Jan 09, 2003

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Making a wish list and checking it twice

As more family members begin to wonder how their newly widowed mother or freshly retired father will fill their time, we need to find out what our aging population really needs.
By Betty Amos
At a time when the advertising fraternity tries to line up still more cruises to the Caribbean, and as more and more family members begin to wonder how their newly widowed mother or freshly retired father will fill their time, we need to find out what our aging population really needs.

One possible solution is to simply ask them this question: What is left of your wish list from back in the heyday - when you spent more time pursuing a career along with a raise in pay? Or, when you were packing lunches and making lists for yourself and the kids while trying to find time to read a good book?

Come with me to a senior students' class at SFU's Harbour Centre and meet some of those who may have said: “Oh, how I wished to have time to think - to learn something new or to learn more of what I learned in school.” These are the men and women who want to learn and are willing to work at it diligently. If they obtained a degree in their younger years, it was usually part of the package on which they had built their business or progressed in a particular line or work.

Don't be surprised if I tell you, seriously, that many of the present group of senior students did not pursue a secondary education. When you grow up in an era of economic depression with a world war at the end of it, your chances of financing a round of university or college studies are remote. Some never achieved high school graduation and others scraped by with an elementary education. Nonetheless, they can still yearn to learn.

I'm speaking from experience here. When I finally landed a job with regular pay, in 1940, I didn't fret that I had not become a doctor, as I used to say I would. I just did the work, took the money home and helped the family survive. Gradually, my mind began exploring and asking: what else is there? Then, when I was19, an older lady of nearly 40 told me to go to school and suggested some topics. Since I lived near Toronto, I signed up for a night school course in journalism at the University of Toronto. Next season I studied psychology. Later, economics, then advertising management.

I discovered that learning and searching for learning can be the key to a reasonably happy life.

When I came west, in 1968, I enrolled in night classes at UBC and continued them after retirement.

Late in the summer of 1985, when I was retired, my life changed when I met Kenneth Conibear, departmental assistant in English charged with organizing the seniors courses. I was enrolled as a B.A. undecided senior student at Simon Fraser University. The goal, which Conibear outlined, was to gain a certificate of senior citizen. The dean of arts presented me with one some time later.

Although my heart is now firmly anchored in SFU when it comes to academic learning, my other pleasure, travel, takes precedence sometimes. Then, off I go to see some part of the globe that is still on my other wish list. Hence, I may never attain that B.A. in general studies.

I find I am not alone in this situation. One former Fraser Valley school teacher, who sat beside me for quite a few courses, was among the first to receive a certificate but, at 93, she was still working to pile up enough credits to be awarded a B.A. Her obituary in the local paper made reference to that fact. It should have. That was Vivian Knight's aim as she applied herself to learning new things every semester. That made her a true Opsimath.

Opsimath is a word that Conibear introduced to the senior students when he helped them to organize a club for themselves. It is a Greek expression meaning, learning in later life.

The program, like the participants, went through some growing pains. Initially, only credit courses were provided, but the numbers of students kept climbing. A few years after Harbour Centre opened, attention began to focus on what are now known as non-credit courses to create more opportunities for more seniors. What were once known as regular courses, became credit courses. These serve seniors aiming for a certificate and/or a degree, as well as Opsimaths who just like to study, write essays, sit for an exam and take an active role in the class.

There is plenty of active role emphasis in the non-credit classes, but no exams and a shorter term. For these classes the senior students pay to attend. In credit classes there is no tuition fee for senior students who are 60 or older.

Many lecturers who teach a seniors' class for the first time approach the task warily. Some, such as Vancouver Sun columnist Trevor Lautens, grit their teeth at the idea of teaching old people. Lautens was not the first to find out that the shoe is just about on the other foot. These old guys are there to learn - they are not trying to get a degree which will help them get the job they would like to have. Dad has not paid for them to sit in that chair. More than a few first time lecturers for seniors have told me they would like to come back. They note that these students actually listen, really read the texts assigned, write a good quality essay, and hand it in on time. They ask questions, often argue a point, speak with respect and (by and large) display good humour. No wonder they want to return. Probably this comment is beginning to sound like a regular student's appraisal of life at SFU. Why not? We are just that. And it still continues to amaze some of us that we are lucky enough to share in this experience. That we are able to keep the lamp burning; to learn something new, different, exhilarating and important; to be able to share with others from around the Lower Mainland and as far away as the Sunshine Coast.

I salute the diligent wish finders who have captured the plum - the full degree.

The first seniors from the Opsimath club to receive degrees were Robert Telow and Constance Tribe in 1982. By 1998 over 100 club members had donned the cap and gown. In recent years seniors have been listed in almost every convocation.

As the seniors proceed toward acquiring a degree, they also earn the senior certificate on which the program for seniors was established. The first recipient of this was Georgie May Hagerty in 1978. Again, the record shows more than 100 recipients of the certificate by late 1997, plus the other 100 who earned it on the road to achieving their degree.

The registration office at Harbour Centre can assist aspiring full-time students. The continuing studies office has all the answers about courses.

See you in class.

Elizabeth (Betty) Amos, 79, is president of the SFU Opsimath club. Before retiring in 1983, she pursued a career in public relations and editing and writing. She also lectured in public relations at the University of Toronto and in market planning at Indiana State and Roosevelt Universities. In 1970, Amos was the first woman in western Canada to become an accredited professional public relations practitioner.

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