: Older people only want to learn with other older people. Actually, figures from the adult learning inspectorate and local education authorities show that 25 per cent of those in mainstream adult learning are over 60, which suggests other age groups don't put them off. And many older people relish having the stimulus of young people in their classes. And for those who like learning with others who have a similar range of reference, there's U3A, the university of the third age, with its classes in everything from inland waterways to IT awareness.

Older People Learning: myths and realities is published by Niace at Pounds 12.95 and gives details of many schemes for older learning throughout the country. You can order it through the Niace website at

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