“You’re never too old to learn.”  How many times has someone said that to you?  If you’re anything like me, I expect quite a lot!  The problem is that although that’s been proven to be true, many of us don’t believe it.  As we age, and especially in retirement, we lose confidence in our own abilities and our mental capacity.  We start to think of ourselves as ‘past it’, and we actively distance ourselves from situations in which we have to try something new.

The problem with doing this is that we miss out on new experiences, and allow our cognitive functions to decline, often to the point of no return.  That’s why, for the fourth and final part of my retirement life series I’m taking a look at learning in later life.

It shouldn’t be this way…

We’re living longer.  That’s a fact.  That means that when we reach retirement, most of us are still in possession of our mental and physical faculties.  We are, whether we believe it or not, an asset to society, not a burden.  And yet, perceptions haven’t caught up.  The UN concluded just two years ago that half of the world’s population are agist.  And I bet, if you search deep down into your soul, that includes you.  Don’t believe me?  Well, if I asked you to start a degree, learn a new skill, or even sign up for a free online course, you’d question whether you still had it in you, whether you were good enough.  Wouldn’t you?

You are good enough, we all are…

Research has shown that contrary to popular belief, our cognitive abilities don’t necessarily decline with age.  In a study, published by Scientific Reports, researchers looked at the working memory of older adults (average age of 66) compared to younger adults (average age of 22) and found that, in many cases, the older adults outperformed the younger adults and responded just as quickly to questions.

Add to this the fact that scientists the world over are looking into whether it is possible (by continuing to learn) to improve cognitive function as we age and ward of degenerative mental illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s.  It’s a new area of research and there’s no clear evidence of a link to date, but what is known is that exercising our brains, especially in social settings, is a good thing and something we should all actively engage in.

Where to start?

This isn’t about ‘going back to school’.  I know many of you hated it there!  It’s not about signing up for an intense degree course, or something that you have little interest in.  History of calculus anyone?  No, I thought not!  This is about stimulation, enjoyment, and fulfilment.  It’s about having a sense of achievement, a purpose.  It’s about improving your ability to cope with difficult situations and enhancing your resilience.  Simply put, learning in later life is the key to leading a full and active life for as long as you can.

Perhaps you’ve always believed you had a book in you.  Now’s the time to find out by enrolling on a creative writing course.  Love holidaying in Italy?  Perhaps you could learn a little of the lingo?  You may want to better your baking, produce a podcast, mele in metal detecting, or find out about fine wines.  The possibilities are endless, and the good news is that more and more organizations are springing up to help you on your learning journey.

In the UK, there’s u3a, a collection of over 1000 charities offering opportunities for those no longer in work to come together and learn for fun.  The Open University offers free courses anyone can sign up to.  And Future Learn offers short online courses from universities across the world on everything from medicine to management.  Age UK, local councils and libraries are also great places to look, especially if you’d rather learn in a group, than from behind a screen.

In the States, I can highly recommend the Modern Elder Academy, run by the indomitable Chip Conley.  I’ve done some of their in-person courses myself and can honestly say they’ve been life-changing.  There are many more organizations like this, as well as Lifelong Learning Institutes affiliated to hundreds of universities and colleges across the US and Canada all eager to enrol later life learners.

Don’t go it alone…

If there’s one thing I encourage you to do as you embark on your journey of continued self-discovery, it’s to not go it alone.  Well not completely.  This shouldn’t be about sitting at home in front of a screen working hard to exercise your brain.  It should be about a meeting of minds, about shared interests and about social interaction with others.  By all means take an online course you do at home in your own time, but then go out there and meet other people with shared interests and try something else that can be learned in a group.  You can’t underestimate the value of social interaction, especially as we age.

Believe in yourself…

Oh, and there’s something else I urge you to do, and that’s to believe in your abilities. You may not find learning as easy as you did in your youth.  It may take longer for you to grasp the key concepts and you may need to go over things again and again, but stick at it, because when you believe in yourself, anything is possible.  And remember, agism is ingrained, to some degree, inside all of us.  You can defeat that.  And the more of us who try, the easier it will be for us to collectively shift society’s outdated notion that us later lifers are well and truly past it.

And if you need any more incentive…

And I’ll leave you with this from the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai who lived to be 89…

“All I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth taking into account. At 73 I have learned a little about the real structure of nature,” he wrote at 75. “When I am 80, I shall have made still more progress. At 90, I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At 100 I shall have reached a marvellous stage, and when I am 110, everything I do, whether it be a dot or a line, will be alive.”

If you would like some help preparing for your retirement, check out my digital programme, here.

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