Master of Ageing - student profile

Meet students in our Master of Ageing program

Image: Ruth Williams

New directions in ageing: from China to Bairnsdale

Lei Chen was born in Shanghai, China during the nation’s one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979. Now living in Australia, the project manager and student of the online Master of Ageing course at the University of Melbourne is “acutely aware of the impending significant change in the nature and meaning of elderly care, in both family and social settings, caused by such artificial distortion in a nation's birth rates.”

Almost 40 years on, China’s controversial family planning measure has drastically reshaped the communist countries demographic make-up. According to the China Association of Social Security, the elderly population is expected to reach 400 million by the end of 2035. While China is now grappling with this phenomenon, it’s a reality that propelled Mr Chen to study the Master of Ageing course in the hope he “could find the best possible solution” for himself, so that his parents “can age well in the best possible way under the circumstances.” He also expects to use his knowledge “to help many others in a similar situation.”

In less than 10 years, Mr Chen believes a large number of his parents’ generation will reach their 70s and will start to need some level of care, as well as appropriate social infrastructure to support their lifestyle choices as they phase out of participating in economic activities. He explains that the family tree structure “will generally look like 4-2-1 which means four grandparents, two adult parents and one dependent child.”

Responding to complex needs of ageing populations

Mr Chen is a 36-year-old father who’s dipped his toes into intergenerational living with his in-laws and three-year-old daughter. He’s also on a mission to help the elderly Chinese community in Australia. He explains that he’s working on “starting up an organisation which seeks to provide information, service and capacity building.” The genesis for this project sprung from the Master of Ageing subject, Leadership in an Ageing Workforce and Mr Chen says the platform will be designed to encompass areas such as “housing, health, intergenerational relationship advice, access to local services (both government and private), opportunity to form interest groups, and further employment prospects.” Mr Chen’s aim is to empower the elderly Australian-Chinese community to “live a more engaging, meaningful and richer life with the support of this platform.”

The Master of Ageing course has taught Mr Chen to unlearn and relearn things he thought he knew. He explains that one of the misconceptions he had about ageing was that “an ageing population puts an economic burden on society and is a hindrance to workplace productivity.” He adds, “Having learned about the non-economic value the older generation can provide such as informal care, tacit knowledge, wisdom, social capital, mentoring and the enablers we can provide them such as flexible work arrangements, life-long learning, and education and training in technology – it is best that as individuals as well as society in general – we should embrace this demographic shift and build a better and fairer society around this opportunity.”

Age no barrier to lifelong learning

For 89-year-old grandmother Lorna Prendergast, born in the regional Victorian town of Bairnsdale and who has lived there all her life, the Master of Ageing course has opened an exciting new path. The retired librarian hopes one day that with her new-found skills she will “get the opportunity to advocate for a better quality of life for the elderly.”

The decision to study online at such a late stage in life was made by Mrs Prendergast after a series of events involving her late husband Jim, who passed away in 2016 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The mother of five reminisces about an overseas trip she took with Jim almost 20 years ago when she says she noticed “he started to lose his way”. Prior to this she says Jim was like a “homing pigeon” and they had travelled the world with trips to the UK, Canada and New Zealand, with some of the trips built around Jim’s passion for aviation. Jim had written the book, ‘RAAF Bairnsdale - the story of a war-time aerodrome’ and enjoyed painting aeroplanes.

Aged care with a difference: Music as medicine  

When Mrs. Prendergast’s husband became ill and was eventually admitted to a nursing home, it was a bleak time for the driven octogenarian, but she noticed something positive which peaked her interest. She saw a distinct pattern in how music affects memory and behaviour. The staff at the nursing home were happy to let Mrs. Prendergast play music DVD’s for the residents, and she says she noticed that when Jim joined in the singing he would “come back to be his old self for a while.” She remembers that he would mostly be listening to Andre Rieu, British songs of WWII, and Christmas Carols, as well as Irish and Italian classics. It was these moments that planted a seed in Mrs. Prendergast’s mind, eventually pushing her towards her current study.

The real catalyst however prompting her to study happened by chance.  After Jim passed away, she stumbled across ABC TV’s ‘Catalyst’ program, which featured several different universities demonstrating how music, played in the right genre, could temporarily help bring back the memory of a person living with dementia. This is when she knew she had to find out more.

For Mrs. Prendergast, the Master of Ageing course has given her a new sense of purpose. Since commencing her online studies she has had an opportunity to research music and memory and found that “the amount of information available now is absolutely phenomenal.” She adds, “All the material I’m reading is so interesting and the discussion board is absolutely magic, we have such an interesting exchange of information.”

So, what will Mrs. Prendergast do with her recently acquired skills? Not deterred by her age, she says she “may write a book or journal articles in an attempt to make it more widely understood that people with dementia can benefit from music.”

To find out more about the different courses and subjects available within the online Ageing program at the University of Melbourne download a course guide.

[Source: Serpil Senelmis, The University of Melbourne]