79-year-old student determined to get PhD

79-year old Olive Bryanton in the middle of working on her PhD, the oldest student at UPEI to do so.

'We need a lot more research to make good informed decisions'

79-year-old Olive Bryanton says she loves research. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Olive Bryanton is the oldest student ever at the University of Prince Edward to be pursuing a PhD.

The 79-year-old began working on her doctorate in education a few years ago and she's beginning an intensive research phase now. 

"I do enjoy research and I certainly see the value in it," said Bryanton. 

Bryanton, who is also a great grandmother, said although she may be older than other students on campus she's feeling good about doing her PhD.

"I think 'oh can this old brain do it?' but yes it can. It takes maybe a little bit longer but I can do it." 

Olive Bryanton on campus at UPEI. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Senior specific research

Bryanton's research will focus on women 85 years and older, living in rural P.E.I. She calls them the pioneers of aging. She plans to interview 10 women and gather information from them. 

"What are their experiences, what is supporting them as they age in place, what are some of the barriers or limits they run into," she said.    

Bryanton said there's little research that's been done in the area.

Jessie Lees is a professor working with Bryanton on her doctoral thesis committee. 

"She's doing very solid work," said Lees. "I think the fact that Olive herself is not 20 years old, she'll bring a great deal to it, simply because she has feeling for what it is like to grow older."

The dean of the Faculty of Education, Ron MacDonald, praised her unique research.

"I believe findings from this study can be applied across the country," MacDonald said.

Olive Bryanton in the library at UPEI. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Longtime advocate

Bryanton is a well-known seniors advocate who has worked on countless projects. She was co-ordinator of the P.E.I. Seniors Federation and started a newspaper called Voice for Island Seniors. She helped establish a seniors centre in Charlottetown which opened in 1993. She's also worked for the P.E.I. Gerontology Association and at the P.E.I. Centre on Health and Aging at UPEI. 

In May 2000, Bryanton received an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from UPEI recognizing her for her work. 

We need a lot more research to make good informed decisions.— Olive Bryanton

Going digital

Bryanton will be using a research method called photovoice.

Participants will be asked to take photos with a digital camera to give insight into their lives. Everyone will get some basic training in using digital cameras too. "One photo is worth 1000 words really," said Bryanton

"They're going to show me their pictures of what is their reality." 

87-year-old Connie Auld helped try out the technology when Bryanton was putting together her proposal to the university. She took a photo of her table set for one. "It's a lonesome setting really," she said.

Connie Auld's photo she took of her table. (Connie Auld)

Still looking for subjects

Bryanton believes there are thousands of women living independently in their elder years, but she is still looking for people to interview.

"I know there are lots of them out there … there's still so many of them in their nineties, and up into the hundreds," she said.

The criteria requires people to live at least one kilometre from amenities such as a bank, a grocery store, etc.

"They can be living alone or they can be living with someone else, but they're still making their own decisions and still doing their own thing, still going out and being part of their community," she said. 

Bryanton has been working on her PhD since September 2013.

Hopes to makes a difference

Olive Bryanton hopes her research will help governments and groups working with seniors.

"We'll certainly be sharing the results of the research," she said  

"This research will show what older adults are bringing to our society, they are not a drain on society, they contribute constantly.' 

Bryanton plans to graduate with her PhD in May 2018. 

About the Author

Laura Meader is a video journalist for CBC P.E.I.