Psychology Of Education In Old Age Research Paper

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1. Introduction

From an educational perspective lifespan development can be described as a continuous and active process of coping with developmental tasks, i.e., demands, challenges, and chances that depend on people’s environment and life situation in given phases of the aging process. Specific developmental tasks are conceptualized as a consequence of the interaction between biological maturity, normative conceptions of ‘successful’ aging or development in society and individual plans, aims, needs, and values. The significance of environment and life situation for lifespan development is twofold: first, coping successfully with demands of the environment and life situation increases the potential for coping with future demands and initiates further development; second, chances offered by environment and life situation contribute to the realization of specific developmental gains.

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The here intended understanding of development as a process of personal growth (focusing on stable, not only temporary gains) is connected closely to a concept of education that implies two meanings: the process of being engaged in educational activities (person educating himself ) and the result of this engagement (the educated person). Education does not only lead to the establishment of differentiated knowledge systems, but also facilitates a broader understanding of own experience and action; two developmental gains of high significance.

The insight that developmental gains are possible even in very old age is essential for lifespan developmental psychology. Human development is to be understood as a lifelong process characterized by multidimensionality and multidirectionality (Baltes 1987). Aging implies different processes of change in different dimensions of the person; in each dimension gains and losses can be observed simultaneously; changes in one dimension are a poor predictor of changes in other dimensions. Accumulated and/organized experiences, knowledge systems, and strategies for coping effectively with familiar problems and tasks are important developmental gains (in the sense of psychological growth) in older adulthood; important developmental losses do occur in physiological and neurophysiological functions and processes, c.f. cognitive flexibility, coping with unfamiliar problems and tasks, and speed of information processing (which itself decrease performance of short-term memory) (for an overview see Kruse and Rudinger 1997).

From the perspective of this research paper, education is a precondition for reaching developmental gains as well as for the opportunity to compensate for developmental losses (e.g., via the process of selective optimization with compensation) and for individual abilities to maintain or re-establish a personal satisfying perspective on life in old age.

The first part of this research paper focuses on the importance of lifespan developmental psychology for understanding education in old age. In the following parts the competence-maintaining and competence enhancing functions of education are discussed in the context of three topics: life competencies of the old as a human capital for society, productive life in old age, and potentials for development in old age.

2. Life Span Developmental Psychology And Education

Four conclusions for the understanding of education in old age can be drawn from the results of lifespan developmental psychology.

(a) Accumulated and/organized experiences, differentiated knowledge systems as well as effective strategies for coping with tasks and problems and for taking the chances offered by environmental conditions and life situation must be understood as a consequence of education processes in earlier phases of the lifespan, i.e., active coping with tasks, demands, challenges, and chances in younger years. In this context the considerable continuity of lifelong development becomes clear, since achievements in earlier years extent to later years as long as they are used sufficiently.

(b) The use and further improvement of experiences, knowledge, and strategies for effective action is essential for the realization of developmental gains in old age. This fact points to the importance of education in old age. Generally, there is a sufficient amount of plasticity, i.e., capacity to learn and change. As a consequence, education in old age, aiming to contribute to the use and further improvement of experiences, knowledge, and strategies for effective action, should be able to contribute to effective coping with developmental tasks and ‘successful’ aging. From our perspective, there is a demand for education in old age, since people cannot cope successfully with developmental tasks or realize the potentials offered by cultural innovation (e.g., in the technical field) in old age without engaging in a process of coping with self, life situation, and environment.

(c) Education in old age must not be analyzed only in terms of possible gains, depending on development in earlier phases of the lifespan. Possible developmental losses are of equal importance here. In this context, two aspects should be considered: first, gerontological research could show that cognitive training has an impact on the decline in the ‘mechanics’ of human intelligence, i.e., the basic processes underlying intellectual performance (Kliegl et al. 1989). Moreover, through cognitive training the compensation of specific impairments and losses can be encouraged. Intellectual performance and everyday competence can be improved by new learning and memory strategies that compensate at least in part for deficits in sensory and motor functions. The ‘selective optimization with compensation,’ i.e., the choice (selection) of well-developed functions, skills, and strategies and their differentiation (optimization) with the aim of compensating for losses in other functions, skills, and strategies forms an important basis of ‘successful aging’ (Baltes and Baltes 1990).

