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Demystifying the Older Adult Student Segment

Older learners have some very specific, but not necessarily well-understood, barriers to accessibility which institutions must accommodate for in order to be able to better serve this growing cohort of learners. Photo by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York.

Older learners make up a growing number of adult students, and they have different needs and goals when it comes to their higher education. The EvoLLLution interviewed Pat Spadafora from Sheridan College’s Elder Research Center to learn more about this group of students and the barriers they face.

AA: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the older learner cohort?

PS: Well it’s funny you sent me that question, because I was just doing a class at the Brampton campus today, and I was talking about the fact that it’s really hard to talk about older adults as a cohort, because you could be talking about baby boomers from about 45 to people who are 100, right? In that very, very large group, there are actually intergenerational cohorts there.

It’s kind of hard to compare somebody who, say, is 90 and who lived through the great depression and the war with a 50 year old. So much of what I’m saying here for our purposes should direct at the older older adults, or it may not make a lot of sense. And I think that one of the misconceptions on the part of both society and older adults themselves may be that older adults can’t continue to learn. So I think that myth is being dispelled all the time, and not everybody thinks that, so that’s why I wanted to qualify it a little bit, but it’s perpetuated by expressions like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

AA: You’ve touched on sort of the differences that exist within the group of older learners, could you elaborate on what those differences are? For example between the “older” and the “older older” student segments you mentioned?

PS: First of all, let me say that all of the work we’ve done and everything that we know would indicate that actually older adults continue to grow and learn for all of their whole lives, so learning doesn’t stop just because you reach a certain age. But I would say, one of the cohort differences would be that the baby boom group—and particularly the younger baby boom group—have really grown up using technology. So in terms of the way people learn, I think that they’re more familiar with technology, they’ve almost always used computers for work, for example.

Having said that, adults that are older than that, say if you look at the 65+ group, they’re the fastest growing group of internet users. But they still wouldn’t have grown up with technology in quite the same way, so one of the things our research stresses here at the Centre actually is accessible technology. We do have an internet cafe with twelve computer stations, and we’ve been doing work for a number of years with different models, looking at how best to orient people who really haven’t used computers to them, you know, looking at some of the challenges they might face. And this semester we’ve actually introduced mobile technology using iPads. It’s been part of the reason we want to do that is that older adults, we feel, run the risk of being marginalized or left behind if we can’t help them to embrace technology. You can’t do anything nowadays if it doesn’t involve a website. I was telling some students I had phoned the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and got about nine menu options, and you pretty much need to listen to all of them before you knew which one it was you wanted to pick.

ATMs—it’s not just computers, so many things—GPS in cars, so much is out on the web that it’s definitely one of the differences. I think you’re talking about a much older cohort that is much more familiar with that kind of face-to-face kind of ongoing education. We have had people up to 90 in our computer programs, the type of older adults who don’t want to use the computer—all I’m saying is that kind of digital divide, they haven’t grown up with it in the same way.

AA: So how does not recognizing the differences that exist within this group affect the students? What kind of barriers does it put up?

PS: Well I think there are all kinds of barriers. One of them we kind of alluded to at the beginning, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that some—you always have to qualify, you can’t speak about everyone—that some older adults would buy into that belief that they’re too old. You know I’ve heard them say this to me, they’re too old, they can’t learn. They’ve bought into those societal ageist ideas. I’m talking about people who are much older.

But, then there are lots of other barriers. If it’s going out to a learning event at a library or a seniors rec centre, that could bring with it some transportation barriers. We’ve found with our own work that there are a lot of older adults who don’t want to drive in the evening anymore, for example, so that can all really be bundled up in looking at accessibility barriers. It might be that it’s in a really old building and there are stairs, for example, and perhaps somebody has a walker. Newer buildings are all physically accessible, but some older buildings might not be. If you’re talking public transportation; your facility might be accessible, but what if the bus stop is three blocks away and there’s a raging snowstorm or something like that? So transportation becomes a barrier. I think in terms of barriers we have people in a study that did report health as a barrier; maybe some vision loss, some mobility challenges. But you know, again really depends. You can’t compare that 85-90 year old with a 55 or 60 year old, so I think it always really comes back to the individual.

AA: Building on that, then, what can higher education providers do to overcome some of these barriers?

PS: Some colleges and universities offer third age—what they’re calling third age learning programs or lifelong learning programs. Most of the ones I’m personally familiar with are still face-to-face, they may be peer-led. And having talked about technology, one thing that we can do to overcome some barriers is, I think, as older adults become more and more familiar with technology, we can try offering more things online for people who might live in more geographically remote areas, or for whatever reason can’t get out of the house. I think that’s one thing we can do. There certainly are older adults who can afford to take courses but there are other older adults who might be on a fixed income, so we may be able to offer to financial subsidies or a reduced rate to help some people. There is a lot available, but you don’t know what you don’t know about, so I’m not sure we’re getting the word out to older adults as much as we’d hope to. There are all kinds of third age learning programs in Toronto.

That also begs the question, do older adults always want to learn always with their own cohort or would they like to be involved in more intergenerational learning activities? We’re talking about ages and segmenting people based on age, kind of an interesting question I think. In our work there’s a lot of the older adults who responded to the learning study I told you about, said they liked being taught by peer mentors their own ages. In some of the college and university programs, there are formal classes that are led by retired professors from that institution or from the community.

AA: Do you think that’s a comfort issue?

PS: Maybe. I think the other thing that really differentiates adults from younger people in terms of learning is that often many younger students who are in a classroom, say, in a college or a university to acquire a credential.

You know when you’re older—I’m thinking of people who are retired—they are not really chasing a credential anymore, so it’s kind of liberating, I think. They can embrace learning for the love of learning and can pursue topics that are of interest to them, and maybe don’t necessarily lead them to a piece of paper, if that makes any sense. Being older frees you up to be able to really pursue things that, maybe when you were working full time, you never really had an opportunity to pursue. …

I think in general we go from a creative age and paradigm, and I think when you are older, you know, you become freer. Older adults generally report being happier than younger cohorts, and are freer to do things they’ve always wanted to do, but not necessarily caring whether they’re really good at it.

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