90-year-old shows that age does not stop you graduating

Australia’s oldest citizens are graduating in increasing numbers from universities, demonstrating that ageing has not affected their mental abilities. The latest is 90-year-old Lorna Prendergast who graduated from the University of Melbourne on 27 July with, appropriately, a masters degree in ageing.

The focus of her studies was music as a form of temporary relief for people affected by dementia.

Prendergast said her message to others was that “you're never too old to dream”.

While it is still highly newsworthy for a 90-year-old to be awarded a masters degree, it is even more uncommon for someone of that age to have completed the entire course online.

David Bottomley

Although Lorna Prendergast’s achievement is remarkable, Australia’s oldest PhD graduate is a 94-year-old great-grandfather, David Bottomley, who has four children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

He completed a doctor of philosophy degree at Western Australia’s Curtin University in February this year, focusing on the history of teaching methods in education institutions.

After seven years of part-time research, Bottomley graduated from Curtin a year ahead of schedule. “I signed on for eight years part-time to do this particular exercise and I got through it with a year to spare, so there we are," he says.

"I haven't gone back to study, I just haven't stopped."

But he did admit he occasionally needed help with some of the new technology, including computers.

The Melbourne-born scholar and academic started his career as a science teacher at a school in Albury, New South Wales, in 1946.

Bottomley worked in social and market research across England, Australia and Asia for 60 years before completing a masters by research degree at the University of Melbourne. Then he tackled his doctorate via correspondence from Melbourne with guidance from a PhD supervisor.

His thesis examined the teaching methods of five progressive English educators who introduced an understanding of science into the curriculum from 1816 to 1885.

Bottomley says the completion of this degree does not mark the end of his education: "Certainly not. There's a vast lack of understanding of the basics of what's happening in society.

"It’s inadequate research, inadequate knowledge of scientific principles and inadequate willingness to be out there in the field with the people who are giving their time to you to answer all your odd questions.

"That's an area where I think as researchers we might have let the side down, and I have a great deal yet to work out."

Rejecting an ejection

Not only are elderly Australians earning degrees in ever-increasing numbers, some are also demonstrating they can fight university orders to go away – and win.

Back in December 2016, 102-year-old Dr David Goodall was told by executives at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, that it was time he retired.

At that point he was Australia's oldest working scientist, having studied ecology for more than 70 years, and had finally been appointed as an ‘honorary research associate’.

Goodall travelled to the university at least four days a week, catching a train and two buses during his 90-minute commute.

In August that year, however, the university told him he would have to retire or work from home because he was a health and safety risk travelling to and working on campus.

The outcry and national news coverage that followed forced the university to back down: it reversed the decision and told the centenarian scientist he could stay on.

The determined scientist, however, was back in the news again – worldwide this time – in May 2018 when he fulfilled his final wish and took his life through assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic.

Then 104 years old, Goodall was one of the first Australians to undertake the procedure due to old age rather than a terminal illness.

His supporters applauded his decision to take charge of his fate after declaring his life was no longer worth living. “It's my own choice,” he said, but critics warned his decision to end his life solely on the grounds of old age set a dangerous precedent.

That debate continues although the Victorian state government has now passed a law that allows a person to take their own life, provided at least two medical practitioners give their agreement.

Studying the ageing brain

Australians aged 90 and over are the largest growing population group in the country and their numbers are increasing by 8.5% every decade.

To prepare for this, a Sydney research team is undertaking a study of the ageing brain in humans and associated neuro-cognitive disorders, including genetic factors arising from ageing.

The research is led by Professor Perminder Sachdev at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, UNSW Sydney. The team is collaborating with leading neuro-psychiatrists in an investigation of cognitive and neuro-imaging of exceptionally old individuals.

Called the Sydney Centenarian Study, more than 300 people aged 95 and over, including centenarians, are taking part. The National Health and Medical Research Council-funded project entails follow-up assessments at six monthly intervals over the next two years.

Sachdev says the primary focus is on the ageing brain, and neuro-cognitive disorders, genetic factors associated with ageing and socio-cultural and lifestyle aspects.

"The world is witnessing a demographic shift towards an ageing of the population. Australians over the age of 90 are now the fastest growing proportion of our numbers,” he says. “Today, we have an estimated 3,000 centenarians in Australia and they are likely to reach 50,000 by 2050."

Oldest in the land

On her 110th birthday on 1 April this year, Nessie Kluckhenn became Australia’s oldest person. Far from declaring she was now ready to pass on, the record-setting old timer told a roomful of amused relatives at an aged care home in Melbourne: “It’s time I was looking for a third husband. I feel fantastic.’”