Minding the Mind – the Value of Lifelong Learning
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford
As we hit our retirement years and think ahead to a life of leisure, what should that look like? How many times have we heard about friends or family members who have retired, but whose health has declined because they have no hobbies or interests?
“The old adage ‘use it or lose it’ comes to mind when we talk about learning in our later years,” said Dianne McDermid, director of quality enhancement at United Active Living, an innovative seniors community in Calgary. “Research is finding that a challenged, stimulated brain may well be the key to a healthy life in later years. Lifelong learning is at the core of everything we offer. When we assess a new resident we get a comprehensive medical history, but that’s where the similarity with other seniors communities ends. We also assess their personal interests and goals so we can tailor ongoing learning programs for them. United Active Living is everything the name implies.”
Sitting in a rocker on the porch waiting for the time to go by is not an enviable lifestyle to many approaching retirement, or to those who have already transitioned from the work-a-day world. Seniors are more active. They are travelling more, and finding worthwhile activities that stimulate the mind and increase physical activity such as hiking and swimming.
“What we’re learning is that you could be 90 years old and start something completely new and you gain from it, whether it’s strength training or an intellectual pursuit,” said Bridget Coulter, who looks after United’s cognitive support program, United Minds. “You may have deficits in some areas but when you stimulate the brain another part of the brain will help to carry that load. This is revolutionary because it means that there is no end to how many ways we can stimulate our minds and start to build new neural pathways. I think we’re going to learn enough ways to take care of our minds, bodies and emotions that we are going to extend the cognitive life of the average human being.”
Lifelong Learning is the Key
Residents at United’s communities in Calgary have taken that advice to heart. Eighty-year-old Virginia Stewart earned an English degree from the University of Calgary.
“I love being creative. Singing, poetry, writing and thinking. Poetry is my way of expressing the challenges in my life. I do a lot of thinking and put those thoughts on paper. For me, it’s always important to expand my horizons. I’m learning constantly, pushing my mind.”
And 90-year-old resident, Mary Fenwick, is learning piano. It’s an interest she had some 40 years ago, and has picked up again.
“I would rather wear out than rust out, so I want to stay busy. There is so much to learn and so many new things to try,” said Mary.
Added Dianne: “The difference at United Active Living is that the residents and the staff are both transformed by the philosophy of developing the whole person. Everyone is given the opportunity to grow and to get enjoyment out of these new situations and that’s what they have here that I’ve never found anywhere else.”
The Value of Lifelong Learning is Supported by Extensive Research
The work being done at United Active Living is supported by extensive independent research. A study released in 2015 and reported in the American Health Association’s journal Stroke, found that having a strong sense of purpose in life may reduce the incidence of blocked flood vessels in the brain that can contribute to dementia, movement problems, disability, and death as people age.
“Mental health, in particular positive psychological factors such as having a purpose in life, are emerging as very potent determinants of health outcomes,” said Dr. Patricia Boyle, study co-author.
“Purpose in life differs for everyone and it is important to be thoughtful about what motivates you (such as volunteering, learning new things, or being part of the community) so you can engage in rewarding behaviours,” said Dr. Lei Yu, the study’s lead author.
Another study, the 14-year Rush Memory and Aging Project conducted by the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago showed that cognitively active seniors were 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia than seniors who were less active.
In her book, Learning Later, Living Greater: The Secret for Making the Most of Your After-50 Years, lifelong learning expert Nancy Merz Nordstrom notes: “When you look at the benefits gained from keeping your mind sharp, it’s incredible. Lifelong learning is like a health club for your brain. And an active mind can stimulate physical activity and keep your spirits high. It’s an all-around fantastic tool for better health.”
“United Active Living believes that a community should support the goals of its residents,” said Dianne. “Residents who choose our communities to live in their later years need to be comfortable that we are there to give them complete support to live their lives to the fullest. United Active Living makes that happen.”
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” – Author C.S. Lewis
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