Age-Friendly Universities: Interview with Christine O’Kelly

2016-2017 Issue 1

With most western countries set to experience a shift in demographics towards larger older populations, universities like Dublin City University (DCU) are getting proactive and improving inclusivity on-campus. Christine O’Kelly has been a key driver for change towards greater inclusivity of mature learners in Ireland and internationally.

O’Kelly, the coordinator of the Age-Friendly University (AFU) network sixteen universities large, was the keynote speaker at the McGill Community of Lifelong Learning (MCLL)’s Symposium on November 3rd. We sat down with O’Kelly during her stay in Montreal to learn about why the concept of age-friendly is important not just for universities, but also for society at large.

What does it mean to be age-friendly? A defining feature of age-friendly universities is the implementation of holistic strategies that include and actively engage older learners at the community and university level, rather focusing on tailored programs. The past is the future, and O’Kelly is equally as concerned with older learners as she is with younger generations.

The driving philosophy is reciprocity. “It should be a reciprocal arrangement where we’re gaining from them being on-campus and their gaining from us, that’s supporting healthy and positive aging,” explains O’Kelly. “We want people to remain engaged, to be active, to be informed, and to have social opportunities.”

For those entering retirement or relieved of family duties, a sense of purpose and drive may be needed. “Their purpose in life is now questioning what they are going to do,” explains O’Kelly. “A self-evaluation of where you are and where you want to be is important.” The first step at DCU is often coming for a cup of tea, starting with a lifelong learning program, and perhaps branching out into the university’s other offerings.

Student volunteers instruct free computer classes at DCU, often the first stop for someone looking to start learning again. Stereotypes are broken down on both sides – older learners are exposed to other cultures and backgrounds, while younger students see the diversity amongst older learners.

“Our students are the leaders and employers of tomorrow, they will realize that [older] people have loads of experience and that they can learn from engaging with older learners,” explains O’Kelly. A key principle of age-friendly universities is to encourage intergenerational learning for the benefit of both older and younger learners.

“Students [involved in our programs] have gone on to do research projects on their own because it ignites an interest in them,” explains O’Kelly. Graduate students are connected to relevant topics to study and the whole research community benefits.

Lecturers of older learners may also be reinvigorated and challenged by their different learning style. “Older students always ask questions and engage in the lecture,” says O’Kelly. “That encourages dialogue.”

A learner style that favours discussion and active participation is common among older learners. The McGill Community of Lifelong Learners holds peer learning and active participation as the two cornerstones of their curriculum.

Embracing the diversity of learning styles and age throughout a university community is important and can be supported through collaboration. “It’s all around creating strategic and collaborative partnerships,” adds O’Kelly. “We try to find the gaps and identify what we can do better.”

Keeping an inclusive mindset is key. “You are aging every single day, and we are all in this together,” adds O’Kelly. “It’s up to us to embrace that and start talking about the opportunities for aging rather than focus on the negative aspects.”

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