Coping at University as an Older Person

Judith Davey


Once at university, the 60-plus students faced a range of factors, which impinged on their view of themselves as students and retired people[1]. The majority mentioned barriers to achieving their study objectives. These concerned life situations, especially time constraints. Comparatively few mentioned money as a personal problem, but several commented that study was an expensive business for retired people.

Barriers, arising from university systems and facilities were sometime mentioned. Diana complained about library restrictions and John about a shortage of computers. Some of the post-graduate students were having problems with supervision – finding appropriate supervisors; being accepted by the department; and the assessment system –

It has taken so long to get the second examiner’s report in for my thesis. I feel disappointed, isolated and frustrated – it has already taken some of the shine off. (Cynthia)

Thus far, these barriers were shared by adult students in general. But some were more clearly age-related. Students aged 60-plus were more likely to mention health problems, less effective memory and lower energy levels. Katherine found it hard to climb uphill to some of the classrooms. Rose and Sheila complained of lack of energy and arthritis. The men in particular suggested mental disadvantages, especially poorer memory, slower and less reliable thinking processes. As a result, examinations were almost universally stressful and difficult.

The head doesn’t work quite as well as it used to. (Trevor)

Older people are not as quick, more anxious, worry a lot. (Joan)

Despite the high proportion citing disadvantages for older students, almost all the 60-plus group thought that there were advantages. Life experience was stressed. This could bring greater tolerance and breadth of vision.

Older students bring life experience – they can see what authors are on about, how their minds work. Young ones are quicker and brighter and do get A’s, but they have tunnel vision. They see everything in black and white. (Rose)

Fewer distractions, ability to focus more, hormonal level zilch and I can spell. (May)

Don and John considered that older students could get on better with the university staff. Rae said that study keeps you mentally alert – “otherwise you would seize up like an old car”. In a more practical vein, several interviewees mentioned that students 60-plus had more time and fewer family demands to cope with. However these barriers were not completely absent.

There were a few comments about attitudes towards older people at university. Some felt a lack of opportunity to draw upon their experience or have opinions respected. Others found that relationships with younger lecturers could be difficult –

You can seem presumptuous and making things difficult. (Chris)

 Young people are embarrassed to tell older people what to do or feel they will become domineering. (Don)

Only Geraldine, however, felt that she had suffered seriously from ageism and sexism –

Members of staff do not take one as seriously as younger students. Mentoring is not as available for older students in my experience.

Thus, apart from accepting the physical and mental effects of age, the 60-plus students did not perceive any greater barriers to educational involvement than people in the 40-59 age group, and their attitudes were equally positive.

Outcomes of study

Apart from a boost to confidence and self-esteem, what else emerged from the experiences of the 60-plus group at Victoria University?

Gaining a qualification

It has been assumed that older learners are not interested in qualifications, grades and competition. This did not ring true in the Victoria University study. Retired people may want qualifications for personal accomplishment and satisfaction.

I achieved more than I expected of myself. It’s the satisfaction of achieving a degree and pleasure of study. Without a purpose I would rot away. (Laura)

The qualification is not important but it is important to finish for my self-esteem. (Katherine)

A smaller group felt that the degree was not an end in itself –

A BA is not important but I can’t see the point of flogging your way up there (to university) without there being something at the end. (Sheila)

Or even that it had become devalued –

It is not important for me to get a degree – a BA doesn’t have the aura it had years ago. It means nothing now; it’s not rare. (Chris)

Further Study

Many of the interviewees had considered that they were “not very bright”, but proved otherwise.  Several regretted not having studied more when they were younger. But this did not deter them from further study. Rose, Sheila and Joan were considering embarking on PhDs, but all had some reservations, in terms of their abilities, energy and financial resources. Others were contemplating further courses on an ad hoc basis. For example, Chris was seeking to move out from language study into (to him) more challenging areas such as philosophy and linguistics.

Advice to other older students

The respondents were asked what advice they would give to older people contemplating university study. The overall response was unequivocal encouragement.

Do it now. You don’t get any younger. (Katherine)

Go for it. Life begins at university. You can do it! (May)



[1] See Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of

University after Age 40.  Wellington, Victoria University Press.


About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
This entry was posted in Education and training. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Coping at University as an Older Person

  1. lifecameos says:

    Money was a serious concern for my studies after redundancies caused breaks in my cash flow and ability to save over the years. In the end I did dip into my reserves, but limited my self to four one semester papers for a Certificate In Arts. I found the other students – all in the 18 to 30 age bracket – at times had no idea what I was talking about, nor did our 25 year old tutor in one paper. But they wee all polite.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s