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It’s never too late to learn a new skill. –

If there is one word that should be banned from a senior citizen’s vocabulary, it is the word ‘Old’. How can we expect society to have a positive perception of older people when we think of ourselves as ‘old’ – as in ‘‘I’m too old to…”

Words have power. Never ever think we are too old to learn. Our brain cells do not atrophy with age. In fact, they regenerate. Our brain cells get stimulated with new learning. Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity enable us to continue absorbing new knowledge, new skills and new experiences.

These two processes continue throughout our life span. When we think we have lived long enough, seen enough, and there’s nothing more to learn, it is easy to slip into boredom. Life becomes a long stretch of humdrum.

Nothing new, nothing exciting to enjoy or look forward to. On the contrary, the best time to learn new things, to pursue our dreams is in our retirement years. No more nine to five, no more parenting responsibilities. We now have time and savings to learn what we want, with no pressure to sit for exams. Welcome to learning for leisure.

Learning for Leisure

Want to pick up a new skill such as cooking, painting or home repairs D.I.Y? How about learning a new language, a musical instrument or a new dance? Looking for something related to wellness? There’s yoga, tai chi and qigong.

Technology is more your cup of tea? Well, there’s smartphone usage, cloud computing and drone basics, all taught under Digital Technologies. Thinking of setting up a home-based business or a start-up? Enroll for a course on entrepreneurship.

Seniors at a U3A Design Thinking class – designing the ideal wallet 

All the above, and more, are courses offered at University of the Third Age (U3A) at MyAgeing, Universiti Putra Malaysia. When I first read about their Open Day in The Star in 2011, I was so excited. Right away, I registered for several courses. Now 12 years later, I am still taking up courses at U3A. The only difference is most of the courses have gone online via Zoom due to the Covid pandemic. This enables more seniors from outside the Klang Valley to take up courses.

There are more than 40 courses to choose from ranging from art and music to languages and digital skills. Most of the courses run for six weeks with course fees at an affordable RM80 per course.

Aside from U3A, there are 132 Pusat Aktiviti Warga Emas (PAWE) activity centres throughout the country. There are plans to have at least one PAWE in every constituency to promote active learning among the older population. Courses are offered free to enable seniors especially from the B40 group to expand their knowledge and learn new skills that could help them generate some income.

Academic Courses

Seniors who did not have the opportunity to further their studies after high school can now fulfill their dream of obtaining university qualifications.

Doing my MSc in Applied Gerontology
in 2018 at age 70

Compared to the limited number of courses in the 1960s-80s, our universities now offer literally hundreds of degree courses. As Malaysia heads towards ageing nation status, we can expect a surge in university applications from older adults. Yet, our university brochures invariably feature young undergrads fresh out of high school or college. This smacks of ageism, doesn’t it?

Grants, scholarships and loans have an upper age ceiling that shutout applications from older adults. Education has always been seen as a way out of poverty. This applies to young people as well as to older people. But with ageism, opportunities to improve the socio-economic status of retirees and pensioners via higher education remain limited.

Online Resources for Learning

One alternative is to go online for learning resources. With thousands of courses available online, many for free, adult learners are spoilt for choice. All that is required is the determination to complete the courses. Mind you, these courses are offered by some of the world’s top universities like Yale University, University of California, Los Angeles, National University of Singapore and Peking University.

My first Coursera certificate
 from Johns Hopkins, 2013

For those who are interested in online academic courses, you might want to check out Coursera. I signed up for my first online course “Care of Elders with Alzheimer’s Disease” in 2013 through Coursera. My certificate was issued by Johns Hopkins Hospital.

I have done a dozen free online courses since then.

The internet opens up a world of e-learning. It is our go-to virtual library. Knowledge is practically at our fingertips, and just a click away. It’s that simple to enrich our mind.

Unfortunately, there are still many among the older generation who think they are beyond learning anything new.

We seniors have to make the effort to learn digital tools. It is not as daunting as we think. YouTube is an excellent source of learning skills for those whose learning preference is visual rather than textual. You can learn practically anything under the sun, all with just a laptop and a stable internet connection.

There is really no excuse at all for not making the effort to learn because of our age.

Benefits of Lifelong Learning

Use it, or lose it: That applies to our brains as well. If we continue to use our brain, we are exercising it, stimulating it to think, to analyse, to reason, to stay mentally sharp. Learning new things throughout our lifetime can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Our memory improves when we challenge it with learning new skills. Learning something new also boosts self-esteem. When we learn a new skill, we feel a sense of achievement and pride. When we add a new qualification to our name, we earn respect from others. More doors are open to us for employment.

Learning a new skill – at the 24-drums class with other seniors, enjoying the fun and camaraderie of group learning
For me personally, I enjoy the supportive social environment that comes with learning together with others. We form new friendships that are essential for our health and well-being. This is especially important for seniors who live alone or are dealing with stressful events. Going for hikes with friends can turn into a lesson on discovering wild flowers and rare mushrooms.

Visiting a museum or an exhibition can expand our knowledge. Attending a workshop on ChatGPT can help keep us abreast of the latest in digital tools. Everything and anything can be turned into a learning experience if we see it as such. There really is no excuse not to make use of the resources and opportunities available to us to remain mentally sharp as we age. Not doing so may earn us the label that is so often applied to older people – senile or nyanyok.

(This article was first published on 30 August 2023 in The Star under ‘Grey Matters’, a monthly column that focuses on issues and topics of interest and relevance to older persons. Some of my pictures have been added in this blog version to illustrate that age is no barrier to learning.)

Lily Fu is a gerontologist who advocates for seniors. She is founder of SeniorsAloud, an online platform for seniors to get connected and enjoy social activities for ageing well.

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