(d) In the context of possible developmental losses— especially in very old age—decreases in health status and social integration as well as limitations of life expectancy should be mentioned. However, empirical findings do show that even in very old age most people are able to cope effectively with developmental losses and to maintain or re-establish a personal satisfying perspective on their life, pointing to resilience in old age. It should be noted that resilience is established through personal and environmental resources (for an overview see Kruse and Wahl 1999, Staudinger and Fleeson 1996). Concerning environmental resources, gerontological studies show that the opportunity to participate in cultural and social activities that offer stimulation and support promotes effective coping with developmental losses. These findings can be interpreted as support for an educational perspective that points to the significance of education for coping with critical life events, e.g., via providing information about effective coping strategies or institutional services. In the case of definite losses in certain functions and skills (e.g., visual impairment as a result of macular degeneration), compensation (e.g., use of cassettes or touch-typing) as well as increased engagement in interests and activities where these functions and skills are not necessary can be interpreted in two ways: first, as a process of education, second, as encouraged by educational activities. Several intervention studies show the possible impact of educational opportunities on the effectiveness of individual coping processes (see the overview in Wahl et al. 2000).

From the here intended understanding of education and its effects, the close relationship between education and competence becomes clear. The latter is defined as the skills and abilities to maintain or re-establish an independent, task-oriented, and personally meaningful life in a stimulating, supportive (physical, social, and infrastructural) environment, encouraging self-responsible coping with problems, developmental tasks, and challenges (Kruse 1995).

In old age education has competence-maintaining and competence-enhancing functions, i.e., the rationale of providing educational programs and services for the old is to offer opportunities for using and further improving competencies. In the following, our discussion will concentrate on three topics that proved to be important for gerontological research as well as for societal perception and valuation of old age: (a) life competencies of the old as a human capital for society; (b) productive life in old age; (c) potentials for development in old age.

3. Life Competencies Of The Old As A Human Capital For Society

The term life competencies refers to experiences, strategies, and knowledge systems that people have acquired in earlier phases of the lifespan (i.e., our understanding of education as a result of active coping with the challenges and demands of the environment and life situation in a given period of life). Life competencies are built up in the context of effective coping and enable people to maintain or re-establish a personal satisfying perspective on their life when confronted with serious problems, tasks, and challenges in later years. Building up life competencies in earlier years is a basic requirement for successful development in advanced age, i.e., effective coping with demands of life in old age. Such demands include practical and psychological as well as interpersonal and ethical demands. Consequently, our understanding of life competencies is not limited to the experiences, strategies, and knowledge systems acquired in the context of occupational activities.

Life competencies are also reflected in ethical judgements, voluntary activities for other people, as well as in the willingness and readiness to take responsibility for oneself, for others, or for society. In this context it should be mentioned that empirical findings show that active coping with developmental tasks and the chances and limits of life can lead to the establishment of ‘expert knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ with respect to questions of life (see Smith and Baltes 1990). Expert knowledge or wisdom is not limited to old age, it can be developed in earlier years as well. The only prerequisite for the development of expert knowledge or wisdom is the conscious and responsible preoccupation with a multitude of problems, tasks, and challenges in different periods of life and different contexts of development. Therefore empirical findings support a perspective on lifelong educational processes that accentuates the development of the person rather than the cultivation of specific knowledge and skills (Kruse 1997).

With the term human capital we refer to the significance of life competencies for society and culture, i.e., processes of initiating societal and cultural change and the extent to which societal and cultural change is determined by life competencies of the old. Societal and cultural development depends on the possibility to use individual life competencies. It is here necessary to establish the respective infrastructural conditions, e.g., opportunities for volunteers to qualify and to use given experiences, strategies, and knowledge systems effectively.

The contribution of specific educational services to the realization and use of life competencies of the old, i.e., the conversion of individual life competencies into human capital, is of interest for educational research and practice. In a later part of this research paper we revert to educational services in which (a) an intergenerational perspective is put forward (i.e., members of different generations are addressed) and (b) individual experiences, strategies, and knowledge systems are made explicit and used by stimulating a dialogue or discourse. At this point we are content with stating that, for example, stimulating an exchange between the young and the old by inviting older people to visit schools, to participate in specific lessons (e.g., on history), and to engage in the transmission of experiences and knowledge is appreciated equally by the young and the old. In establishing intergenerational contact which enables people to realize and use specific life competencies, the challenge for educational practice is twofold: first, experiences, strategies, and knowledge systems must be explored and integrated systematically; second, discussion or discourse must be initiated and guided with methodological competence.

