One way you can help your clients enjoy a long and healthy retirement is by referring them to free and low-cost education programs. In return, you’ll reap the benefit of deeper relationships with senior clients and their families.

One of the biggest challenges for retirees is avoiding loneliness, which causes depression and can lead to various illnesses, including heart attacks, strokes and dementia. Loneliness in seniors is attributed in large measure to being socially isolated, according to the Report on Social Isolation of Seniors, 2013-2014, published by the federal government’s National Seniors Council.

Many seniors reduce their activity and socializing when they retire. But it does not have to be that way. Participation in learning programs and events is a great way for seniors to get out of their homes, meet other people and have fun.

In essence, lifelong learning is a winning strategy to combat age-related mental and physical illnesses. However, many seniors and their families may not be aware of free and low-cost education programs or events that are available.

“Local recreation departments, libraries and church groups are great places to find free education programs for seniors,” says Elizabeth Siegel, director, information and referral services co-ordinator with SeniorsNL in St. John’s, NL. She notes that many seniors are not adept at looking for free or low-cost learning programs on their own, so you could help by pointing them in the right direction.

Various colleges and universities across Canada offer low-cost courses and events dedicated to seniors. A quick online search will find programs such as the Active Living Program Guide for Adults 50+ for the City of Kelowna, B.C. For a fee of $15 to $65, the program offers classroom-based courses, such as Web Exploration, Facebook Essentials and Learning the Essentials of Microsoft Windows. Kelowna also offers occasional free lectures and has physical activity programs for as little as $2.

Seniors College, affiliated with the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, offers more than 100 courses that run from one to 10 weeks for an annual fee of $160. Courses are available for multiple academic disciplines and range from Nordic Pole Walking to Politics and Government: Canada and P.E.I. Students can enrol in as many courses as their schedules can accommodate over an academic year.

The Life Institute, Toronto-based Ryerson University’s program for students 50+, has an annual membership fee of $80. Included with the membership is a variety of free events, such as the Digital Media Workshop, two hours of basic computer programming and the one-hour Yorkville Music Scene of the 1960s. The cost for each of the 300 courses available to seniors ranges from $25 to $100. Lower-income seniors can apply to the Ruth Gertner Memorial Fund for a grant to cover the membership and course fees.

Here are some sources to help locate free or low-cost education programs for seniors:

  • municipal recreation departments
  • libraries
  • church groups
  • municipal and provincial seniors’ organizations
  • colleges and universities

Seniors clients who want to enrol in paid courses should avoid taking money from their registered accounts, including RRSPs and TFSAs, to pay for them.

In particular, the federal Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP), which allows people to take money tax-free from an RRSP, is not suitable for most seniors – particularly those with lower incomes, experts say.

The LLP may sound appealing, but for seniors the program is fraught with complexity and tax risk. RRSP withdrawals can increase a senior’s taxable income and may reduce subsidies in provincial drug plans. RRSP withdrawals also may reduce savings that will be needed later in life.

“Withdrawing funds [from registered accounts] for education is generally not a good idea for seniors,” says Preet Banerjee, founder of Toronto-based Many seniors have modest, fixed incomes, so an RRSP withdrawal may not be fully repaid when due by age 72.

“Seniors withdrawing from an RRSP [via the LLP] is an option, but there are other options to consider first,” says Susan Daley, portfolio manager and certified financial planner in Waterloo, Ont., with Montreal-based PWL Capital Inc. Regardless, Daley says, professional financial advice is essential.IE