Never let age stop you from pursuing your dreams. This was the advice Lily Fu, 70, gave her course mates in her valedictorian speech when she graduated with a Masters of Science in Applied Gerontology from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, in 2018.
Fu truly embodies that philosophy. She was the oldest in her class, but the self-professed “lifelong learner” didn’t let that or “the limitations of the ageing body and brain” get in the way of pursuing her ambition.
“I often say, you must have passion to achieve your dreams. Passion is a magnet. It will attract the right people and opportunities to allow you to achieve your dreams,” says Fu, who received her scroll in August 2018.
It was her zeal that led her to enrol in the Masters programme, even though the retired teacher couldn’t afford the costs. She says, “Going back to school was something I’d wanted to do for a while.”
“I’d enrolled in all sorts of courses related to ageing at the University of the Third Age (under Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Institute of Gerontology). Then in 2010, Prof (Dr Tengku) Aizan (Hamid), the director of the Institute of Gerontology, encouraged me to pursue my Masters, but the timing never seemed right.
“I heard about a Masters of Science in Applied Gerontology programme at the Singapore Institute of Management (now Singapore University of Social Sciences), but the logistics and fees posed a huge obstacle. Every scholarship I looked up had an upper age limit and mine was above that ceiling.
“Then in 2016, my daughter who resides in Singapore told me about this new course at NTU. I attended a preview and liked what I saw, but the fees were too high – tuition alone would cost me S$34,000 (RM104,000).
“But seeing how passionate I was, my daughter and son-in-law offered to pay for me, so I grabbed the offer. I hope this becomes a trend, where retirees can pursue their passion, funded by their adult children,” says the mum of two and grandma.
Being a full-time student at 70 wasn’t easy, Fu admits. She had to get used to new modes of learning and keep up with course mates who were much younger. But her can-do spirit and determination to not let age stop her pushed her to graduate – and also be class valedictorian. “It wasn’t so bad because my class was diverse in every way,” she says.
“Also in Singapore, there’s a huge focus on respect for the elderly. On trains, people give up their seats. On the road, they give way to pedestrians. Bus drivers help the elderly and those on wheelchairs to get on and off. I learnt a lot about what we can do for our elderly in Malaysia and I have come back with lots to share.”
The Masters programme covered many aspects of ageing including policy, advocacy, physiology of the ageing person, mental health, gerontechnology (assistive devices and technology that can help the elderly) and tanatology, the scientific study of dying.
“I never thought I’d be in a Masters of Science programme, but it was an interdisciplinary programme that was rich with the top people from the hospitals lecturing us. With my Masters’ credentials, people actually listen when I give talks, even though a lot of what I say is the same as before,” she says laughing.
Building A Community
Advocating for the elderly is something the Batu Pahat, Johor, native has been busy with for the last decade. In 2008, Fu started Seniors Aloud, a blog to raise the issues facing the elderly in Malaysia.
It’s a platform for seniors to network and share their stories. Though it started as an online portal, the blog has grown into a community of seniors who meet regularly for activities and workshops. The idea, Fu says, is to enable and help them empower each other to lead active, healthy lives.
“When I started Seniors Aloud, there weren’t many (initiatives) for the elderly. I had become a senior myself, and because I use public transport, I noticed the many issues the elderly face in this country.
“I’ve been taking public transport for years and I realise how unfriendly it is for seniors. Our bus stops don’t have any information about the busses and their routes. If there is a notice, the words are so small – how are the elderly going to read them?
“Another issue is the lack of wheelchair access. Even in KLCC, a premier mall, there’s very little disability access. A lot of doors are closed for seniors, a lot of needs are not met, and I want to give us a voice,” says Fu.
To create awareness, she began writing articles (now over 1,000) which she hopes will get the attention of policymakers who could initiate positive changes. She says, “Going online was the best solution because it was free and I could reach more people.”
“I had to learn how to set up a blog, take photos, write stories and design flyers on my own. I also went for a course on citizen journalism to help me write news stories,” says Fu, a retired teacher who taught at Kuen Cheng Girls School for over 30 years.
Recruiting members for her online community was tough, she confesses. Though there were no membership fees, many retirees were put off by the name of her portal.
“People don’t want to be labelled ‘seniors’, though they enjoy senior discounts. We need to project a positive image of the elderly and this starts with seniors ourselves. If we keep saying we’re too old to do things, how do we expect people to see us? We must change,” she says with conviction.
Before long, Seniors Aloud drew the attention of organisations and companies who invited the elderly to participate in programmes. Fu was invited to speak on ageing matters, but she realised that for people to take her seriously, she needed the “right credentials” which is why she pursued her degree.
Seniors Aloud has about 500 registered members and another 500 who regularly visit Fu’s blog and social media page. Among the ongoing education and awareness programmes organised for the Seniors Aloud community workshops to help seniors go online.
“There will come a time when we seniors will be mostly home-bound. But if we know how to use technology, we can remain connected to friends and the world. We can network with our friends and family even though we may not be able to go out,” says Fu. “Another is to be aware of online scams that target the elderly.”
With the knowledge and insights she’s gained from her time in Singapore and a change of government in Malaysia, Fu hopes to contribute to improving the lot of seniors in Malaysia.
“The new measures and incentives announced in the Budget 2019 is encouraging and we will have to see how these get implemented,” Fu says. “I’m ever willing to share my input and to be a part of bringing change for our seniors.”