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Turkey’s senior citizens get their first university

Akdeniz University has launched Turkey’s first academic program for senior citizens as the problem of an ageing population looms large for the country in the coming decades.

Turkey is a country that often boasts of its youthful population, but this advantage may not last long. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute, the country’s elderly — aged 65 and above — numbered 6.5 million in 2015, or 8.2% of the total population, up from 8% in 2014. Globally, elderly people make up 8.5% of the world’s population. So, Turkey is not that young, having an elderly rate close to the global average. Though it could hardly compare with nations such as Monaco, Japan and Germany, where senior citizens make up, respectively, 30.4%, 26.6% and 21.5% of the population, Turkey still ranks 66th among 167 countries in this category.

Only 11.5% of senior citizens participate in the labor force, which clearly demonstrates that the elderly are rarely employed. Shut out from productive life, they are in a sense left to await death, which brings about low spirits along with health problems.

In 2015, 45.6% of Turkey’s senior citizens were satisfied with their general health, down from 47.5% the previous year, which is another indication that idle lifestyles are not good for the elderly.

To address the problem and encourage senior citizens to be more active in working and social life, Akdeniz University in the Mediterranean city of Antalya has inaugurated an education program called Renewal University, targeting people over the age of 60. The program, which offers courses in sociology, psychology, biology, technology, chemistry, agriculture, pharmacology, medicine, history, philosophy, maintenance and cooking, takes aim at the cognitive renewal of these students. After launching a trial run with 60 students in May 2015, the university has attracted considerable interest, with enrollment exceeding 300.

Though Turkey’s population aged 65 and over is slightly below the global average, the figure for those aged 60 and over is seen as a reason for concern. Ozgur Arun, the head of Akdeniz University’s gerontology department, sounded the alarm at an international conference two years ago, saying, “When the elderly exceed 10% of the population, this indicates that society is aging. In Turkey, people aged over 60 make up 13% of the population. A study of demographic shifts in the past 50 years indicates that the total population has tripled, while the elderly population has grown seven times. The aging process that France completed in 115 years and Switzerland in 85, Turkey will complete in the next 15 years.”

Ismail Tufan, the founder of Akdeniz University’s gerontology department, has been briefing Turkish government officials on the looming problem for the past 16 years. Beyond sounding an alarm, he has done his part in preparing for the new phenomenon: Renewal University is his brainchild.

In remarks to Al-Monitor, Tufan stressed that the initiative aimed to freshen the intellectual, physical and spiritual development of aging people. “Our education program targets people aged 60 and over. Along with the learning process, we created also an environment for debate. Learning is a lifelong process. By learning something new, you enhance your intellectual, physical and spiritual development,” he said. “Our senior citizens will now take more pleasure from living and improve their quality of life. Contributing to a healthier old generation is what we aim for.”

Tufan has coined a slogan — “Learning is cure and remedy” — and is urging universities across Turkey to launch similar programs for senior citizens.

At Renewal University, there are no grades or competition. Learning is the only thing that matters. At the end of the four-year program, senior citizens will be able to return to working life and even serve in executive positions.

Tufan described how a letter he got from a man from the remote eastern province of Ardahan brought him to tears. “He wrote that all his life he wanted to be an agricultural engineer, but managed to finish only primary school because of poverty. He told how he reads anything he lays hands on, how he raised three children who became a judge, a lawyer and an engineer, and requested to be enrolled in our school,” Tufan said, adding they had received applications from people as old as 82.

“Our school is free. We also provide the textbooks,” Tufan said, noting that 26 lecturers were involved in the program. “We started with 60 students last year and reached 127. There are high school and university graduates among them. The university will open officially this year, and we have received 370 applications so far. We expect the figure to exceed 500 by the start of the education year.”

Postgraduate and doctoral programs are also available for the students. In one interesting detail, cooking is a compulsory course in all departments, a decision prompted by the fact that elderly men in particular don’t know how to cook. Tufan recalled how an elderly villager he met in eastern Turkey told him, “Wrap your wife in cotton wool. I have 12 children and dozens of grandchildren, but since my wife died, I’ve stopped having hot meals.” Another man rushed to enroll after reading about the cooking course in the newspaper. He was eager to learn to cook vegetable dishes, complaining how he exacerbated his hemorrhoids by frequenting kebab restaurants when his wife went away on long trips.

“We want to enhance the creativity of our people by providing them with an opportunity for lifelong learning, and by making sure that this becomes a national policy,” Tufan said, adding that the establishment of the gerontology department itself took years of painstaking work.

The academic urged more efforts to develop projects for senior citizens, stressing that the number of Turks aged 60 and over would reach a staggering 30 million by 2050, standing at 11.6 million at present.

The average age of staff at hospitals and nursing homes who care for the elderly in Turkey is between 35 and 45, Tufan said. “So, the elderly adopt a lifestyle shaped by the young without questioning it and thus fail to have an active and successful aging process.” In this context, Renewal University graduates, using also their own experience, could claim the management of the establishments that cater to their peers.

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