A diagnosis of dementia prompted Veronica Ashby to embark on a series of new learning challenges, which included completing a Master’s in The Green Economy at the age of 82.
Having missed out on the opportunity to attend university after finishing school in the mid-1950s, Veronica later returned to education as a single mother of two, completing her O-Levels, A-Levels and a degree in education to become a teacher and then head of science. She went on to help design the science curriculum nationally before taking early retirement to run a smallholding and lead a charity sending computers to schools in Kenya.
It wasn’t until a routine eye test in 2010 that Veronica was referred for an MRI scan and diagnosed with suspected frontal lobe dementia. A further scan in 2014 re-assessed the condition as pseudo dementia. She said: “This was life-changing; I expected that I would be no more than a zombie in a matter of a few years. I went into an angry and denial mode of dealing with it; testing my mental capacity to the full, monitoring the responses and finding strategies to cope with the increasing memory issue. I enrolled in several Future Learn courses because I needed to find out how the cognitive part of my brain was functioning. One of the courses was about sustainable development and I became so engrossed in the subject that I wanted to learn more. I also wanted to test my intellectual skills further, so I applied and was delighted to be accepted onto the The Green Economy Master’s course at BU.”
Once enrolled on the course, Veronica set about finding strategies to cope with the intellectual demands. She said: “The greatest challenge was the memory issue. I could read, enjoy and understand the questions and reading material and know how I wanted to answer them, but I could not retain the information long enough to write it in my answer. I found strategies to deal with this. I have problems typing words and sentences in the correct order, but the use of spelling and grammar software, as well as using ‘speak mode’ to get my thoughts down, were a great help. It still took ages to complete written text and any interruptions to my thinking process meant that I needed to go back to square one to pick up where I left off. My technological skills were way out of date, and so I welcomed the endless support of the BU technical team.”
Despite the challenges, Veronica relished the learning experience and the knowledge and new interests she acquired. She said: “The positives far outweighed the negatives and the struggles. Realising my own ability and worth re-assured me that dementia was not a life sentence. The patience, tolerance and support from the BU teaching, library, Brightspace and technical teams was amazing and restored my faith in society at large. I am also grateful to my tutors, including Rick Stafford, who had a large part to play in my achievements. The joy my studies have given to my close family, and some of the burden it took from their shoulders, has made a huge difference.”
When asked for her advice to other mature learners, or those facing additional barriers, Veronica says: “Never give up on yourself, take things in your stride and bit by bit. Don’t beat yourself up when you get things wrong – we all do that at times – and the rewards will make it worth the struggles and stay with you forever.”
And while the course has now come to an end, Veronica continues to draw on the experience. She said: “I am finding ways to be more sustainable in my everyday routines, as well as passing that information on by chatting and encouraging others to do likewise. In my research subject, I gathered information about how the subject of sustainability is being included in the current primary school curriculum. I would like to take this further and would be very interested in getting involved in the in-depth designing of science for year 6 students. In addition, I am currently involved in providing information that will hopefully be useful in current dementia research work.”