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Study: Older Adults Opt for Learning


The best thing for disturbances of the spirit," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn. That is the only thing that never fails. — T.H. White

When "Norman’s" wife died, he filled the emptiness by learning about computers.

He is not alone. A recent study has found that older adults turn to learning to help them adapt to life changes and enhance their quality of life.


Adult learning expert Dr. Donald Roberson, Jr. led the study, which was based on interviews with 10 adults living in a rural district of South Georgia, U.S.A. The sample consisted of five males and five females, including a mixture of widowed and non-widowed participants. They ranged in age from 75 to 87.

The findings appeared in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development (Vol. 61, No.4, 2005).

According to the study, adults face significant adjustments in later life in response to:

  • having extra time;
  • changes in family life;
  • physical changes; and
  • loss of social connections.


Retirement heralds a new stage in the journey of life. Individuals are known to respond differently to retirement, and this was true of this small group of rural people.

For example, "Robert" rejoiced in long periods of free time:

When I retired 14 years ago, I was ready to retire. . . . And it was just time that I relaxed and enjoyed retirement. And I do. I feel like that I get to do a lot of things that I never would have, had I continued working. . . . So, to me, retirement is a really a chance to learn more and to enjoy what you learn.

"Betty," also retired, sounded an urgent note, "There is so much, I have things that I want to write and to do and time is running out. And I can’t get the time to do all I want to do."


The study found that closeness among family members provided a host of learning opportunities for older people. "I am learning a lot about soccer," one person remarked.

Older adults also talked about their parents and how their influence helped them cope with change.

One woman credited her mother for her interest in walking and aerobics:

I want to be as young as I can, and as active and alert as I can, as long as I live. Because my mother, I base it on my mother, she sat in a chair for years and when she got up into her 80s she got where she was just walking with a little shuffle. I said I don’t ever want that to happen to me. So the longer you stay active and keep your mind active, the better off you are.


Study participants identified two types of loss — loss of physical health and loss of social connections.

Physical health

Most learning in late life is motivated by health maintenance, according to the study. Each person was learning about his or her medical situation through study and conversations with medical professionals. For example, "Bill’ was studying pamphlets and periodicals dealing with hypertension and healthy eating habits.

Another example is "Sue". When she discovered she had lymphoma, she spent hours researching the disease. She returned to school to take her certification in nursing, just shy of her 80th birthday.

Social connection

We already know that a sense of connectedness to others enriches life. This connection weakens, as we age, and lose friends and loved ones.

Take the case of "Thelma," who described efforts to build a new life after her husband died: "Now I will go out and eat by myself. I will go to [a local restaurant], and I will sit back there in the bar area, ’cause people come in and out that I know back there . . ."

Another participant, "Charlie" talked about the difficulty of becoming a caregiver, after his wife was diagnosed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Yeah! The house, I can’t keep it up and do everything else. Well, main thing I do, I pray that the Lord will give me the strength, you know. To stay in it for the long haul, you know. To look after her, to give me the health. And right attitude and patience that is the number one thing, patience. Give me the patience to look after her, and so far, I have made it good. Do it good. . . . Yeah, but I would be so lonesome without her. You know.

Charlie subscribed to several health publications and one specifically on Alzheimer’s. These materials helped him makes decisions for his wife.

Only thing that never fails

According to the study, older adults opt for learning to compensate for losses in later life. As importantly perhaps, they pursue learning to broaden horizons and enhance their enjoyment in life.