Older, and wiser, students

Colleges are catering to a rapidly-growing section of the population: retirees

Colleges and universities are increasingly shifting their focus towards “lifelong learning”, identified as a key growth area in education over the coming years. Photo: iStock

Colleges and universities are increasingly shifting their focus towards “lifelong learning”, identified as a key growth area in education over the coming years. Photo: iStock


Donal Denham attends lectures but doesn’t worry about grades or cramming for finals. He’s not trying to earn a new degree or retrain for a new career. At 67 years of age, he just wants to learn with other like-minded adults.

For more than 40 years, Denham enjoyed a busy career in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

While retirement for some means finally taking the time to relax, the Dublin man had no such intentions. So, last year, he set up a branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.

“I had always led a busy life and found it very difficult to adjust to being retired,” admits the father of four.

“But while visiting family in Australia in 2016, I discovered a group called U3A and was immediately intrigued. When I came back to Ireland, I decided to start something similar here.”

Age Action was one step ahead of him and had established several lifelong learning groups. With the organisation’s help, and other like-minded locals, he established a local branch.

“We held a meeting to see if there would be any interest and in September 2016, 90 people turned up and 60 signed up on the spot – we were ready to start,” Denham says.

“We started with a class once a fortnight, but now there is one every week with lectures and discussions on all sorts of topics and we also now run conversational German classes.

“ It’s a fantastic initiative and without a doubt helps to keep us positive, motivated and young – without this, or something like it, I’m sure I would have meandered into oblivion.”

What’s happening in Dún Laoghaire is part of a much wider trend.

Colleges and universities are increasingly shifting their focus towards “lifelong learning”, identified as a key growth area in education over the coming years.

Over the next 30 years, the total number of people in Ireland aged 65 years and older is projected to more than double and the number of those aged more than 85 years to quadruple.

In fact, there will be more adults over the age of 60 than there are children under the age of five.

Many older people are seeking new challenges. Lifelong learning programmes position themselves as communities where participants not only take on challenging subjects, but also seek to engage more deeply with their fellow students.

DCU, for instance, has been involved in an initiative to highlight the role that higher education institutions can play in responding to the opportunities linked to an ageing society.

Christine O’Kelly, DCU’s age-friendly university co-ordinator, says: “In an ever shrinking world, where businesses and trade are becoming increasingly global, higher education is often a passport to a new life which opens up wonderful new opportunities at any age.”

The DCU programme is aimed primarily at people over-50, but anyone can join – with free computer classes, online options, access to existing academic modules and different health and fitness programmes available to participating students.

It also has a “Love of Lifelong Learning Programme”, which includes modules in genealogy, psychology and writing.

This programme has attracted more than 200 entrants which, together with existing students, will bring the number of older people on campus taking part in various activities and programmes to more than 1,000.

‘Challenge stereotypes’

“Academic courses for older people challenges stereotypes,” says O’Kelly. “They also provide social interaction and help establish new relationships, while keeping the mind active and promoting a sense of purpose, mentoring opportunities and healthy and active ageing.

“Lifelong learning also promotes the longevity dividend and the exchanges on many levels between old and young.

“Plus it helps to bridge the loss of identity some people feel on retirement and provides a platform for debate and discussion to inform policy and contribute to research.”

O’Kelly says DCU classes are open to and attended by people from all walks of life.

“We have all sorts of participants on our programmes, from those with third-level education and those from work environments to those who never worked outside the home or who left education early,” she says.

“Many people have had a negative experience with education or simply didn’t have the opportunity to pursue second- or third-level and I get lots of calls from people who tell me they left school at 14 – yet these people have lived a life, working in skilled jobs or raising a family whilst volunteering in the community.

“What people sometimes don’t realise is that they have a lifetime of experience and that in the classroom everyone is there to learn and many are very pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it is.

“So I would always advise people to give it go. They are over the first hurdle by picking up the phone but it is important to provide support and we are always available for a chat and to talk things through.”

Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communication at Age Action, agrees that continuing to learn is the cornerstone of maintaining a positive outlook.

“None of us ever really stop learning and later life can be a great time to focus on something that really interests you,” he says.

“There are lots of lifelong learning groups around the country, with people learning new languages or new skills and having a great time doing it.

“So don’t let anyone hold you back, tell you that you’re too old for something or that you’re past trying new things.”

Donal Denham says the weekly meetings at his branch of U3A cover a wide range of topics and always offer stimulating discussion.

“We are lucky enough to have been visited by some wonderful speakers and lecturers on a variety of different subjects,” he says.

“So far, our current affairs programme has covered terrorism, Brexit, the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

“I am currently chairing the steering group and we have plenty of other interesting events coming up but when I pass on the role to the next chairperson, I will continue to take the classes – and maybe even heckle from the back of the room.

“Joking aside, it is a very important undertaking for all of us retirees and I truly believe in the benefit of lifelong learning – just because you reach a certain age, it doesn’t mean you have to stop living the life you enjoyed.”

Lifelong learning opportunities:

University of the Third Age: The movement – also known as U3A – is a group of retired and semi-retired people who come together to continue their educational, social and creative interests in a friendly and informal environment.

In Ireland, the concept was introduced by Age Action and today there are 25 U3A groups located around the country with a further four about to come on-stream.

Groups range in size from 12 to 200 and activities include educational talks, creative writing, gardening, computer literacy, outings and much more.

Further information:


Age-friendly universities: DCU introduced the concept of an age-friendly university five years ago.

These are colleges which seek to enhance the lives of older members of society through innovative educational programmes and health and wellness activities. Trinity College Dublin has since jointed the network,

Classes in DCU are open to everyone – no previous qualifications are necessary. As part of its “love of lifelong learning programme”, it provides modules in psychology, life writing, politics, economics, genealogy and digital photography.

Students can work towards credits for an award which costs €500 or they can attend classes without taking exams or assignments for a fee of €100.

Members who join the Lifelong Learning Association will be invited to attend four workshops per semester and various social activities, as well as receiving a regular newsletter.