Never Too Old to Go Back To School

By Dr. Kristen Dillon

Ah, the summer is coming to an end and it is time to send the kids back to school. For many older adults this means grandchildren and children are going back to school, but have you ever considering returning to class? The age-old saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks doesn’t apply here. As Dr. Sharon Bragman, chief of geriatrics in Syracuse says, “We have a stereotype of aging activities, and that’s playing shuffleboard or bingo or making crafts out of popsicle sticks, but there’s really no need to suddenly change the way we’ve been active and involved our whole lives just because you’ve gotten older.” In fact, there may be many benefits both physiologically and psychologically associated with returning to school.

Some older adult students have found the younger student’s enthusiasm “contagious” and report they feel more energized (Waugh, 2010). Just getting up to go to class and being active can be healthy for both the mind and body.  Another benefit of returning to school as an older adult is meeting and spending time like-minded people. For some older adults, isolation accompanies older age.  Returning to school is a great way to avoid this experience. Moreover, cognitive benefits also accompany learning and returning to school.  For instance, challenging our brains create new cells at any age and help us to build new connections (Senior Resource, 2013). This can improve problem solving abilities and memory.  So we’ve heard about some of the benefits of returning to school, but other questions that may arise are: how, where, and how much will that cost?

Syracuse University is experimenting with intergenerational classes, which bring together traditional-aged college students and people over 50 (Waugh, 2010). The hope was to bring younger and older students together to learn from each other. The older adults in these classes are members of Oasis, which is a national nonprofit organization that offers educational and volunteer opportunities for people over 50. In 2010, there were 8,000 members of the Oasis Syracuse Chapter and 1200 of these members were enrolled in classes. Class costs vary from $7 for a one-time class to $65 for a series of classes.  Oasis has 25 chapters across the United States (Waugh, 2010). A $10,000 senior citizen tax deduction for higher education also exists, so the cost of returning to school might not be as daunting! Finally, there are many scholarships open to non-traditional and older students; or can be great resources to find information on scholarships and financial aid for the older adult student.

 Another concern that may be on the minds of older adults who are considering going back to school may be associated with being in the classroom with younger adults. However, as Waugh (2010) points out, many students enrolled in the intergenerational class because they wanted to be in a classroom with older adults and found that they learned a lot from them. Furthermore, professors and teachers have found that older adults not only obtain good grades, but also enhance the classroom experience as a whole and even “outshine their younger classmates” (Harke, 2011). Many older adults may be intimidated at first in the classroom, but prove themselves through hard work and class participation.

 So are you considering going back to school as an older adult?  Here are some tips to get you there:

 1. Don’t be intimidated! There are many people over 50 returning to school. In fact, there is a youtube channel called “Plus 50” that features interviews with older students about their experience. Check it out!

2. Figure out what you want to study and how many hours/week you want to spend on classes and assignments.

3. Look into local community colleges, colleges and universities and do research on the school you’re thinking about attending. Ask family members or friends about their experience if they attended the school.

4. Look into scholarships for older adults and contact local colleges and universities to inquire about financial aid for older adults or tuition discounts.

5. Audit classes for free or a reduced price.

6. Talk to students about their experience, especially if the school has any older adult students.

7. Determine if you want an intergenerational classroom or a classroom for only people 50 and older. Some colleges offer continuing education programs for people only 50 and older for 4-8 weeks.

8. Check out resources like or join your local Oasis Program. There are a variety of other older adult educational programs offered by state, so check them out.

Kristen Dillon, Psy.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Massachusetts VA System who specializes in geriatric psychology.


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