Ageing mentally strong and leading a healthy, active life
Above: USC Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Helen Bartlett with Bursary awardees, Abbey Abdul and Leo Wiles, with President Glyni Cumming.
Keynote speaker at the recent U3A AGM, USC Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Helen Bartlett highlighted the importance of lifelong learning to the ageing demographic and its positive influence on the phase of life termed ‘The Third Age’.
“Research has shown that countries that don’t have good learning communities and networks are disadvantaged when it comes to demographic ageing,” Professor Bartlett said. “Australia has a lot to learn from other countries such as Japan and Singapore that are well ahead of us in terms of their plans and policies related to ageing.
“Importantly, we also need to showcase and recognise the type of learning that takes place, as in organisations such as U3A, as a valuable asset in the ageing process. We still have a lot to do especially in this triple helix relationship between learning, health and community so it’s not just about individual responsibility in active ageing but also a community responsibility.”
One in five people on the Sunshine Coast are aged 55 and over, the highest ratio nationally, and that demographic is growing all the time. While the Sunshine Coast is a great place to live, Professor Bartlett said aged care is not always a positive story, even with the advances in health and medical science and education.
“The ageing discourse often tends to be quite a negative one, and the report from the Royal Commission into Aged Care really is a sad reflection of how we treat our older people; let’s hope the Commission’s recommendations lead to investment in ways to better look after our ageing population,” Professor Bartlett said. “Unfortunately, the discourse around ageing has tended to be one of dependency and decrepitude.”
As an internationally recognised scholar in gerontology, Professor Bartlett established the Australasian Centre on Ageing while at the University of Queensland, and her team looked at ways to change this dynamic to one of positive influence in community ageing.
“Obviously, we can’t ignore that ageing comes with a number of debilitating consequences, with an increased prevalence of cancer, dementia, depression, diabetes and so on, all associated with ageing, but that doesn’t mean that growing older has to be a fast route to decline,” Professor Bartlett said. “There are many moderating interventions that can change that trajectory and substantially improve the ageing discourse.
“Twenty years ago the World Health Organisation came up with the active ageing framework and this is still relevant today, but in the early years it focused primarily on physical activity as most important and in making a kind of productive or economic contribution as we age.
“Today, we see this framework as continuing to focus certainly on being active but also being involved in a whole range of things: informal learning activity along with social, economic, cultural and physical activity. This is not only about being human but also recognising there are a whole raft of things we can do to make things better in the Third Age of one’s life.”
Professor Bartlett said there had been a lot of research in the health and medical field on ageing but not so much on later life learning.
“The research is still evolving but what we do know that learning does help older adults acquire psycho-social resources; it helps to build so many things related to self esteem, hope, communication, social integration and the like. These resources help us manage some of the less positive aspects of health decline associated with ageing.
“We also know of the importance of learning to mental health, in turn, linked to general wellbeing and coping with adversity. Learning also helps take the focus away from day-to-day health and medical worries that can become a bit of a preoccupation in stages of later life.”
Professor Bartlett also said the research has shown that continued engagement in learning activities, especially on a weekly basis, really does increase the ongoing motivation that impacts positively on mental and physical health. “It provides a lot of satisfaction and of course friendships and connections, reducing the risk of social isolation in later life,” she said.
“Interestingly, a good education in itself won’t actually stop decline; we know that some kind of intervention is important to help improve psychological wellbeing and physical health over time.”
Professor Bartlett said the type of learning is also important. “We know from the research that formal higher education courses such as those at university aren’t necessarily associated with wellbeing. Where the benefits have really been shown to be effective is with informal learning, such as people experience in U3A classes, learning activity that doesn’t result in formal qualifications but appeals in increasing knowledge in an area of interest or helping to create hobbies, etc. These informal learning activities are definitely linked with improved social and psychological wellbeing.”
Timing is also regarded as important, such as coping with a loss of status on leaving paid work or ceasing caring duties. For many people this can leave a void so some kind of structured activity as we age can help us get through a difficult time, even prosper doing meaningful things with like-minded people.
“This can also impact positively on their relevance in society generally. At the end of the day, the motivational factors in learning later in life are well known in establishing wellbeing, social connections, heightened independence and maintaining the cultural values of the particular generational cohort.”
How a society promotes later life learning may not have received the policy and planning emphasis it deserves, according to Professor Bartlett, particularly in preparing for the Third Age of one’s life, and there needs to be a recognition of Third Agers as drivers, wanting to take on learning opportunities and as facilitators as well as learners.
“Australia is no longer a new country and we have a lot to learn from other countries, particularly in our region, in building local and global consciousness of the importance of learning and citizenship as we age,” Professor Bartlett said. “We all have a role to play in this, and U3A is playing a critical role in this region and other parts of the world – and institutions such as our own universities also have a role in opening up new opportunities for learning for Third Agers.”