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old-dog...new-tricks

I have heard so many people including my ex-wife say “I cannot use a computer it’s too difficult.”” They say this like it’s a badge of honor. Like clinging to the past is an appropriate way to honor their generation. This is akin to the car enthusiast who buys a car which he drove as a teenager, spends his weekends fixing it up so that it looks just like the one he drove on saturday night oh those many years ago. maybe once or twice a month he’ll take this relic on the road and spit toxic fumes into the grills of cars that trail after him. Well, this is not the norm.

Although the stereotype persists that older adults are ‘stuck in their ways,’ close-minded and uninterested in learning, the evidence is quite to the contrary. For decades the prevailing thinking in neuroscience was that the adult human brain was essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by adulthood we were pretty much stuck with what we had. But with new research has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of ‘neuroplasticity’ – the ability to change structure and function in response to experience. This, coupled with Boomers thirst for new knowledge and skills, has created a growing popularity for lifelong learning. In fact, the number of college students ages 40 to 64 has jumped by almost 20% to nearly 2 million in the past decade. And those numbers are expected to keep growing as more and more mid-life adults return to school to reinvent themselves, once again.

In an AARP study published in July 2000, 9 out of 10 adults ages 50 and over said they wanted to actively seek out learning opportunities to keep current, grow personally and enjoy the simple pleasure of mastering something new. Research also continues to highlight the importance of lifelong learning as a prescription for a longer, healthier life — keeping minds active and people socially connected and engaged. And while the old-fashioned ways of learning something new — reading a book or taking a class at a local college — are still popular, many mid-life adults are also embracing online education and other new technologies. Today, mid-life adults who graduated from college 30+ years ago are returning to take classes in everything from Italian to modern film, from mastering investing to creating a Web page, to traveling the world. As mid-life adults return to their studies, learning institutions are accommodating them with flexible schedules, satellite campuses, online courses and the like. Mid-life adults are teaching the world that you CAN teach “an old dog new tricks!”

As stewards of lifelong learning, libraries are well positioned to become cornerstone institutions for mid-life adults, productive aging, and the life of the mind IF they can also appeal to them with new, intriguing and flexible approaches to learning.

So put that old mustang back in the garage and plug into the future.

Parts of this article are referenced from Transforming Life After Fifty