How does older adult education contribute to older people’s active citizenship and participation in society? To what extent does it help them become aware of their rights and enable them to commit to social justice?


Older adult education is about combining disciplinary knowledge and triggering experiential knowledge contributed by both learners and educators. It is also about fostering new learning. But that is not all — the education of older people, who society pushes to the margins, is meant to empower them to become active, participating and contributing citizens. Only committed and engaged older adults (older women) become rights holders, enjoying and supporting greater social justice.

Module in a nutshell

The module consists of three units followed by Check Your Understanding and References.

  • Unit 1. Older adults and the importance of their social engagement
  • Unit 2. Contribution of adult education to women’s social participation and activism
  • Unit 3. Being rights holders in old age
  • Check your understanding. Are the following statements True or False?
  • References

Unit 1. Older adults and the importance of their social engagement


Life expectancy throughout the world has been increasing over the past centuries, along with scientific development. This has resulted in opportunities and solutions that allow the older portion of the world’s population to grow and reach new stages of life. Old age is a term that nowadays primarily refers to people above 65 years of age, as stated by the World Health Organisation (2011). However, there are countries in which this threshold is lower, for example, Australia, where the baseline is 50 years (OFTA, 2019), and Africa, where it is 55 years (Sagner, Kowal, Dowd, 2002).

Despite the different numbers defining it, which have been changing and will keep changing with time, old age actually represents the final stage within the life cycle for all people. Limited mobility, increased frailty and susceptibility to disease, injuries and sickness compared to younger adults, are all factors that characterize old age.  (WHO, 2011). There are many changes in old age in terms of family and social interaction, work relations, learning opportunities and leisure time (WHO, 2011; OFTA, 2019).

Older people often face aged-based stereotypes — oversimplified and exaggerated beliefs about people or events — that may be positive or negative. But stereotypes distort reality and leave aside the particularities. Stereotypes often inhibit the engagement of older people in their community and their personal life. To illustrate this point, we are sure that all of you have heard about older people being less productive compared to younger adults, that they cannot learn well due to their old learning patterns, that they are wise but forgetful (OFTA, 2019). Some older people might be forgetful, but not necessarily all of them.

Why is the engagement of older adults so important? Older people are experts and possess social and cultural capital essential for the community, and that cannot be lost. Let’s take a look at the benefits of older adults’ engagement (OFTA, 2019).

Benefits for themselves:

  • They feel valued
  • Their confidence and enjoyment of life increase, while their health and well-being improve
  • They get more opportunities to express their ideas and needs, knowing that their opinions matter
  • Their trust in governmental institutions improves
  • Their sense of achievement grows
  • They can help dispel myths and stereotypes associated with aging


Benefits for governmental institutions:

  • They learn from older people’s diverse knowledge and experience
  • They gain a better understanding of the opportunities offered by a large and growing consumer market
  • They may benefit from older people’s experiences in social activism
  • They are more trusted responding to community ideas
  • They may be at the front of a whole new approach of ageing

Benefits for the community:

  • It may learn from older adults’ knowledge and experience
  • It may benefit from the help, work, time, social connections and everything else that older people are willing to offer
  • It may develop intergenerational relations, proving that communities that support all ages are good for all generations
  • It will become more cohesive, able to use more social capital and promote ownership over decisions
  • The quality of its decisions and its outcomes for the community will increase

Unit 2. Contribution of adult education to women’s social participation and activism

Despite the steps made on the road of gender equity over the years, women are still considered a vulnerable category. As with older people, women are prone to a series of stereotypes that inhibit them from being entirely socially and politically engaged. The more these two criteria intertwine, the more difficult it is for older women to bring their contribution to the community.

Social participation is defined as the involvement of an individual in activities that provide interaction with other members of the society or community outside their home or family environment (Aroogh, Shahboulaghi, 2020). Social participation is based on social relationships and involves actions through which personal resources are shared with others. Depending on the type of personal resources shared, there may be three types of social participation (Aroogh, Shahboulaghi, 2020):

  • Community/collective social participation
  • Productive social participation
  • Political social participation, which involves making decisions on social groups. This type of social participation may also be referred to as social activism, as it involves efforts directed to make political or social change.

