Mary George left school in 1945, going on to work as a dental nurse, get married and bring up two children. More than six decades later, recently widowed and finding herself with time on her hands, she enrolled on a degree course with the Open University. Here are some of the things she learned from returning to formal education in her eighties.
It’s never too late to be the person you’ve always wanted to be.
Lots of things happened over the years that didn’t quite go according to plan. I very often felt that I was second-best, never quite getting to where I wanted to be in life. Doing the course made me think that perhaps, just once, I might achieve what I really wanted to achieve. The fact that I did get the degree – which I still pinch myself about at times – has helped to tell me that I can speak out, I have got a voice. In recent years in particular, matters of principle matter a lot more to me. In the past I would have sat back and afterwards thought I should have said something, but I am much braver now. I will express an opinion where perhaps in the past I wouldn’t have done, particularly if I feel it is something that should be addressed. On the other hand, I quite like a quiet life, thank you. I don’t get involved with arguments if I can help it. Let’s rephrase that: discussion is one thing, argument is another. I now have the confidence to “discuss” more than I used to, but arguments I still try to avoid!
It helps to have an objective – as long as it’s something you enjoy.
I think it’s a good idea to set yourself an objective, give yourself something to work towards. It may not necessarily be study, it may be things like reading a book a month, going out and mixing with people, going to a meeting when you don’t really want to go but doing it anyway. The more you get out, meet people and do things, the more you find that you can. When I make myself go out, very often I feel the better for it. I suppose the hardest thing is being disciplined. Doing the degree was a lot of work; I had to be firm with myself and allocate sufficient time for study. There were low times when I wondered whether I was wasting my time, but I wasn’t going to be beaten. You must enjoy what you are doing. If you don’t enjoy it, forget it. Put it down to experience and find yourself another objective.
Being an older student has its advantages.
I know I’m not the only one who’s left it late, nevertheless the majority of people on my course were very much younger. As an older person I found that I had a very different perspective. The fact that I’d moved about the country, done different jobs, met a lot of different people in different contexts, it all influenced how I looked at things. Perhaps I could compare and contrast more than some of the younger ones. Also, because I had been used to writing always by hand, I often found exams easier to do than those who had only ever used a computer. I would encourage someone considering study in later life to do it! Yes, as you get older you’re not so quick on the uptake at some things and physically you’re not so adept, but I don’t think it necessarily means you’re losing your mental abilities. In any case, you never stop learning even if you don’t bother with books; you’re learning all the time from the people that you meet and the things that you do.
Doing something positive for myself was good for the whole family.
By the time I was halfway through my degree I had three grandchildren at university. This really spiced things up. They thought it fun that they were studying for a degree and grandma was doing the same. I don’t know if it sounds silly, but that was a spur. My children had got degrees, my grandchildren were trying to get degrees – I’d got to keep my end up! It helped that my family as a whole were supportive. They didn’t laugh at me or say, “Silly old biddy! What does she want a degree for?” I suppose I’ve always hoped that I have been helpful to other people; I would like to think that I’ve been helpful in my life. This time I did something I wanted for myself, yet I think it was a good thing for the family as a whole. Branching out and going back to school was my way of saying, “I’m in on the act as well” – it gave us all something in common.
Keeping healthy requires both mind and body.
I feel we are a whole, mind and body; if you try to keep one part healthy it helps the other. I’ve been fortunate – I’ve had my ups and downs healthwise, but I’m fairly stable. Like everybody else I have the odd dose of flu or coughs and colds. I’ve also had two hip replacements, which were quite a trial at the time. On the whole though I manage to keep well. I try to eat sensibly and keep my mind active and I think that helps. I believe that if I try to keep the little grey cells working, that is going to benefit me in other ways. I’ve also got this odd streak of not wanting to be beaten. The family says I’m stubborn; you can take that which way you like. I’ve got a pedometer now and I’m trying to check that I keep walking. After I had my hip operations I was given some exercises and I still do those every morning after my cup of tea. (I’m a little bit decadent; I’ve got a teasmade, so every day starts off with a cup of tea in bed.) Whenever I can I use the stairs rather than the lift. It is an effort and sometimes I get to the top and I think, “You silly ass, why did you do that?”, but I know it’s good for me.
Mary will be 90 next month. She is currently studying with the University of the Third Age and Future Learn.