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Interview: Discovering the Possibilities of Aging Through Learning


Mary Alice Wolf

The number of adults 65 years and older will increase from 4.3 million to 9.8 million over the next two decades, according to Statistics Canada. And the numbers of Canadians aged 85 plus will nearly double as well. The growth in numbers point up the importance of a variety programs to support a flourishing old age.

Dr. Mary Alice Wolf is an award-winning scholar, who has written persuasively on the power of learning for middle-aged and older adults. She is professor of human development and gerontology and director of the Institute in Gerontology at St. Joseph
College in West Hartford, Connecticut. Wolf is the author of several books, including
Adulthood: New Terrain (Jossey-Bass Publishers). In her recent work, she explores the nature of life transitions and how educational programs can help older persons achieve their full potential.

AHB reached Dr. Wolf in suburban West Hartford, Connecticut.

Ruth Dempsey: I love the way you describe adulthood as a lifelong process of "Ahas!" Can you please elaborate?

Mary Alice Wolf: We seem to live for a while in a state of acceptance; acceptance of the way things are, how we spend our time, what matters to us. Then, sometimes because of a personal crisis or a slowly creeping sense of boredom, we feel new motivation. We begin to see our regular daily life differently. Scholars call this "differentiation." We differentiate what has been normal for us and, in a way, we begin to separate from all our regular ways of seeing things. Now we have new awarenesses. Wow! That is what I mean by "Ahas."

RD: "Our lives have chapters and each chapter has a rhythm . . ."

MAW: I think I meant that each of us passes through states of being, stages, chapters. Depending on our individual personalities, these chapters take on a rhythm: the schooling, the leaving home, the being-in-love, the job, the new family we make, the passing on of loved ones, the growth of our children and all the changing roles that go with these stages. These stages are not necessarily linear; they can also be repeated at various times in our lifetimes. Surely, when we were 10 years old, we never would have imagined wanting to go to school in old age!

There are other metaphors that I sometimes mix into this plot: for example, think of life as a hand of cards you have been dealt. By the time you die, you get to play out all the cards. Chapters! Hands of cards! Whatever! We grow and change, adapt and develop. That is the wonder of the ontological model of life.

RD: What learning activities are popular among older adults today?

MAW: Really, EVERYTHING! Dance, classroom lectures, music, art, one woman I know took an Algebra class at a junior college! Many older people want a job and are willing to train for a workplace change. Others want to engage in new levels of creativity or travel or learning to care for others. A couple that I know have trained to go into emergency zones, such as post Katrina, to provide services.

The point is that these people have tons of energy, need stimulation and are motivated. Some are loners; others crave the company of like minds. All are capable of learning and contributing to the learning of others.

RD: Like Americans, Canadians come from many different ethnic groups. How could continuing education programs involve these communities?

MAW: I am very interested in the legacy potential of ethnic heritage. For example, in a project developed in a New Mexico library, elders of the tribe teach weaving to youngsters. There are also language classes. A student of mine went to tatting circle with her grandmother, a highly skilled tatter of Polish descent. Intergenerational programs can provide rich experiences for generativity and connections.

RD: Educational programs can be helpful in times of transition. What transitions do older adults routinely confront?

MAW: For starters:

Changes in identity (as in "Who am I?" "What am I supposed to be doing with this stage of my life?").

Loneliness (A newly widowed friend told me she hates to knit but joined a knitting group.)

Self-esteem: realizing that one has value.

Wellness: keeping or getting healthy.

Technology (Today I learned how to take a picture with my cell phone that I have had for three years.)

Moving to a new setting.

Creating a routine when you have been in the workforce for 50 or more years and now are in free-fall. (I once belonged to a gym where the women got the locker room in the mornings; the men took it over at 1 p.m. Every day there would be a bunch of older men outside the door at 12:45 asking, "Are you finished yet?" Those guys knew the meaning of punctuality!)

RD: You say learning in old age is essential to the development. Why is that?

MAW: I think that there must be a purpose in longevity besides a quantitative gain. With old people around we get to learn what this purpose is. Aging well takes moxie and courage; old people can model this and inspire the human race. But older adults must also work at wisdom and meaning making. Learning, changing, understanding, questioning, sharing: All of these are actions throughout life. Why should there be a cut-off age?