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Zurich’s Senior Citizens University UZH3

Seeing the World Anew

Zurich’s Senior Citizens University UZH3 exercises the brain cells of adults over sixty. Combined with sport and social activities, lifelong learning is a health asset in people’s later years. Research carried out by UZH psychologist Burcu Demiray also backs this up.
Stéphanie Hegelbach; Translation: Astrid Freuler
The effects of lifelong learning are the focus of research being conducted by gerontopsychologist Burcu Demiray.

Participants in the Senior Citizens University Zurich UZH3 want to experience new things. They’re open and inquisitive, and they have drive. Every Tuesday and Thursday during the semester, they flock to the Irchel Campus at 2 pm for lectures. Some – including Heinz Lienhart – arrive early to take in the lively coming and going. “I feel really comfortable here. The young people are very considerate and friendly,” he says. A trained electrical mechanic and computer scientist, Lienhart has been an active member of the Senior Citizens University of Zurich for five years. “I was made redundant four years before retirement. I missed the daily structure,” he explains. When he heard about UZH3 – the university of the third age – he immediately registered. “I watched my daughters complete their studies, now I can experience it for myself,” he smiles.

Alongside Lienhart, some 2,000 people over sixty attend UZH3. The program ranges from lectures and sports activities at the Academic Sports Association Zurich to supplementary events, online tuition and project groups. The effects of lifelong learning are the focus of research being conducted by gerontopsychologist Burcu Demiray, one of the researchers linked to the University Research Priority Program Dynamics of Healthy Aging. “The more a person learns and actively uses their brain, the less likely they are to lose cognitive functions,” she says.

Fitness for body and mind

Use it or lose it – Lienhart has taken the saying to heart and diligently takes notes in the lecture hall to aid his concentration. “Members of UZH3 are often more motivated than younger students, as they’re learning purely for their own benefit,” Demiray observes. For Lienhart, the mental stimulation and new perspectives on the world – for instance through the eyes of a particle physicist – are even restful. During the lecture, he explains, he’s entirely absorbed in the here and now – something he otherwise only experiences when in the forest or while cooking. “It’s an important aspect of my life,” he says. And for Lienhart, new experiences can also come in other forms: “I always sign up for projects at the Senior Citizens University. It has allowed me to do things like take part in a film and help gather information on the university’s history in the archives,” Lienhart enthuses.

Isabelle Roos is also inspired by the wide range of subjects on offer through UZH3. A qualified biochemist, she had always been interested in different fields, but had to focus on specific specialisms during her studies and in her working life. “Now I can finally go to any lecture I like. And best of all, we don’t have to sit any exams!” she laughs. The subject-matter is often highly topical, she says, and she frequently comes across newspaper articles on the same issue a few days later.

Roos has put together a full day’s itinerary based around the university activities. Dance, lunch, lecture and yoga, followed by coffee with people from her sports classes. “I’m probably fitter than I was before I retired,” she jokes. It’s no coincidence that the UZH3 program combines both mental and physical stimulation. “If you want to stay mentally alert, you also need to be physically active. Physical and mental fitness are closely linked,” Demiray says. Research has also shown that lifelong learning reduces the number of visits to the doctor. “As a rule, lifelong learners are more active, have a better immune system and are more knowledgeable about healthy living patterns,” the psychologist explains.

In addition to attending courses and events, Roos and Lienhart also engage in the voluntary project groups that enrich the Senior Citizens University program. “It’s exciting to help shape UZH3,” Roos says. Both pensioners are, for instance, part of the organizing team for the UZH3 Café, which takes place after the lecture on specific dates throughout the semester. “Quite often, members of the teaching staff also join us. We ask them questions and chat about anything and everything,” says Lienhart. “Just chewing the fat,” as he puts it. It may feel like “just chatting”, but in the context of gerontopsychology, it’s an elaborate process of informal learning which enriches vocabulary and enhances the complexity of the grammar used.

Burçu Demiray

The more a person learns and actively uses their brain, the less likely they are to lose cognitive functions.

Burcu Demiray

The social elixir

In a study based on audio recordings of the everyday life of older people, Demiray was able to substantiate that people who converse more often have a better working memory – that is to say they can process information more quickly and react accordingly. “It’s probable that regular informal learning through conversation reduces the risk of cognitive decline,” she says. Although the Senior Citizens University is first and foremost an educational offering, the social aspect is probably the most important factor in remaining mentally fit and aging healthily. Meeting spots such as the UZH3 Café enable participants to be part of a community that gets together regularly and provides support after retirement. For Roos and Lienhart, being involved in the Senior Citizens University has substantially expanded their social network. “Some of us meet up outside of university too, for example to play pétanque,” Roos says. Feeling integrated hugely bolsters a person’s emotional wellbeing, says Burcu Demiray. “Studies have shown that it results in a greater sense of self-worth, reduced depression and anxiety and a generally positive attitude towards life,” she reports.

The coronavirus pandemic radically changed the everyday life of pensioners – they had to stay at home. While the universities switched to digital solutions, UZH3 wasn’t able to implement interactive live transmission of the lectures at such short notice. “I was very concerned that exactly this social group of learners wasn’t given the opportunity to remain cognitively fit and continue benefiting from social exchange,” says Demiray, who decided to take matters in her own hands. She came up with ideas for an eLearning platform and took these to a hackathon – an event at which digital solutions are developed under time pressure. “I had come to realize that while my research explained certain phenomenon, it didn’t lead to any concrete applications,” she explains. The hackathon was an opportunity to turn her research into something real.

Demiray came out of the hackathon as one of the winners. “That spurred me on,” she says. With the help of the UZH3 team and a Swiss eLearning start-up, Demiray was able to make her online platform, dubbed OldSchool, available to UZH3 learners as early as the 2020 Fall Semester. In addition to lecture recordings the platform also provides supplementary learning materials and social functions such as interest groups and a virtual UZH3 Café. “We taught each other how to use Zoom so we could access the platform,” Roos recalls. “It made a huge difference, being able to see each other occasionally and talk,” Lienhart adds.

The motivation to overcome obstacles

With coronavirus less of a concern, the two pensioners now prefer to attend the lectures in person. “It’s definitely easier to concentrate and you get a better experience,” says Roos. But they both appreciate having OldSchool and see the platform as a great opportunity. “OldSchool allows us to cater for the hugely varied needs of older people,” Demiray explains. Large print, strong contrast, moderated input and an attractive user interface ensure the learning environment is specially tailored and age-appropriate. Other Swiss senior citizens universities now also use the eLearning tool. In future, employees and people who are living in care homes or are traveling will be able to benefit from it too.

As lovely and worthwhile that lifelong learning sounds – for some wanting to remain mentally active there are also obstacles to overcome. “Alongside health issues, these might be structural barriers such as insufficient adaptation of the learning content for older learners,” says Demiray. And not all senior citizens are competent in the use of digital media. “There aren’t enough alternative options for people who don’t have access to the digitalized world or don’t want it any more,” Roos reflects. Lienhart touches on a much more basic issue: “Many people don’t actually know that the Senior Citizens University of Zurich exists,” he says. He’s already thinking about how this problem could be resolved.

This enthusiasm for tackling new things sets Roos and Lienhart apart. They seem to have tapped into an inexhaustible source of motivation. What’s the secret of these eager and inspiring learners? Their dedication brings its own rewards – in the form of interesting knowledge and stimulating social contacts. Roos adds that for her, it’s also about a sense of responsibility towards society – as long as someone is well and able, they have a certain duty to keep up with life and its developments. “After all, we’re part of it, until the end.”