Educationists and politicians constantly emphasise the need for lifelong learning, but they generally take a narrow view of life which concentrates on work.
"There is a repressive concept, that the period defined as active means the length of time in paid work," says Paul Belanger, director of Unesco's institute for education in Hamburg. "There has been a fantastic development of education in the workplace, but focused only around the workplace and over vocationalised."
Mr Belanger was a key speaker at a conference organised by Strathclyde University's senior studies institute. Unusual in the United Kingdom in offering a wide range of courses to the 50-plus age group, the institute has more than 2,000 students. Its head, Lesley Hart, says the pace of learning may be slightly slower among the older age group, but research evidence underlines people's ability to learn, no matter what their age.
The Strathclyde conference marked 1999 as the United Nations international year of older people. The UN principles state that "older persons should have access to appropriate educational and training programmes" and "older persons should have access to the educational, cultural, spiritual and recreational resources of society".
But Mr Belanger said prevailing policy created a passive image of ageing, trivialising older people and turning them into children. He said that more than ever, society needed the imaginative potential of all its citizens, and had a massive latent resource in the third of the electorate who were free from the control of work.
Jim Soulsby, development officer of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education's "Older & Bolder" project, said the testimony of older learners revealed the social and health benefits of learning in later life, including minimising chronic pain.
He said it was encouraging that the UN year highlighted learning as a key element in its programme for older people. And it was important that older people, their representative organisations, housing, transport, social services and health were all involved in the debate on how to promote lifelong learning.
"A programme involving older learners at the University of Coventry is arguing for the maintenance of that programme because of the added value older people bring. Not only might they recruit to mainstream programmes and be seen zimmering their way around our trendy, young campuses, but they can be objects of research as well as researchers, mentors and supporters of disabled and impaired students," said Mr Soulsby.
John Troup, chair of the Scottish committee of the UN year, said that at present there was very little collaboration between education, social work and health in government in discovering older people's needs and their contribution to society.
"They need to get together on a strategic level, and perhaps there's a chance of that with the Scottish Parliament. These resources need to be shared and maybe reallocated."