I always say it: when I retire, the most I am going to write is the shopping list. But if there is someone capable of making me change my mind, it is, without a doubt, Marcos Roca, because when you finish talking with him you feel like taking out your pen and notebook and going back to the classroom. Director for more than a decade of the Program for the Elderly at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), he is full of enthusiasm when talking about this project which, he assures, «has such a great and important projection that it will transform the University. The intergenerational is knocking at the door.
When the Complutense launched it, in 1999, coinciding with the International Year of the Elderly, there were 80 students who attended the classrooms.
Today, more than 2,500 do. Its director acknowledges that year after year the number of requests skyrockets. To enter it, it is enough to be over 50 years old, in the case of the Complutense, and priority is given to those who lack a university degree. They take a short general culture test for admission and then begin a four-year cycle with a study plan in which almost all areas of knowledge are present: art, literature, mathematics, anthropology... At the end they can take a cycle of specialization with monographic subjects, conferences and seminars that delve into the topics and in which they coincide with undergraduate students.
«Although the profile of the students is varied and of all ages, and we have from those who have never been to the University, through graduates and even double degrees, they all have in common that they study to continue growing, they enjoy the classes. They are competent but do not compete. They are at a fantastic age to continue looking for what motivates or excites them, and also to continue discovering themselves. The classes are face-to-face and very participatory, because it is a way to socialize, to meet people with the same interests, to make them feel good and happy. It changes their lives and proof of this is that they do not want to leave. There is medical research that shows that studying after retirement minimizes any type of future dependency. Something that was born as a social program has become something strategic within the universities”, explains Roca, who encourages me to do the following report sharing with them one of his many excursions, visits and even exchange trips.
This year they are going to Peru, but they have already made others to Brazil, Colombia, and even China. «Groups of inseparable friends are created, they share the story of their lives, they enjoy common interests, widows go, others as a couple, and even new relationships are created. We have wonderful stories », he points out. He tells me innumerable, like the one about two women aged 65 and 70 who got married after meeting at the university for the elderly and finally admitting their sexual orientation after years of repression. "The university is a magical and incredible key to open new doors for them," admits Roca with emotion.
The benefits, physical and psychological, that university education brings to the elderly are multiple. "Harvard research has shown that older people who study and are employed live up to five years longer and suffer fewer illnesses," explains Emilio González, Professor of Economics at Comillas ICADE, who dismantles, thanks to neuroscience, many of the false myths that exist around the learning of the elderly: «It is true that with age the human brain begins to lose neurons, but the ability to learn is not lost. What happens is that, thanks to plasticity, the brain focuses on the importance of a matter, something that is difficult for younger people, who are more easily dispersed", and points out that "an older person cannot learn to the maximum rhythm from the first day, but neither does a primary school student or a university student, because the brain needs about three or four weeks to form the neuronal chains related to the acquisition of new knowledge».
González explains that learning capacity not only does not deteriorate with age, but rather increases and that the greatest phase of creativity occurs between 50 and 65 years of age, and the second between 65 and 80. «But so that the brain ages better also needs social relationships. Many people retire and are disconnected from these types of relationships that they had at work and many are left home alone. Going back to the classroom allows them to meet and identify with other people, maintain their linguistic ability, receive and share new ideas and knowledge”, explains González.
But in addition to their classmates, they also establish a very particular relationship with the teachers. «I have not seen students with more motivation in the classroom than older people. They are enthusiastic, eager to learn, they care about what happens to you, they thank me at the end of the class and they even applaud you!”, says Sergio Remedios, a professor at the UNED Senior who teaches different subjects, most of them related to History. Ancient and Archaeology.
At first one might think that they only attend those centers that are close to their neighborhood or area, but the truth is that they go from here to there because "many who they follow are the teachers and not so much the subject", recognizes Remedios, who fondly remembers a 76-year-old woman who the first thing she did when she stopped working was to enroll in the university for seniors. «She told me that she had been working since she was eight years old and that she had just closed her haberdashery and the first thing she did was enroll in university because she could never study and it was the dream of her life. She came down every morning from Galapagar to go to class on time at 9:30 in the morning. It is enriching to be able to know their lives.”
