Firsts are second nature to Olive Bryanton. 

As a part-time employee with the PEI Senior Citizens’ Federation, Bryanton led the team that established the first drop-in centre for older residents on the island. It’s still going strong today. 

Working with a psychology professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, Bryanton helped obtain funding for the province’s first seniors’ college. Now in its 20th year, the lifelong learning program has grown from three courses held on campus to more than 100 courses offered in three locations throughout the province. 

As a mature student, Bryanton found the UPEI campus “a cold place.” So she started an association for mature, part-time students. It is still active.

Now Bryanton is about to achieve another personal and professional first – and make island history. This fall she will receive her PhD in Educational Studies, the oldest individual to earn a doctorate degree from UPEI. (Technically, this is Bryanton’s second doctorate. In 2000, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from UPEI for her work with older islanders.)

“I can’t imagine,” Bryanton says, “what my life would have been like if I hadn’t decided to continue my studies.”

The most recent trip to the podium has been a lifelong journey for Bryanton. As a young girl growing up in rural PEI, she followed a familiar path. She graduated from high school, which was then Grade 10, got married at 19 and went on to have five children. After several years, Bryanton returned to school to become a licensed practical nurse. She started out in obstetrics, but it was not long before she was researching, advocating for and inspiring older individuals. 

After wavering on whether to get her PhD, the lure of learning convinced Bryanton to return once more to campus in 2013 to explore what she calls “kindness in aging.” Her thesis focuses on women 85 years of age and older living in rural PEI. Using a research technique known as photovoice, Bryanton recruited 10 women to tell the story of their lives in pictures.

“The end result is supposed to be social change. That is your hope,” says Bryanton. 

That hope has already been realized. Each participant, from every county on the island, was trained to use a digital camera and challenged to capture her life in images. Participants were then challenged to select the four photos that best represented their reality. Two years ago, those photos were on display at the group’s final get-together. Friends and family were invited. The provincial minister responsible for family and human services also dropped by – and stayed.

Four months later, inspired by what she saw and heard at the event, then Minister Tina Mundy unveiled the Seniors Independence Initiative to provide practical services such as light housekeeping, meal preparation, general maintenance, snow removal and transportation – making it easier for islanders to remain in their own homes and communities. “I was over the moon,” says Bryanton, who has gone on to present her research and share her insights at conferences in North America and Europe. 

For Bryanton, a member of AGE-WELL’s Older Adult and Caregiver Advisory Committee, education in any form is empowering. “It makes you grow as a person,” she says. “Age doesn’t matter.”