Never too old to dream: 90-year-old graduate Lorna Prendergast
As a recent graduate of the Master of Ageing, 90-year-old Lorna Prendergast is looking forward to challenging misconceptions and advocating for older people in her community.
Lorna Prendergast made headlines around the world this July when she graduated with a Master of Ageing from the University of Melbourne at the age of 90.
Her graduation ceremony at the Royal Exhibition Building was an intergenerational affair: Lorna collected her degree on stage alongside two of her grandchildren, while her children watched on from the audience.
Lorna and family had travelled from her home in Bairnsdale, a regional centre four hours east of Melbourne, which is where she had studied her degree online.
The idea to pursue further study was planted a few years ago, when Lorna visited her husband of 64 years, Jim, in his nursing home before he passed away.
She noticed something interesting: the residents had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to music she would play for them. Jim, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, particularly enjoyed music that he had listened to earlier in life.
After Jim passed, Lorna wanted to discover more about the relationship between music, ageing and memory, and enrolled in the Master of Ageing to pursue further research.
“Researchers explain that music can awaken people with dementia, for a time, when they hear music that they have enjoyed in the past – perhaps when they used to attend dances with a girl or boyfriend,” Lorna says.
The Master of Ageing, delivered online, is designed to prepare graduates from a wide range of disciplines to meet the challenges and opportunities presented by the global ageing population.
Lorna’s fellow students had diverse motivations for studying ageing, allowing for a cross-pollination of perspectives.
“Our Discussion Board was of considerable help, as students exchanged information and ideas, it was there that I found that a number of students had elderly parents and were feeling their way into a new era where they could help their parents while letting them retain their independence,” Lorna says.
“Other students studied ageing because they were furthering their nursing careers; or architects who were connected with building aged care homes, equipment, or green spaces; or were public servants working in the aged sector.”
The course resonated with Lorna on a personal level: “Personally, I learnt a considerable amount about ageing, and the knowledge is helping me to look ahead and get things in place before I decide I’m too old to organise [myself]. I’m also able to see how different aspects of ageing affects lots of other people and I hope I can advocate for some of them, if they would like me to.”
As a former librarian, Lorna took well to the research aspect of the course: “I have always done a certain amount of research, including family history, however, I was very appreciative of the university librarians who brought me up to date with current databases.”
Online delivery enabled Lorna to pursue further study, but it was not without challenges.
“If I hadn’t done the masters online, I wouldn’t have done it at all as my home is about four hours’ drive from the city,” she says.
“Some technical aspects were a bit of a problem, as I didn’t seem to be able to find appropriate help locally … Once I discovered that we had a wonderful IT team at the University of Melbourne, things became much clearer.”
Now that she’s graduated, Lorna is looking forward to taking on her next projects, which will include working around her house and in her garden. She will also be liaising with her local council to put in place more age-friendly initiatives in the community.
“It is early days yet, but East Gippsland Shire plans to become an Age-friendly city as encouraged by the World Health Organization. I am one of their senior ambassadors and I hope we will follow Manchester, who was the first Age-friendly city,” she says.
For all the attention she has received, Lorna is staying grounded.
“I have been surprised that people think it is remarkable that I have completed a Master of Ageing at 90 – I really don’t know why they do.
"I am not a particularly smart person, just an ordinary person, obtaining average marks, which shows that just about anyone could go back to study if they want to."
One of her lecturers, Associate Professor Rosemary McKenzie, said Lorna’s experience represents a new era of higher education.
“I think Lorna is really the vanguard of 21st century learning, where we will see people continuing to gain qualifications throughout their life,” she told the ABC on Lorna’s graduation day.
Lorna points to a favourite C.S. Lewis quote: “Just remember that ‘you are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream .’”