4. Productive Life In Old Age

Even if productivity is commonly associated with the making of things (production) and material values, and—consequently—speaking of productive life in old age generally refers to societal productivity, i.e., enrichment, promotion, maintenance, and relief of social systems, the term productivity is neither restricted to participation in the labor market or voluntary activities nor confined to manual expression (Baltes and Montada 1996). Instead, an adequate definition of productivity must also consider intellectual, emotional, and motivational expressions of productivity. Using an extended definition of productivity, several possibilities of leading a productive life in old age can be distinguished: being interested in development, living conditions, and vital interests of younger people, the transmission of information to younger generations and the (self-)responsible reflection of experiences and knowledge systems of younger generations are examples of intellectual and emotional productivity in old age, since intergenerational discourses can initiate emotional and intellectual differentiation in older and younger participants. Moreover, by leading an independent and responsible life, even when confronted with serious problems or borderline situations, older people can give a good example of how to cope with problems and difficulties to younger people, i.e., build a productive context for others: an illustrative example of emotional and motivational aspects of productivity (see Kruse 1995, Baltes and Montada 1996).

From this context it becomes apparent that even the dialogue between young and old can be understood as an educational process in which young and old people can enrich each other by exchanging specific experiences and knowledge as well as general life competencies (see examples in Wahl et al. 2000). For our understanding of education in old age, two conclusions can be drawn: first, older people are able to fulfill educational functions for others by offering skills, experiences, and knowledge or by leading an independent and responsible life which can be regarded as exemplary for younger generations. However, it should be mentioned that for fulfilling educational functions for others it is essential that the transmission of experience and knowledge is free from prejudiced beliefs which presuppose that own knowledge is superior to knowledge of other people and that— therefore—others have to be instructed to adopt their experiences and knowledge systems. Second, dialogue and discourse with younger people can initiate further development. In our view, intergenerational discourse is an important means to realize potentials for development. From the reports of services and institutions concerned with education in old age, it seems obvious that intergenerational encounters—either informal or in the context of formal educational settings—do have significant impact on developmental processes in the young and in the old and therefore should be promoted intensively.

5. Potentials For Development In Old Age

Cognitive training programs and programs for maintaining and improving everyday competence (i.e., skills and abilities for leading an independent and responsible life and for coping effectively with problems, tasks, and challenges of environment and current life situation) have proven to be effective in numerous empirical studies (for a review see Wahl and TeschRomer 1998). Findings do indicate an apparent cognitive and behavioral plasticity which can be explained by functional and morphological changes in neuronal networks. Functional plasticity refers to the increased resting potential of neurons (on the basis of which cellular excitation processes can be speeded up), morphological plasticity refers to the production of new synapses and enrichment of dendrite growth in continuous activation processes (Kruse and Rudinger 1997). However, if there is a lack of continuous stimulation in sensory, sensorimotor, and cognitive functions, the probability of losses in cognitive and everyday competence—especially in very old age— increases dramatically. This special risk is caused by increased vulnerability of physiological and neurophysiological systems in old age. Baltes (1984) refers to developmental contexts characterized by a lack of stimulation and training of functions as ‘intelligence decelerating’ environments.

Losses resulting from insufficient stimulation and training can be traced back to a loosening of neuronal switch-off mechanisms, to reduced capacity of the synapses, and to a reduced number of dendrites. For this reason the statement can be made that a certain amount of stimulation and activation as well as a certain amount of training cognitive and everyday competencies is a necessary condition for maintaining an independent and responsible life in old age. In this context it should be mentioned that even an independent, responsible, and personally meaningful organization of daily activities alone can offer a sufficient amount of stimulation, activity, and training of cognitive and everyday competencies; this leads us back to the former statement that informal educational activities (such as continuous use) contribute to education in old age. Therefore intervention measures for maintaining and enhancing competencies in old age should not only be restricted to the improvement of individual skills and abilities but also consider the importance of environmental conditions for the relationship between competencies and actual performance.


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