In November 2018, Adam Zainal proudly tweeted about his grandmother receiving her Master’s degree in early childhood education. She was an 83-year-old graduate, and the Internet applauded her achievement with 15,000 likes plus 27,000 retweets and shares of his post.
Datin Siti Hendon Abdullah was happy to celebrate her graduation at Unitar, but she wasn’t about to rest on her laurels. The octogenarian has now put the pedal to the metal in pursuit of her PhD in early childhood education.
The retired headmistress believes age is no barrier in the pursuit of knowledge, especially for someone with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. And so late last year, she signed up for her PhD at a private university in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
“Despite being in my 80s, I still enjoy learning more things, be it reading academic books, magazines or autobiographies. There is no end to education,” she says.
Working on her PhD hasn’t been easy, especially with her failing eyesight. “Reading small print type is my biggest challenge, so I rely on my trusty magnifying glass to expand the words. Despite these hurdles, I look forward to classes each week. I still drive to college which is 10 minutes from home.”
The great-grandmother-of-two, who dedicates between one and four hours each day for studies, says learning has been made easier thanks to technology. She considers the Internet the greatest invention since sliced bread.
“I love Google. This search engine is my saviour. Plus, it is user-friendly for people of different ages and walks of life. I love how I can dig up information with a few clicks of the mouse. There are also digital libraries which enable me to study from the comfort of home,” she says.
While she may be comfortable trawling through the Internet now, her affair with technology didn’t start on the right foot. Some senior citizens are intimidated by technology, and have fears of navigating on small devices or complex menus on digital gadgets.
Some people term this as ‘geriatric technophobia’ where the elderly are skeptical about the benefits of technology.
“For the longest time, my four children tried to persuade me to use smart gadgets. I never bothered about these devices, thinking I could live without them. But things took a turn when I decided to further my studies in early childhood education,” Siti says.
She jokes about her struggle to get familiar with programmes like PowerPoint, Notepad and Word. “It took weeks to learn how to operate my laptop. My grandkids had to jot down step-by-step instructions on paper for me. I can never forget the many incidents when I didn’t save my work and had to re-do everything from scratch,” she recalls.
Now that she’s versed in technology, she’s convinced other seniors can also learn to use smart gadgets and manoeuvre through search engines on the Internet.
“If I managed to learn it in my late 70s, I’m certain other seniors can do it too. What’s needed is confidence and determination. Don’t hesitate to ask your children or grandchildren to guide you ,” says the retiree from Johor.
Age is just a number
It was boredom that led Siti Hendon to further her own education. “After retiring in 1991, I kept busy by attending religious classes and doing house chores. But I still had too much free time on my hands. I was beginning to feel bored and had a sense of emptiness,” she confesses.
Fearing health issues like depression and dementia could creep in, she opted to go for more studies specifically in early childhood education. Her doctorate specifically focused on literacy among young children.
“I’ve been teaching for over 37 years and I especially like teaching preschoolers. I believe in human capital. It’s important to provide toddlers and young children with the right foundation to enable them to further develop their cognitive thinking,” she says.
Siti Hendon has attended some 50 courses in early education in 25 years. Armed with her skills and certification, she set up a playschool beside her home in 1996. Her curriculum includes phonics, Montessori, as well as hands-on learning and collaborative play, and English.
Her four children support her by financing her studies, locally and abroad. “My husband and children have been very supportive of my pursuit of higher education. I’m blessed that they have stood by my side throughout my journey,” she says.
To ensure she has the energy for her studies, Siti – who will travel to Britain this month for another course – takes good care of her health. She has a balanced diet with lots of greens and moderate amounts of rice and protein. She makes it a point to include coconut milk in her meals.
“Coconut milk is good for the skin. It has high levels of Vitamin C which helps with skin elasticity. I control my sugar and salt intake to avoid diabetes and high blood pressure,” she says, adding that she sleeps six to eight hours every night.
To stay fit, she makes exercise part of her daily regime and goes for daily walks around the neighbourhood. “Keep the body moving daily. I still do housework to keep my body active. I have been a qigong practitioner for over 20 years. It helps with blood circulation and nervous system. I am hoping to try silat and zapin too,” she says.
Blessed with good health, great family support and a positive outlook, it’s no surprise that the voracious reader is able to sail smoothly through her education journey.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t stress too much and have high expectations. Life is a wonderful learning curve. Enjoy the journey and don’t forget to smell the roses along the way,” she advises. – Additional reporting by Amielia Karim.