Researcher Rachel Wu recently sent a group of seniors back to school – and found that they increased certain cognitive abilities to match those of people who are 30 years younger.

Today, the University of California, Riverside, psychology professor tells McKnight’s readers how learning entirely new skills is critical for residents’ cognitive health and for maintaining independence in big and small ways.

Dr. Wu is also featured in this video, presenting the ‘learn like a child’ concept. Her real-world stories about older adult learning can be found in Scientific American.

Q. Can older adults really learn in the same way as children? 

A. Infants and children are thought to learn like sponges, absorbing everything around them effortlessly. However, research has highlighted that there is actually a great deal of effort that goes into learning. For example, parents, caregivers and teachers constantly put a lot of effort into helping infants and children learn. As adults, it is difficult to obtain this level of support from others. How much could adults learn if we are provided with more environmental support, including reduced negative stereotypes? Of course not all aspects of infancy and childhood are applicable to adulthood. However, many important aspects, such as reducing negative stereotypes and providing helpful teachers, are applicable.

Q. Why should we ‘learn like a child’ as adults – and how does growing skills outweigh maintaining skills?

A. Learning naturally increases cognitive abilities, as shown by prior research, especially on lifelong learning. But increasing or maintaining cognitive ability is not the main benefit of learning new skills. Lifelong learning is necessary if one wants to develop and maintain functional independence. With the rapid pace of change, especially with technological advances, older adults will increasingly face situations where they have to choose whether to learn something new or become dependent on others. 

Older adults need not return to school, but some older adults feel as though they are “done” with learning or that learning is for younger people. However, repeatedly engaging in the same activities or even reducing activities does not help one adapt to environmental changes, and therefore leads to functional dependence over time. 

Q. How can caregivers help support seniors to ‘learn like a child’?

A. Caregivers can help create learning opportunities, big and small, for adults, while increasing and maintaining high motivation for learning. They can convey why it is important to keep learning and create a supportive environment that accepts mistakes as part of the learning process. They can even learn alongside seniors to model positive learning experiences.