This month, educators all over the world are celebrating the increasing presence of older people in lifelong learning activities. October 1 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Older Persons.
Reflecting international trends, Malta’s population structure has evolved out of a traditional pyramidal shape to an even-shaped block distribution of equal numbers at each age cohort, except at the top.
While in 1985 the 60+ and 75+ cohorts measured 14.3 per cent and 3.8 per cent, in 2009 these figures reached 22.2 and 6.4 per cent respectively. This occurred as the birth rate declined to 1.3 per family, while the expectation of life at birth for men and women increased from 70.8 and 76.0 years in 1985 to 77.7 and 81.4 years in 2005 respectively.
The presence of older people in Maltese formal education is a vibrant one. Older people are approaching their learning objectives with extraordinary passion, and although there is a distinct preference for subjects in the arts and humanities, the range of subjects followed is remarkable.
The upward trend in participation is impressive, with the Directorate for Lifelong Learning (Ministry of Education) and University of Malta boasting some 62 and 1,962 older students respectively.
Last June, the University of the Third Age incorporated a healthy student body of 643.
By participating in learning activities, older people become better able to understand financial and legal matters, make more informed consumer choices, live independently, develop new skills and interests, understand social, political and technological change and enjoy a more fulfilling life.
Adult education also helps people overcome social exclusion and isolation, and further their active citizenship, while bringing benefits in areas such as housing, crime and safety, and arts and culture.
Learning activities also promote older people’s mental and physical health, well-being and social life. Local research found that a majority of learners reported that engaging in educational activities had a positive impact in ways such as increased self-confidence, enjoyment of life and coping with events.
Yet there is no doubt that the situation needs to improve if Malta is to reach the benchmarks adopted by the United Nations’ Second World Assembly on Ageing held in Madrid in 2002. Educational policies must be set in place so that more older learners enroll in higher education, not just at the University but also at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology and the Institute of Tourism Studies.
Non-formal learning avenues – ranging from state-sponsored bodies such as local councils, and the Employment and Training Corporation, to voluntary bodies such as trade unions and cultural organisations – must also be empowered, both financially and in expertise, to plan and organise educational courses that meet the specific learning needs of older people.
There is a need for public policies that facilitate the increasing participation of older adults in informal learning which occurs in a wide range of locations, ranging from libraries to dance clubs, and generally through self-directed strategies.
Malta must work towards ensuring that access to lifelong learning is perceived as a human right, while strongly guaranteeing that adequate learning opportunities in later life becomes a central objective in government policy. Two broad priorities emerge from such a goal.
First, it is opportune to grapple and solve the common barriers that preclude older people from participating in learning activities.
Affirmative action must be deployed to counter the fact that many older people left school at a relatively early age largely due to socio-economic imperatives, experienced a lack of opportunity to pursue continuing education, and, especially in the case of women, encountered cultural mores that envisioned the role of women as one of domesticity.
Moreover, it is unfortunate that higher and further education institutions are not passionate about late-life learning and opening their doors to older learners. The education of older people does not bring in grants or offer much career training paths in vocational centres, so it tends to be ignored and not given any priority in marketing exercises.
There is also a need for a national policy framework on lifelong learning that includes a sound emphasis on later life. This framework must be guided by a rationality that reinstates lifelong learning in the values of social levelling, social cohesion, and social justice.
Local authorities must be awarded an explicit role and responsibility in the planning, coordination and financing of age-related services, including adult and late-life learning.
In partnership with third sector agencies and formal education providers, local councils must take the role of learning hubs that bring all the providers (public, private, and voluntary) together, to coordinate resources, consult older people, and promote learning among older people.
Moreover, a national policy framework on lifelong learning will only be successful as long as it meets the needs of providing citizens with learning initiatives that help them plan for retirement, and offers learning initiatives to relatives and volunteers involved in the care of older people, as well as frail older people themselves, whether still residing in their home or in residential/nursing complexes.
These are some of the issues I believe adult educators need to grapple with in the coming years.
While it is not too difficult to conceptualise what good practice in the education and training of older people ought to mean, we have still long way to go to achieve sustainable and empowering forms of lifelong learning.
Hopefully, the research conducted at the European Centre of Gerontology is a step in the right direction.
Dr Formosa is a lecturer at the European Centre of Gerontology, University of Malta.