Social and civic competence is fundamental to each person in a knowledge-based society. It is expressed through a person’s ability to participate effectively and constructively in social and working life and engage actively in increasingly diverse societies (Brand, Schmidt-Behlau, 2019). So, the question is: How do we encourage women in general and especially older women for community and political social participation? Research results across several case studies suggest that adult education programmes play a key role in how adult learners, either young or older, male or female, understand and experience active social participation (Brand, Schmidt-Behlau, 2019). Thus, the key for engaging women, including older women, in social participation and active citizenship is meant to help them:

  • Get to know their own resources and how to put them better to use
  • Feel empowered to act on behalf of their beliefs
  • Experience the feeling that their voice and opinions matter
  • Understand the principles of civil society and social change
  • Find their motivation towards a cause and shape their own voice.

In order to achieve all these goals, the adult education programmes — all the forms of learning undertaken by mature individuals — designed for triggering women’s social participation and activism should be focused on three key dimensions (DGR-EC, 2003):

  • Capacity – Developing a sense of agency, competence and ability to affect change
  • Responsibility – Taking responsibility for some social issue, responding to and coping with a challenge
  • Identity – Forming one’s personal identity, developing convictions, opinions, ideas, connections between and about oneself and other people.

In this respect, adult education programmes have the potential to raise awareness, structure knowledge, shape attitudes, nurture personal resources, and mould community and civic competences, all of which are imperative to promote socially active women and older people.

Unit 3. Being rights holders in old age

Every human has rights, and these rights do not diminish as people age. In some political arenas, it is believed that older adults should have more specific rights than the younger adults. In this respect, the United Nations has been debating the Convention of the Rights of Older Persons for decades, but is has not yet been adopted.

The rights of older people often cross paths with age-based stereotypes. For instance, older people are often perceived as a burden on younger generations, which might be true in the cases where the state has a resource deficit. Still, if older people are allowed to continue to earn money through work, and if they have pensions or savings, they can actually support younger people by paying for grandchildren’s toys, clothes or leisure time or by helping with paying mortgages or monthly car payments. Instead of promoting the idea of dependency on social protection systems, policymakers may focus on empowering older people to be active and self-sufficient.

Having rights includes the right to participate, the right to hold one’s views, the right to make decisions and to have a say in government decision-making (OFTA, 2019). All people, including older people, have personal resources, including time, skills, competencies, knowledge, that may be put to good use in the community. Each older person can find their own place within the social system in a positive way, in a manner that is not a burden for other generations, but an added value. Thus, stimulating community, and productive and political social participation is a healthy way of making older adults benefit from their rights and, furthermore, “unburdening” the younger generations.

Undertaking a partnership approach with older people means that the outcomes and benefits are shared. Treating older people as equals along with other stakeholders is important to increasing trust, and creating collaborative working relationships and genuine partnerships (OFTA, 2019). It is like the African proverb goes: “Those who respect the elderly pave their own road toward success.”

Aroogh, M. D., Shahboulaghi, F. M. (2020). “Social participation of Older Adults: A Concept Analysis”. In International Journal Community Based Nurs Midwifery, 8 (1), p. 55-72, World Wide Web:
Link, retrieved March-April 2021.

Brand, B., Schmidt-Behlau, B. (2019). The Contribution of Adult Education to Active Participatory Citizenship. DVV International. World Wide Web:
link, retrieved February-April 2021.

Directorate-General for Research – European Commission (DGR-EC) (2003). Lifelong Learning, Governance and Active Citizenship in Europe. ETGACE project – final report. Brussels. World Wide Web:
link, retrieved February-April 2021.

Office for the Aging (OFTA) (Government of South Australia) (2019). Better Together. A Practical Guide to Effective Engagement with Older People. World Wide Web:
link, retrieved February-April 2021.

Sagner, A., Kowal, P., Dowd, J. E. (2002). Defining “Old Age”. Markers of old age in sub-Saharan Africa and the implications for cross-cultural research. World Wide Web:
link, retrieved April 2021.

The World Health Organization (2011). Global Health and Aging. World Wide Web:
link, retrieved April 2021.