Can you imagine starting a business at age 60? Teaching a college class for the first time at 70? Playing a daily table tennis game at 80? Rekindling a love of making art at age 90 — with a goal of selling a painting by the time you reach 100?
The increase in the average American lifespan over the last century is an unexpected gift of an extra 20 to 30 years full of possibilities. How we use this extra time can have a profound impact on our communities, as well as on our own individual physical and mental health. There are a few elements to a healthy, empowered longer life, including connecting with others across generations, focusing on what matters most, and seeking moments of joy every day. One of most important of these is learning. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s research has demonstrated, a “growth mindset” — the belief that talents can be developed with practice — positively impacts health and well-being. This mindset, of great importance for the development of schoolchildren, also pays dividends across our lifespan.
Too often, the narrative Americans encounter around aging suggests that it is natural to step back from education upon leaving the workforce due to a lack of compelling economic reasons to gain or update skills. But outside that narrative, there are many examples that tell a different story. In some of the most vibrant older populations around the world, healthy living tends to coincide with continuous learning, as well as regular interactions among older and younger generations.
In Sweden, for instance, older adults — in addition to their flexible housing and health care options — routinely meet in study circles in after-school classrooms, and join community folk dances with people of all ages. In Ikaria, Greece, one of the world’s “Blue Zones,” known for residents’ extreme longevity, older adults participate in music-filled, multigenerational community events, such as outdoor dance festivals and religious gatherings. In Singapore, home to yet another long-lived population, partnerships between young and old are fostered in purposefully designed intergenerational recreational and community centers.
Closer to home, in Newton, Lasell Village, an intergenerational senior living and learning community located on the campus of Lasell University, has introduced new ways to integrate older and younger adults over its 22-year history. The village requires residents to commit to 450 hours of education each year, including classes, physical and cultural engagement, volunteering, and professional work. Why 450 hours? It meets similar educational requirements for its nontraditional older students as for the university’s undergraduates.
In classes on subjects as varied as fashion history communication, forensics, and exercise science, younger and older students and faculty learn from one another. In a popular course on social movements, for instance, classmates swapped personal stories of the women’s movement of the 1970s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today. Older adults returning to campus decades after finishing their formal education often report renewing old interests as well as pursuing new ones, and approaching life with fresh curiosity. The result, as one enthusiastic resident described it, is an “explorer’s” mindset.
Importantly, the knowledge flows both ways; Lasell residents frequently offer their wealth of knowledge and experience for the benefit of younger students. For example, residents and undergraduates partnered to develop a career panel where young people pursuing careers in medicine, business, or education shared conversations with residents who had a lifetime of experience in those fields. A retired physician paired up with an undergraduate student and a graphic design professor to redesign duplicate bridge playing cards for those with low vision, selling the cards at the Carroll Center for the Blind. When COVID-19 disrupted in-person classes, over 50 residents volunteered to teach. There were a dazzling variety of topics drawn from lifelong experiences, ranging from literature to military history and cultural experiences. Several residents even joined a group of PhD researchers at the MIT Media Lab to codesign personal robots to help solve daily needs, such as medication and appointment reminders, or remembering to take their keys.
This shared commitment to continuous learning is a key component of what makes a living and learning model successful. Just as we continue to draw knowledge from communities around the globe, including Sweden, Greece, and Singapore, others are now learning about the Age-Friendly University movement, now endorsed by institutions of higher education on five continents. One of the 10 key principles for Age-Friendly Universities is “to promote intergenerational learning to facilitate the reciprocal sharing of expertise between learners of all ages.”
Aging well means rejecting stereotypes about what it means to grow old. It means looking locally as well as globally for new models. It means integrating intergenerational living and learning models into senior living design to spark innovation and create a sense of purpose. It means looking forward with a sense of possibility.
Recently, a friend in her 70s told me her watchword is “onward.” “We keep going,” she told me. “We embrace opportunities to redefine, reinvent, reimagine . . . to make every new transition rewarding.” That’s advice to live by, at any age.
Anne Doyle is president of Lasell Village.