Judith A. Davey
As the 60-plus students thought about their university experiences, there was a typical sequence of emotions.
Several were very unsure of themselves and their abilities at first. Lillian and Stan feared that their study skills would be out-of-date. Geraldine had thought “you had to be very clever – super intelligent – to go to university”. Frequently this was related to their age and the feeling that they would not “fit in” with the school-leavers at Victoria University.
As the older people moved into their courses, many of their fears proved unfounded. They adjusted and began to enjoy their study and interactions with younger and mature students.
I have been treated as “normal” by students and staff and in no way patronised. To me this was a surprise and a delight. (Stan)
You have to make an effort to fit it, not to take over in seminars, to listen. But the younger students were very tolerant and I have met some wonderful mature students. (Lillian)
Joy and excitement clearly shone through when interviewees spoke about their study experiences, especially the women.
It’s a lot of fun and I am having a wonderful time. I get more of an adrenaline rush with this research than with any job I could go for at my stage of life. (Katherine)
It’s magic – I really like history. People said “you’re drooling”. I came away angry with dead teachers who only told us one side of the story. Study is addictive – now that it is over I am grieving. (May)
I found it liberating, exciting. In fact I need to get less excited. I fizz along too much. (Lillian)
It’s really heady stuff. Study has become a way of life. I can’t put it down. (Joan)
I almost felt like clapping in some of the lectures. (Stan)
Others were more measured in their reactions, but still talked about the pleasure of learning; the new vistas which their studies had opened up for them; the challenges, but also the stimulation when their abilities met the test.
Confidence and Self Esteem
Despite barriers and difficulties, for the majority of respondents university study ultimately became a source of confidence, respect and credibility and a boost to their identity as retired people. Even those who had lacked self-confidence initially began to feel they were proving themselves. In his music course, John was forced not only to compose a piece, but to sing his own song. He rose to the occasion:
They got me doing things I never thought I would.
Interviewees were proud to report the respect which study gave them and their families’ support. Diana’s children all had degrees and her husband was a retired scientist, still active in his field. She liked to feel that she was keeping up with him in her own way. Stan’s pleasure in learning was reinforced by knowing that “not only my children can do well.” Grace talked about her grand-daughter who is studying at another university.
She says “Grace, I like to see you doing that”. I think I encourage them, by obviously enjoying my study.
Cynthia also said her husband was secretly pleased at her achievements. She said jokingly – “He thinks it’s a bit of a hoot!” – but also felt that the satisfaction was shared by all her family. Nina felt that she was part of a family tradition of valuing education. All of her five children and now her ten grandchildren were well educated.
It shows my children and grandchildren that I am one of them. They tell people “my grandmother is at the university”.
Sheila summed up the pride in their achievements which infused many of the 60-plus students.
I am incensed when people just say, “I am doing some papers at Vic.” I say, “I am “working for a BA”. People say, “Are you really?” I like that. I have a new persona – university student.
This is not to suggest that everyone enjoyed such support. May’s daughter was horrified when her mother started a BA. But her grandchildren were delighted and boasted about it. Others found their friends disinterested or even critical, but their confidence allowed them to ignore such attitudes.
Most of my friends think I am nuts. (Susan)
My friends almost sneered. They thought it wouldn’t last and said I would be bored. A lot of people still don’t know that I go to university; I try not to talk about it. (Stan)
For several of the interviewees, both men and women, the pleasure and satisfaction which they derived from study brought almost guilty feelings. Grace considered that she was being “wickedly self-indulgent;” Deirdre that she was “egotistical and self-centred”. These feelings were linked with a somewhat puritanical view that it could not be quite right to enjoy something so much, or that time should be spent in more altruistic pursuits. To counteract the feeling, interviewees frequently expressed the view that studying is good for older people, providing stimulation and structure in retirement. John’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease. He was clear in his view that senile decay is staved off by activity.
Thus, looking back over their university experience, the interviewees mostly expressed high levels of satisfaction with their choice of courses and course content. Only a few expressed some dissatisfaction with teaching and assessment, and only four were dissatisfied with their own performance at university. Lillian and Stan felt that they were not thinking as quickly as when they were younger, but Joan was realistic – “Study is addictive, one always wants to do better.“
Overall, I hope I have shown that educational involvement can indeed assist the transition to retirement and contribute to successful ageing in the psychological sense.
 Davey, J., Neale, J. and Morris Matthews, K. (Eds.) (2003) Living and Learning: Experiences of University after Age 40. Wellington, Victoria University Press.