Lorna Prendergast made headlines around the world this week when she graduated from the University of Melbourne at the age of 90 with a Masters of Ageing. Here, she explains what inspired her to go back to school – and why it’s never too late to dream.
Anywherethere was an aeroplane, you’d find Jim.
My husband of 64 years, Jim was a very bright man. He was recognised for his extensive knowledge of aviation history. He had at least 300 books about aeroplanes; he built several hundred model aeroplanes to scale; and he was a great artist – he painted planes, of course.
He was friends with the guys at the local newspaper here in Bairnsdale, and whenever they wanted to know anything about aeroplanes, they came to see him. Of the two of us, he really should have been the one with the degree. He should have had a doctorate, actually.
He even wrote a book, RAAF Bairnsdale: The Story of a Wartime Airfield. But by the end, he couldn’t sign his name to autograph it.
His dementia snuck up on us. I don’t think I had ever even heard of Parkinson’s disease before he was diagnosed with it. And his symptoms weren’t constant, not at first. I was able to nurse him at home for a long, long time. But by his 15th fall, the doctors decided he was going to hospital, whether he liked it or not.
He went into a nursing home, and I stayed with him there. I would play music for him and the other people in his wing, and I noticed it always seemed to calm them down.
Music seemed to help Jim with his memory. Anytime a choir visited the home, they always remarked on how wonderful his voice was. He never missed a note and he never missed a word, right up until his last Christmas, about a fortnight before he died.
For about a year or so after Jim died, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I guess I tried to just go about my routine. Then I saw an episode of Catalyst on the ABC about what music can do for people with dementia.
For about a year or so after Jim died, I wasn’t really sure what to do.
They interviewed researchers from around the world who were studying the same things I had noticed in the nursing home with Jim and the other residents. They ran an MRI scan on a lady whose brain lit up when she listened to music. There was another lady who hadn’t spoken for two years, and when she heard the music she loved, she started clapping her hands and saying, ‘Everybody up!’, just like they used to on the dancefloor.
They showed a dear old man with Parkinson’s and his therapist – he had frozen up, but when they put the music on, the pair of them waltzed.
It was just so beautiful. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I know what I’ve got to do now. I’ve got to find out more about this.’
Jim always said, ‘If you want to know something, go straight to the top.’ So I applied to the University of Melbourne’s Master of Ageing course, and they were good enough to accept me.
I’m a person who’s always enjoyed learning. I have bachelor’s degrees in Arts and Education, a graduate diploma in Education Administration, and an associateship of the Library Association of Australia (ALAA). I’ve studied a lot of family history, and I worked as a librarian. I know how to research, so that part of it wasn’t at all strange to me. The difference is that it’s all online now.
As a librarian, I had one of the first computers with an internet connection in Bairnsdale. But that’s going back a while, and they have all these wonderful databases now that didn’t exist back then. There was a lot for me to catch up on, but everybody at the university was so friendly and helpful. They really have been like family to me.
Of course, if the course wasn’t all online, I wouldn’t have been there. Bairnsdale is about 300 kilometres east of Melbourne, and I’m too old to be travelling up and down all the time. I wasn’t even sure I’d go to my graduation ceremony. I told my kids that I’d be just as happy to stay at home and let the university post out my certificate.
My kids insisted that I go to the ceremony, and they travelled from around Australia to be there. I’m so pleased I didn’t miss it. We had the most wonderful weekend in Melbourne, and my granddaughters even accompanied me on stage when I received my degree. They’re such lovely girls.
CS Lewis once said that you’re never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream, and I firmly believe that. We’re living so much longer now, and it would be good if older people could go back and study in greater numbers. We have a different perspective to younger people – when I participated in the online tutorials and discussions, I found that I learnt from them and I hope they learnt from me.
CS Lewis once said that you’re never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream, and I firmly believe that.
Everybody is asking me what I’m going to do next. Well, for the moment, I’m going to straighten up my house. I’m not a particularly tidy person at the best of times, as my kids would be happy to attest, and it’s really fallen by the wayside while I’ve been concentrating on my studies.
In the long term, I want to get more music into nursing homes. Personal music, music that the residents remember, music that helps them to come back and be able to talk and reminisce for a little while before they lapse off again. I would like to think that one day, we’ll see music therapy, or reminiscence therapy, in every nursing home in Australia.
In fact, I just saw the power of music in action — at Jim’s old nursing home.
Up until now, I just hadn’t been able to make myself go back there. But one of my friends who had heard about the graduation called and asked me to go with her to watch her choir perform there. I thought, well, I better put my money where my mouth is, so I said yes.
It was the most delightful day. The choir was so professional, and they played some beautiful songs going back to the war years, the sort of songs my mother used to play on her piano. The residents knew all the songs, and they had such a wonderful time, singing along with every word. I was singing along with them, even though I’m an awful singer.
It was nice to go back to the last home Jim lived in, because they’d been so good to him there. But the truth is, I never go anywhere without Jim.
I’ve always got his photograph with me, and every now and again I look at it and I see a big smile on his face.
He’s been smiling a lot lately.