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In my opinion

Is educating someone over the age of 50 worth it?

As the senior population continues to increase, Canadian institutions need to prepare for possibility of an influx of mature students in the classroom.


Age discrimination isn’t legal, but it’s the unconscious assumptions and beliefs that trip us up. This is having an impact on our assumptions about the value of educating someone over the age of 50.

For example, we read a lot of doom-and-gloom prophesizing because of a creaky Canadian health care system and the baby-boom generation that is getting older and, apparently, sicker. This is not only a cliché but also wrong, according to a couple of University of British Columbia studies published in the August 2011 issue of the journal Healthcare Policy.

A study on population aging and determinants of healthcare by Steve Morgan and Colleen Cunningham (from the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia) notes that less than one percent a year was added to medical, hospital, and pharmaceutical spending as a consequence of population aging. As British Columbia’s demographics are reasonably comparable to the rest of Canada, the researchers have postulated that effects of population aging on national healthcare spending to 2036 would be small.

Meanwhile, research by Kimberlyn M. McGrail and four other authors (with the same UBC centre) found that much of the increase in physician spending was due to “internal system dynamics.” In other words, asking for more tests and sending patients to more specialists costs the healthcare system more, regardless of the patient’s age. “The rhetoric of an approaching ‘grey tsunami’ obscures the fact that these increases are occurring on a per capita basis, after adjusting for increases that would be expected simply on the basis of the aging of the population,” said the authors.

Frankly, from everything I’ve read about the current and prospective “seniors” populations, they are the healthiest we’ve had. Yet policy makers and social scientists don’t seem to be talking seriously about the impact that a relatively healthy, active, aging population will have on the economy and the social structure of Canada. After all, it’s possible that a healthy senior might want to retrain for a new career and then start a business or found a civil society organization, or do all of the above – or something else. Not everyone can, or wants to, spend their time pursuing leisure activities. While the ones who want to learn formally may not represent a huge group, it will be larger than those of past generations because of the demographic bulge.

There’s a mythology around aging, and much of that mythology is negative. But, there are a few promising signs that deeply held attitudes about aging are being revisited. A Canada Coming of Age conference – about the policy impact of an aging population, being held in Edmonton in early October – and new research like the UBC studies put the lie to how aging is often represented these days in the media and in popular culture.

And yet, change is slow. For example, the Coming of Age conference didn’t receive a single proposal about education (the presentations are largely focused on retirement and health care issues). The widely used term “lifelong learning” tends to ignore professional-level education. Talk about education for those over 50 and most automatically assume we mean learning as a leisure activity. Much of it is relegated to continuing studies programs. As well, people over 50 are more likely to go to school part-time, and most funding programs don’t support part-time education.

If you’re over 50, you have as much opportunity as anyone else to attend a college or university program – on paper. But how will your application for loans or scholarships be viewed, compared to those of younger applicants for a highly competitive program? If you consider that most of us have more than one job and more than one career in a lifetime, then the 30-year-old applicant for funding is likely to spend the same amount of time in their future career as the 60-year-old applicant.

Common wisdom says you can start over at any age but it sure would help if institutions offered more integrated policies and addressed unconscious assumptions about aging, education, and contributing to society.

Maryse de la Giroday runs Frogheart Communications and writes several blogs, including FrogHeart – a commentary about nanotech, science policy and communication, society, and the arts.

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  1. Dolores Ewen / September 21, 2011 at 14:36

    Someone is beginning to take a look at reality. At last. At last. In 1970 I made a nuisance of myself by speaking about the utter lack of wisdom in the enforced retirement laws. The lawgivers were myoptic. I forecast then that there would be an imbalance of “the old” who required maintence andn the fewer ‘young poeple” to support them would be over burdened when this state of affairs could be avoided by permitting people to work as long as they wished and were capable of doing so as determined by their competence, not age. Few at that time, and currently recognize that many od the elderly have developed skills which are dependent on practicing them through years of living. I refer to leadership and people skills. The tragedy of the waste of creative talent or other skills is only more emphasized by the practice of assuming all the elderly are homogeneous; One model , one size , one experience for all. Often further education means that it is assumed everyone is at the introductory level and has a ten minute attention span. The Elderly cannot be stereotyped except perhaps in weakening physical aspects. Allowances must be make for ramps for walkers and wheelchairs. Parking lots with places near a door way. More elevators or escalators. The assignment of seniors to separate buildings for education is like putting them in a ghetto. It brings about the stigma that destroys respect and caring and unity. There is much assumed without proof about how seniors should be handled. There is blindness and deafness on the part of the pre-senior population and consequent passiveness and a descent into numbing depression when those who can still handle their own affairs are forced by the ” overwhelming kindness” of some people who want to feel the Hera Complex. The tyrant mother. In this city of Regina the seniors have those eager to place bibs around their necks and a pacifying in their mouths …not so much to soothe as to silence them. I have come from a city of 25000. The seniors in that city compared to the seniors of Regina puts them 20 or more years ahead in progressive and healthy thinking. The seniors of Lloydminster have a voice. The elective executive governs and hires a CEO. Those seniors manage their own publications. They have Dinner Theatre and the seniors learn roles and play to sell out houses. REgina seniors have no Forum for voicing their concerns freely. They are told what concerns them and what they should say . I would like to cry out, ” Rise up and shout the message to all those busy bodies and goody know it alls that we are still capable people who can ask for help when we need it. We can work together with younger folk. Most of us don’t need things done for us , but with us. Often, unfortunately things are done to us. It is time for a Great Grey Rebellion.”

  2. Deanne Fisher / September 22, 2011 at 07:04

    I hope this column marks the beginning of a rethinking of how we (institutionally)see mature learners. I recently had the opportunity to attend a welcome reception for our university’s incoming class of mature students and every student I met had a fascinating story — lives disrupted by revolution, opportunities lost to low expectations or lack of awareness. But what they had in common was a very high motivation to be at university. And in this age of mass disengagement of traditional age students, the value of working side-by-side with a highly motivated and experienced learner cannot be underestimated.

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