"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young."

Henry Ford

We've known for a long time that people love to learn and that learning new and novel information is good for our brains. A recent study published by AARP titled Lifelong Learning Attracts Older Adults for Personal Growth, and Cognitive Health revealed that 83% of respondents believe that lifelong learning is the key to an enhanced quality of life. Older adults want to know, and in some cases, they want to learn the science behind living a healthier and longer life.

We know that we all experience both formal and informal learning every day. Often that learning is related to our jobs or a hobby – in some cases, it is as simple as watching a TV program, hearing new information, and commenting to yourself, "I didn't know that." However, the best lifelong learning experience is when we are focused and make a deliberate effort to pay attention.

Lifelong learning has become a popular term in the 21st century. The definition is simple: "continuing to learn throughout one's life." A lifelong learning program is how information and knowledge are delivered. Commonly referred to as voluntary, expansive, and person-centered, in the 21st century, lifelong learning is a positive term.

The difference between lifelong learning and our traditional education system is how lifelong learning is accepted and delivered. Lifelong learning is voluntary-people choose to learn. Lifelong is not a lecture; it is not a class with a test at the end of the semester-it is a way for participants to revisit and reflect on the past and learn about the present, the future, and everything in between. Lifelong learners want the knowledge to understand better how to lead their best life: strong, healthy, and open to new ideas.

The benefits of a lifelong learning program for older adults are significant and should not be ignored. Remaining engaged in the learning process has health benefits for our brain. An article published by the Knute Nelson Foundation titled Lifelong Learning Aids Intellectual Abilities summarizes a few of the benefits that most industry experts promote.

  • Increased neuron generation.
    • If our brain is not challenged with new learning, its capabilities can gradually erode. Recent evidence shows that participation in an ongoing intellectual program contributes to healthier brains and happier people.
  • Reduced risk of dementia.
    • A recent study in JAMA Neurology suggests that lifelong learning may help prevent dementia.
  • Improved ability to handle challenges.
    • Cognitive reserve refers to individual differences in how tasks are performed that may allow some people to be more resilient than others. The concept of cognitive reserve holds out the promise of interventions that could slow cognitive aging or reduce the risk of dementia.
  • More socialization.
    • When we learn, we are engaged in life; when we are engaged in life, we share what we know with others. We receive positive reinforcement, and we can experience joy and happiness.

Our modern world is changing quickly. New technologies and innovations challenge us to remain flexible and open to new things. Implementing a program that consistently and deliberately places learning front and center elevates staff, residents, and family members.

What is 21st-century lifelong learning, and how do we get more? Learning begins with enthusiasm. Emotions are contagious, and residents will follow the lead when we set a good example. Learning happens to all of us every day. Residents are inspired when they have the opportunity to learn new things and share their knowledge with others.