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It’s never too late to study

CONSUMER STORY – Val Fell OAM hardly has time to herself to think. At the age of 93, she runs a support group for carers of people living with dementia, helps to organise annual dementia forums, is an active ambassador working with multiple national organisations and, most recently, was elected to the Council of the Elders.

Last updated: December 15th 2022
Val Fell is Australia’s oldest university student and enjoys studying dementia care. [Source: Supplied]

Val Fell is Australia’s oldest university student and enjoys studying dementia care. [Source: Supplied]

But up until her appointment to the Council, she fit study into her busy routine as well.

Ms Fell believes that study is one of the best ways to keep your mind active and healthy in retirement.

“I think it’s a good idea for when people are at the retiring age and looking for something to do. Learning something new is always good for the brain, it keeps yourself busy, keeps yourself active,” she says.

Turning 94 in February, Ms Fell is likely the oldest university student in Australia.

She is studying a Bachelor of Dementia Care with the University of Tasmania but has currently deferred the Degree for a time to focus more energy on the Council of the Elders role.

The Council position requires long monthly meetings and reading up to 60 pages worth of information – just for the meeting agenda – so is akin to studying a course in itself.

Deciding on a topic of study

Ms Fell has a background in statistics, first studying at the University of Sydney, then studying in London, and worked as a statistician for both large organisations and her own business before retiring.

Her path to studying in the health field began after her husband, Ian, was diagnosed with dementia in 2006. While caring for Ian, Ms Fell attended carer support groups and when he passed away in 2013, she decided to continue going to the groups to help other carers.

When the date of these meetings changed and there were some carers that could no longer make it, Ms Fell started up a new carer support group at a more convenient time.

To further assist the carers she supported, Ms Fell completed a support group leaders’ course and the two Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on dementia offered by the University of Tasmania.

For Ms Fell, pursuing more knowledge on the topic of dementia care just made sense. 

“I thought, well if I continue to study and get the background in the health field, the people who I’m helping will have more confidence in what I’m telling them,” explains Ms Fell.

“They’re going to start asking me questions so I better have the answers.”

For others looking to study in retirement, Ms Fell suggests choosing a dementia course if you have someone in your family with dementia – you don’t have to be their full-time carer – or choosing a topic of study that you enjoy as a hobby.

You don’t have to go to university either, Ms Feel says, as there are many shorter courses run by registered training organisations, advocacy groups and even local governments.

Ms Fell says University of the Third Age (U3A) groups are also a great place to go for learning opportunities.

A more informal class, not considered part of learning a course but still providing the opportunity to develop skills, could also be beneficial, according to Ms Fell.

“One thing I always think is good to suggest is to learn to dance, because when you’re dancing you’re learning steps and focusing, so it’s good for the mind, but also you’re keeping active,” says Ms Fell.

She also suggests playing a sport or doing something physical which also requires you to focus your mind, learning new things while you travel, taking art classes or doing meaningful activities in your community.

Meaningful activities in particular can “keep you going for a long time”, according to Ms Fell, who has always been community-minded and involved in volunteer work.

University has changed

As she lives in Illawarra, New South Wales, Ms Fell has been doing all of her study online.

“I’ve been to the University of Tasmania when I went down there [for] a conference but I don’t go to lessons there, I do it all online, so it’s a completely different thing, and you meet your classmates on Zoom!” she says.

Already quite tech savvy, Ms Fell nevertheless says she has moments occasionally where she gets “bombed” and technology just doesn’t do the right thing.

Her classmates and teachers are usually very understanding though.

While, study is more flexible now than when she did her first stint at university back in 1946, Ms Fell says she thinks students miss out on “the collegiate experience” and the discussion of ideas that would go on in a classroom compared to studying online.

She thinks the group assignments and smaller meetings that connect classmates online are a good way to keep that interaction in the online courses.

“If you’ve got those kinds of things linked to your course and not everything is a straight-up lecture, that’s good, and I think that happens in most cases which have a practical element to them,” she says.

As for study tips, Ms Fell suggests “putting your mind to it and concentrating on it”.

“When you’ve got a deadline you know you’ve got a deadline and you’ve got to meet it,” she explains.

If necessary, you can also put your study on hold to give yourself more time for other priorities and come back to it later, just as Ms Fell is doing.

Have you thought about studying in retirement? Tell us what options you’re considering in the comments below.

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Advocating for a person with dementia
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