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"Above All, Remain Keen"

Lessons in life with the elderly

As the end of yet another academic year looms on the horizon, for many, initial feelings of relief and excitement can quickly turn to worry about what the future holds. Internship this, graduate job that — it can often feel as though the time to ‘get your s**t together’ is running out. 

In the hunt for reassurance, I met with Doreen and Margot, residents of Gibson House — an assisted-living residence in town for the elderly. In the sun lounge over a game of dominos, the two shared with me their life experiences and lessons they have learnt over the years — lessons that even the top university in the UK cannot teach us. 

Growing up in Aberdeen in the 1930s, Margot studied Music at the university there before going on to train as a librarian in Sheffield, England. Whilst she spoke fondly of her days working as a librarian, it quickly became obvious that her true passion in life was, in fact, music.

“It was actually the head of the Music Department [at Aberdeen] that put me forward to train as a librarian,” she recalled, “so that idea was sort of planted in my head from the start.”

Described as a “very talented pianist” by one of the carers on duty, I asked Margot if she had ever dreamt of becoming a musician after university.

“I never thought I would be good enough for that,” she said. By the sounds of it, she definitely would have been. 

Meanwhile Doreen — originally from Wales but having spent much of her life in Balmullo, Fife — didn’t attend university in her 20s like Margot. However, this hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her interest in the humanities in later life through remote university courses. 

“An interest is just something that carries with you,” she noted. “Over time you realise that you are interested in so many different things, and then you can start studying them. You’re never too old.”

Whilst we may get caught up in thinking that we must do everything now, in our 20s, Doreen is a testament to the fact that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Her story proves that it really is never too late to learn — so why do we give ourselves academic expiration dates? 

When it came to her job, Doreen spent much of her life working for Oxfam, travelling across Europe and delivering monetary aid to those in need — most notably, after WWII.

“We would have an amount of money, and we had to prove that where we were giving it, it was going to be used wisely. This meant that there were a lot of, ‘Are the people going to act as they told me they would?’ moments,” she said when describing the nature of her work. 

Whilst Italy was Doreen’s favourite country to work in, her experience there was nothing like the sun, sea, and pizza-filled one that you or I may have had. 

“You’re not staying there to have a good time,” she explained. “[In the wake of WWII], you’re there working, seeing some pretty awful things. This generation wouldn’t understand.”

When asked whether the job itself was dangerous, Doreen replied, “I think it could have been, yes, but we didn’t think that far.”

Margot agreed with Doreen’s analysis of danger — when you’re young, you fashion yourself invincible. “You don’t feel the danger,” she explained. “You don’t appreciate it.” 

Perspective, it seems, is a beautiful thing. Whilst the stress of studies and future employment is undoubtedly unpleasant, there are certainly worse problems to have. Perhaps we should be somewhat grateful the next time we are dissatisfied with an essay grade —  a disappointment that upsets our mood for all but ten minutes, not our entire lives.

According to the pair, times have certainly changed — and not necessarily for the better. However, when asked how the world today compares to the world she knew growing up, Doreen struggled to answer. When she finally did, she touched upon an important fact of adolescence. 

“It is difficult to say [how the world has changed], because I didn’t have the full picture of life then, whereas I feel as though I’ve got more of it now,” she concluded. 

As Doreen says, we can’t have a full picture of life at this age — we can barely even claim to have a quarter of it. All we can do is trust — trust that things will work out, trust that the mistakes you make now are unlikely to even smudge the greater canvas.

Moving away from work, the conversation turned to friendships, love, and life. 

For Margot and Doreen, friendship meant different things. When asked what piece of advice she would give her younger self about friendships, Margot enthusiastically stressed the need to keep up with friendships.

“It is a lot harder to keep up your friendships from university as people come from all over the place,’’ she explained, “which is all the more reason to keep them up.”

In other words, text that friend you haven’t spoken to in a while — don’t let that friendship die.

Doreen’s outlook, on the other hand, was very different. Context, it seems, has played a huge part in how she views friendship. When asked the same question as Margot, Doreen replied, “Don’t get too involved.”

Having never been in one place for very long has shaped Doreen’s perspective — one that is likely widespread at a university with such a large international student body. 

In a similar breath, when asked about her advice on love, Doreen said something that we probably all need to hear at some point in our lives: “Honestly, I don’t think you can give advice on love,” she admitted. “It is such a deeply personal, individualised thing. It’s something young people seem to want, and that can cause problems.”

“Stand back,” she added. “Let it come to you.”

In other words, don’t chase that person who is just not that into you, because there is someone out there that will be. Just let them find you. 

Now to perhaps the single most stress-inducing factor when it comes to thinking about the future — money. 

“Having worked for Oxfam, I know how desperately people need money,” Doreen recounted. “Trouble is, people who have money don’t use it wisely, and it is the people who are at the bottom of the pile that are having to manage that.”

“Don’t be greedy,” she concluded. “You never know when you will be the one in need.”

As our conversation came to an end and I got up to leave, Doreen unknowingly managed to slip in one final piece of her wisdom: “Above all, remain keen, Izzy — always.”

I think that’s it — that is the key to a successful future. As the end of the academic year draws near, above all else, remain keen in what you do. Always. The rest will sort itself out in due course. 

Illustration: Lindsay Martin


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