Older Adults and Informal Learning

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


The percentage of older adults (65+) in the United States is expected to double by 2050, a trend that has great implications for changes to society and the potential for an increase in demand for informal learning opportunities. Older adults are currently an underserved audience for most informal science learning settings. 6 of 10 older adults use the internet, with a large gap between younger, and higher SES seniors and older lower SES seniors (PEW, 2012).

For an overview of issues for seniors and some Informal Science Education projects and programs see a special issue of ASTC dimensions.  Fifty plus: Engaging today’s active aging adults with articles from a 2007 conference on older adults and museums.

Valuing the expertise of older adults in community learning. Several NSF projects have included community elders as experts in the content development phase. (link to some. Review and see how they are similar or different).

In terms of research on older adults as learners, the focus has primarily been upon the following issues:

  • How to help seniors learn about health issues
  • Using learning as a means to ward off aging issues: mental decline, social isolation, etc.
  • Seniors as civic actors, issues of volunteerism, political engagement or community activism
  • Seniors’ roles in family structures (as grandparents, intergenerational communication, with adult children, etc.) (Barranti, 1985; Reitzes & Multran, 2004).
  • In museum settings, seniors are often focused on as facilitators of others’ learning.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Smiraglia (2016) conducted a review of (mostly UK based) programs in museums for older adults and identified five types of programs are commonly offered:  reminiscence, art, object-oriented, storytelling, and lectures. Reminiscence programs involved facilitated memory sharing discussions, or object based discussions. Object-based programs used objects to discuss history or object function.  Art based programs involved museum tours, or art studio workshops. Storytelling program (only 2 were documented) involved using an object or photograph as a prompt for creative writing. Lectures were lectures marketed specifically to seniors or seniors groups. Smiraglia found that 64% of the senior programs she found were not evaluated. Of those programs that were evaluated most of the outcomes involved increased social interaction and improved mood. Many of these programs were designed as wellbeing events for  seniors, and not to extend lifelong learning goals particularly.

Some projects have been done that involve the grandparent/grandchild experience in informal settings, but the lens is typically directed primarily at the role of the older adult in assisting with the child’s learning (Sanford, Knutson, Crowley 2007; Leinhardt & Knutson, 2006), or the potential for youth to influence their families on issues encountered in informal learning experiences (ie. Ballantyne Fien, & Packer, 1998).

In a study that emerged from the Science Across the Generations NSF project, Sanford Knutson & Crowley (2007) studied grandparents and grandchildren learning about science from exhibitions, a program, and a website experience. One interesting finding was that grandparents often adopt a “teacherly” role in informal activities with their grandchildren, as this is how they understand the experience–as a learning opportunity to support and scaffold for their children.  

Some research has been done suggesting that the promotion of lifelong learning among older adults can significantly contribute to community wellbeing. Active and educated seniors are less draining upon family and community resources, and they have significant experience to contribute to community wellbeing. (ref)

Directions for Future Research 

More research is required to explore the ways in which older adults might serve as resources for their families, neighborhoods and communities.

What are some specific strategies that work to engage older adults in learning in informal settings?


ASTC dimensions. (2007, Jan, Feb.) Fifty plus: Engaging today’s active aging adults. Available at: http://www.informalscience.org/museums-and-older-adults-senior-perspective

Ballantyne, R, Connell, S. &  Fien, J. (1998). Students as catalysts of environmental change: a framework for researching intergenerational influence through environmental education. Environmental Education Research (1998) 4(3), pp. 285–298.

Barranti, C. (1985). The grandparent/grandchild relationship: Family resource in an era of voluntary bonds. Family Relations, 34, 343-352.

Leinhardt, G. & Knutson, K. (2006). Grandparents speak: Museum conversations across the generations. Curator, 49 (2), 235-252.

O’Connell, P. S. 1990. “Older Learners in a Museum: A Comparison of Two Groups of Elderhostel Participants on Measures of Motivation, Learning Styles, and Demographic Variables.” PhD Dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Reitzes, D., & Multran, E. (2004). Grandparent identity, intergenerational family identity, and well-being. Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59B(4), S213–S219.

Sanford, C., Knutson, K., Crowley, K. (2007). “We Always Spend Time Together on Sundays”: How Grandparents and Their Grandchildren Think About and Use Informal Learning Spaces. Visitor Studies, 10 (2), 136-151.

Smiraglia, C. (2016), Targeted Museum Programs for Older Adults: A Research and Program Review. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59: 39–54. doi: 10.1111/cura.12144