He also remembers the day that, as there were no more places left in his course on Greece, two ladies signed up as listeners. «Her face sounded familiar to me, but I thought that she could be a former student. When I went down to the secretary's office to sign them up in case there were any free places, I found out that she was the mother of Queen Letizia," says Sergio, who explains that since it is non-regulated education, the flexibility when teaching classes is greater and the experience much more rewarding. «There are no exams, it is not necessary to take notes, the important thing is that they enjoy later reading a historical novel, going to a museum or watching a film that alludes to the subject. It is a very grateful teaching”, acknowledges Remedios.
Today there are many universities that offer this education. 49 universities are part of the State Association of University Programs for the Elderly (AEPUM) at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC). “Soon there will be 50,” advances its president, Antonio Rodríguez, who points out that some 30,000 students are taking these studies, a figure that rose to more than 60,000 before the pandemic. Rodriguez points out that “universities, public and private, promote the integration of the elderly in the university and social environment through these programs. It is the largest network for promoting active rejuvenation, improves self-confidence and independence and, with it, the quality of life of the elderly Spaniards».
Anna Maria Red. 61 years old. She works and finishes first cycle
She studied Psychology but life led her to take an exam to work in Social Security where she still goes every day after 33 years. She has not waited until she retires to sign up for the Complutense University for the Elderly. “I am in the last fourth year and I am very sorry that it is over,” explains Ana, who is, together with her classmate Miguel Ángel García, class representative. "He is more of an academic delegate and I celebrate," she acknowledges amused.
Now she is organizing the graduation lunch and assures that she will miss many classmates. “We all share the enthusiasm to learn, even if we have come for different reasons. I, divorced, went when I had already raised my children and it helped me cope with loneliness, others go for different personal reasons, because they have been laid off, because they have suffered a loss or even have cancer. It serves us, in addition to learning with enthusiasm, therapy. When you reach an age where you think you're not going to do great things because you've got it all done, college comes along and you feel like a teenager again. I even made a selfie in the entrance exam to send my children," explains this unstoppable woman and author of the story 'Napoléon is not a dog'.
Santiago Garcia. 67 years old. He studies Art History
I try to meet him so he can tell me about his experience. «From 11 to 12:30 I have class. In the afternoon also from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and I have to catch the train at 8:40 p.m. for Barcelona. Sometimes the life of a retiree is not as passive as people think », he answers me on whatsapp. Of course, his has little passive, he has passed through the classrooms of the King Juan Carlos, the Complutense and the UNED.
He studied economics, worked in banking and was retired early at the age of 57. Since then he has not stopped training and working as a volunteer museum guide, a hobby that his mother instilled in him. «I am passionate about the history of art. Now I am taking the History of Ancient Art course and also the Mythology and Art course, to which I am going along with Mari Cruz, my wife", explains Santiago, who acknowledges that "I am very fond of following the teacher I like regardless of the subjects I teach because the level of teachers is very high. Studying without pressure and for pleasure gives you knowledge and pushes you to continue deepening. But also, the experience of meeting very diverse people is frankly enriching».
Emilio Pacios. 93 years. End of science cycle
After studying Russian and graduating from the four-year cycle of Humanities, there are only six classes left to finish the third and final year of the Science cycle at the University for the Elderly of Alcalá de Henares. «With age you may think you know everything, but every day is an opportunity to discover new things. I recommend the university to everyone, it teaches you to think and to shake off all the trash of siren songs of political speeches. You choose the subjects to suit the consumer and, in addition, it is cheap, 250 euros a year. Everyone goes because they want to learn and no one makes mistakes. And he says it knowingly: «In these three years I have only missed class ten times, including the days I had to be hospitalized for Covid, and with which I lost my voice and hearing».
For next year he does not know if he will continue at the university, "I have classmates who want to repeat Humanities, but my body is no longer fit for many Macarenas." What he does assure is that he will continue with the studies that he has started on his own on the Internet of the Latin language. And he confesses: «I am a geek from Rome».