We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By closing this message, you are consenting to our use of cookies.

Submit a Manuscript to the Journal
Educational Gerontology

For a Special Issue on
Learning for the Fourth Age (L4A) in a Post-Pandemic Society

Manuscript deadline
15 August 2023

Cover image - Educational Gerontology

Special Issue Editor(s)

Marvin Formosa, Malta
[email protected]

Elena Luppi, University of Bologna, Italy
[email protected]

Submit an ArticleVisit JournalArticles

Learning for the Fourth Age (L4A) in a Post-Pandemic Society

Learning for the Fourth Age

The post-millennium period witnessed an unprecedented number of older persons enrolling in non-formal organisations that cater for their learning needs and interests in associations as diverse as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, University Programmes for Older People (Formosa, 2019). This is particularly promising since, in the not-so-distant past, opportunities and provisions for lifelong learning were totally appropriated for young and middle adults to engage in continuing and adult education (Findsen & Formosa, 2016). Nevertheless, and despite the wealth of persuasive studies on the benefits of learning on the quality of life and well-being of older persons, that interface between “older adult learning” and “fourth age” has remained relatively understudied. Older people who are frail tend to find themselves cut off from their local community and unable to access the so-called lifelong learning opportunities available to those who can continue living independently in the community. Indeed, while older adult learning is technically poised to cater for and include all older persons, as should lifelong learning for that matter, the reality is that late-life learning works almost exclusively with physically mobile and cognitively healthy learners (Formosa, 2019). With extremely few exceptions, most avenues of older adult learning are located in cities, easily reached by public and private transport, and hence, at the very centre of the daily lives of community-dwelling older persons (Findsen & Formosa, 2016). Indeed, late-life learning is steadfastly hinged upon the “successful ageing” paradigm, a stance that fails to identify the “cumulative disadvantages, status divisions and life chances that marginalize and devalue the lives of older people” (Katz, 2013, p. 61), and thus, leaving older persons in care settings out in the cold.

One silver lining is that recent years have witnessed much effort on behalf of adult educators and educational gerontologists to challenge the stereotypical belief that learning opportunities are irrelevant and unnecessary to older persons living with physical and/or cognitive disabilities (Formosa, 2021a). Additionally, it is promising to note bolder efforts on behalf of educational gerontologists to unravel the contrasts between third age and fourth age learning. The third and fourth ages are not characterised by chronological age but as where older people stand as far as frailty, helplessness, and loss of autonomy are concerned. While “third age learning” refers to learning opportunities for community-dwelling older persons who are generally relatively healthy, affluent and with a bountiful amount of leisure time, “fourth age learning” denotes learning prospects for frail older persons who tend to live with some health issues, disabilities and be either homebound or residing in care homes (Findsen & Formosa, 2011). Since nursing homes comprise the condensed image of this rejected fourth age, most initiatives in fourth age learning occurring residential long-term care facilities. Although presently the range of availability of learning opportunities remains limited, the type of prevailing sessions is diverse and ranges from computer learning to discussing current affairs to engaging in horticulture (Formosa, 2021b). The goals are also varied and include both functional and empowering traits. At one end, whilst some learning programmes endeavoured to teach residents skills in information and communication technology to engage further with their areas of interest, and keep contact with significant others via social media and electronic communication, other initiatives strove to empower residents’ levels of personal awareness and assertiveness by emphasising how difficulties and pains can be better withstood and sometimes even overcome when shared. One also finds learning programmes seeking to serve as leisure and therapeutic opportunities for residents via classes in the participatory arts. Herein, learning sessions make use of a vast range of activities to enable residents to learn new skills, keep the body and mind active, acquire knowledge on global current affairs, and stimulate affective emotions through reminiscence (Formosa, 2021a).

