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How age-friendly universities can improve the second half of life

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By 2030, more than 1.4 billion people across the globe will be at least 60 years old. This number will shoot up to 2.1 billion by 2050. At this point, there will be more people age 60 or older than people between 10 and 24.

These dramatic demographic shifts prompted the United Nations and World Health Organization to declare the 2020s the decade of healthy aging.

The creation of a more age-friendly world includes basic things like improving health care access. But one critical component is often overlooked: taking college courses in your 50s, 60s or beyond. These opportunities to learn later in life have been associated with a host of positive health outcomes. These include being less socially isolated and staying sharp mentally.

Many older adults know as much. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 550,000 U.S. adults 50 and older were enrolled in college undergraduate and graduate programs in 2021. Their reasons for going back to school range from learning new skills to wanting to get ahead in their careers to achieving long-held goals.

Institutions of higher Education play a unique role in shaping an aging world. In 2012, a group of interdisciplinary scholars met to establish the 10 principles of an age-friendly university. These include things such as career development for older adults pursuing second careers, increased access to Health and wellness programs at universities and opportunities to learn alongside younger students.

In 2014, these efforts expanded to become the Age-Friendly University Global Network, a collective of more than 120 colleges and universities across the world. These institutions promote positive and healthy aging through innovative educational programs, research agendas, civic engagement opportunities and more.

What are age-friendly universities?

An age-friendly university is one that commits to including and supporting learners of all ages. What this means may vary from university to university. Some focus on increasing the presence of older adults – considered age 55 and older – on campus. Others lead the development of health and research initiatives to improve the lives of older adults.

At Mississippi State University, where one of us works, the focus on learners at all stages of life is growing. The new College of Professional and Continuing Studies develops and supports both credit and noncredit programs for nontraditional students.

We are also working with the city of Starkville, Mississippi, where one of us is located, to ensure it is an attractive destination for retirees. And we offer extension programs across the state that are of interest to many older adults, such as the master gardener program, which involves 40 hours of educational training in consumer horticulture.

Other schools, such as the University of South Florida, emphasize the importance of engaging older adults in research. This includes conducting research at their Center for Hospice, Palliative Care and End-of-Life Studies. The center works to ensure better quality of life for older adults in the future. Similarly, the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston works with communities throughout the commonwealth to research what older adults need and how the community can provide for them.

All of these examples are from universities that are part of the Age-Friendly University Global Network. But this designation just builds on what many universities have long been doing. For example, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes have helped universities design programs to reach older adults for decades. These include offerings such as dance classes, wine tastings and educational trips.

How age-friendly universities improve life for older students

Whether older adults go to college to earn academic credits toward a degree or just for personal development, their presence on campus benefits the entire community.

Older adults benefit from social opportunities, intellectual stimulation and personal growth. This even extends to their health. Older adults involved in social activities are less likely to develop certain diseases, including heart disease and some cancers. Continued learning is also associated with positive health outcomes, such as improved general well-being and mental health.

Research also shows that intergenerational relationships on campus can reduce younger students’ negative perceptions of older adults. Young students may associate older people less with physical decline and death and more with smiling and learning, for example. Shared classes promote more positive experiences between them, including deep and meaningful conversations.

The best programs at age-friendly universities make sure that older adults experience a greater sense of inclusivity, respect and opportunities for learning. At some universities, older adults can also find friendship in university-based retirement communities and shortened courses that meet their needs for flexibility. And at these institutions, professors are committed to integrating older adults in their college classrooms.

While older adults can engage in learning opportunities at almost any school, universities with the age-friendly designation may be their best bet when it comes to inclusion.

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