Mature and young university students learn from each other


All innovation is characterised by many false starts, but occasionally an event feels like the real deal, a sure sense of a phase-shift in our world. This was the case this month when I found myself sharing the speakers’ platform with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the launch of an international initiative on Age-Friendly Universities led by Dublin City University.

DCU has a reputation for deftly combining the aspirational with the pragmatic, and it is not surprising that it has made the Top 50 Under 50 list of universities, established in 1962. Partners in launching the initiative included the University of Strathclyde and Arizona State University.

Previous attempts by universities to engage with older people have been limited and short-lived, and often undermined by a deadening sense of worthiness. They seemed to provide a service to the “elderly” as some separate and “deserving” group rather than developing a partnership which views older adults as an important group whose participation in university life is enriching for both sides.

Similarly, some university programmes in ageing research give a sense of making gestures to older people as a politically correct appendix to their research.

The DCU approach has been marked by a guiding philosophy that the collective ageing of our population represents a longevity dividend which easily outweighs the societal challenges posed by the complexities of ageing. Perhaps even more critical to their success is their appreciable amount of ground work on developing courses and associated activities which have caught the imagination and participation of older Irish people, as evidenced by the demographic profile of the audience packed into the lecture theatre for the launch.

The 10 principles of the Age-Friendly University developed by DCU have a strong intergenerational flavour, and it is reassuring that there is a close correlation between the aspirational and what is actually offered. In addition to flexible courses, some offered online (DCU is the national centre for distance learning), there are some intriguing fitness and wellness programmes which have an all-age flavour: HeartSmart, BreatheSmart and DiabetesHealthSteps. An open day for older adults, A Taste of DCU, was a wild success, packed to capacity and leading to many taking up courses.

One of the other panel speakers was tangible proof of what can be gained from this approach. Kathy Leahy had worked in a contract catering company all of her life, and her exposure to The Taste of DCU led to enrolment in a communications course. In addition, she had also taken on a part-time role in a fashion show on an Irish television station following a strong performance during Active Ageing Week. Her sincerity, maturity and energy shone through and gave a very grounded flavour to the initiative.

In discussion with DCU staff, the benefits of mixing ages work in many ways, with the older and younger finding complementary support and encouragement from each other on courses. I was reminded of Sir Francis Bacon’s advice in Of Youth and Age: “Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age, may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors.”

The innovative spirit of partnership also seems to infect the research programme in DCU: for example, the highly original research programme looking at memory problems in later life through an approach anchored in the symptoms and concerns of the older people has just gained major European research funding.

Although the research portfolio in DCU may not yet be as extensive as some of the other universities, it has set the tempo and format by which other universities should engage with older people, not only in Ireland but also in what hopefully will be a worldwide movement.

However, perhaps the most striking change is that a key sector of society now recognises that older people are an important resource, and is finally addressing the reality that their relative absence in the life of our universities and institutes of technology impoverishes us all.

Prof Des O’Neill is a consultant in geriatric and stroke medicine

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