Learning opportunities in long-term care have been found to enhance the quality of life of residents by improving cognitive outcomes and reducing agitation, neuropsychiatric symptoms and depression, as well as providing them with a safe arena where they could express themselves with confidence (Formosa & Galea, 2020). For this reason, such proposals are often called in Nursing Home or Daliy care centers “non-pharmacological therapies” but are, in actual fact, Educational activities, inspired by educational methods and strategies. It is thus unsurprising that Buettner & Fitzsimmons (2003) reported that residents were more likely to participate in learning activities than in non-meaningful activities such as setting tables and folding napkins, and that agitation behaviours peaked during afternoons when hardly any learning activities was offered. Most particularly, fourth age learning enables ‘learning to know’ by contributing significantly to satisfaction and independence, ‘learning to do’ by learning new skills, ‘learning to live together’ by building bridges between residents, staff and relatives, and ‘learning to be’ by improving residents’ levels of dialogue, self-efficacy, autonomy and independence (Hafford-Letchfield, 2014). Of course, this is not the same as saying that this field is not beset by challenges (Formosa, 2021a). Most crucially, curricula are only infrequently subjected to rigorous evaluation, and care staff delivering learning activities do not generally possess any training in late-life learning. Learning engagements tend to be the sole responsibility of activity co-ordinators rather than being shared with any of the staff, volunteers or residents’ families. Moreover, whilst funding is the most commonly quoted issue in blocking provision for fourth age learning, negative attitudes and ageism are more likely to be the reasons for limited availability of learning in the fourth age.


A post-pandemic society

Since the identification of the first COVID-19 case in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, one witnessed a steady output of academic articles on the pandemic’s wide-reaching impacts. An area that received much global attention constituted that interface between COVID-19 and later life. This was far from surprising since COVID-19 proved to be a very serious viral infection for persons aged 80 and over. Literature underlined the pandemic’s deadly effect among frail older persons, and how nursing homes for older persons became hot incubators for the coronavirus, as more than half of all COVID-19 deaths in many countries occurred amid residents in long-term care facilities (Ayalon et al., 2020).


Thematic Issue

This special issue seeks to continue contributing to the knowledge relating to the impact of COVID-19 on older adult learning for frail and/or homebound older persons and especially taking place in care homes for older persons.

The editors invite academics and practitioners alike to submit theoretical and research articles that highlight the lessons learnt, as well as the proficiencies lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and how these may be impacting the arena of fourth age learning. Articles may address and focus on one or more of these enquiries:

  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the available infrastructure to meet older learners’ academic needs and interests?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the available support to older adult learning?
  • How has fourth age learning changed during the COVID-19 Pandemic?
  • What challenges in fourth-age learning were uncovering during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What lacunae in distance and virtual learning initiatives for older persons were exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • To what extent did the COVID019 pandemic exacerbate and compound learning barriers for older frail persons?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced learning initiatives for older persons living with dementia?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted training opportunities on geragogy for teachers and facilitators working in fourth age learning?



Ayalon, L., Zisberg, A., Cohn-Schwartz, E., Cohen-Mansfield, J., Perel-Levin, S., Bar-Asher Siegal, E., Long-term care settings in the times of COVID-19: Challenges and future directions. International Psychogeriatrics, 32 10/(2020), p. 11239-1243.

Findsen, B. & Formosa, M. (2011). Lifelong learning in later life: A handbook on older adult learning. Sense Publishers.

Findsen, B. & Formosa, M. (Eds.) (2016). International perspectives on older adult education: Research, policies, practices. Springer.

Formosa, M. (2019). Active ageing through lifelong learning: The University of the Third Age. In M. Formosa (ed.), The University of the Third Age and active ageing: European and Asian-Pacific perspectives (pp. 3-18). Springer.

Formosa, M. (2021a). Learning opportunities for older persons in residential long-term care: A systematic review. In B. Mikulec, S. Kump & T. Košmerl (Eds.), Reflections on adult education and learning: The adult education legacy of Sabina Jelenc Krašovec (pp. 109-122). Ljubljana University Press.

Formosa, M. (2021b). Online learning for older persons during the COVID-19 pandemic: The good, the bad and the ugly. In M. Łuszczyńska & M. Formosa (Eds.), Ageing and COVID-19: Making sense of a disruptive world (pp. 169-182). Routledge.

Hafford-Letchfield, T. (2014). Critical educational gerontology: What has it got to offer social work with older people? European Journal of Social Work, 17(3), 433-446.

Katz, S. (2013) Active and successful aging: Lifestyle as a gerontological idea. Recherches Sociologiques et Anthropologiques, 44, 1, 33-49.

Submission Instructions

  • Select "Learning for the Fourth Age (L4A) in a Post-Pandemic Society” when submitting your paper to ScholarOne
  • The thematic issue is expected to be publication in December 2023

Instructions for AuthorsSubmit an Article

We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By closing this message, you are consenting to our use of cookies.