Since she retired as a teacher in 1997, Montrealer Irene Steiner has written her first book and earned her second and third degrees from Concordia University.
Now 89, the Romanian-born senior embraces the idea of learning as a lifelong pursuit, and is taking courses in English literature at McGill University, studying the likes of E.M. Forster and Shakespeare for fun.
She does find it hard to pinpoint the source of her motivation, however.
“I can't give you a logical answer. I just wanted to do it. When I got my degree in English literature in 2011, I didn't even go to graduation,” she says. “I just didn't feel I'd finished.”
She made up for that last year, when she earned her bachelor of arts in philosophy and classics at Concordia.
While she feels blessed to benefit from the good genetics which have imbued her with a creative mind and sharp memory, she adds that getting daily exercise has helped further this end.
That consists of either swimming or walking up Mount Royal on a daily basis, and as a form of mental and social stimulation, she drives to play bridge a few times a week.
“I like to feel that I'm going out every day,” she says. “It was Frank Sinatra who said ‘I'm going to live till I die.’”
She routinely gets asked for what advice she would give to other seniors, but she cautions that it would be wasted on people her age. Healthy habits have to be adopted at a younger age, she says, and parents have to raise their children to be active and to eat well.
“I never dieted in my life,” she says. “But I remember when my children were little, there was never a soft drink in my house and we never had dessert and my children have now continued doing the same thing.”
While she does have a glass of wine occasionally with a meal, she confesses she used to smoke when she was younger – “Who didn’t?” she says – but gave up when science started to reveal the true damage caused by tobacco.
Whatever vices people choose to enjoy, though, Ms. Steiner says people should feel free to embrace them, but to also be aware of the cost.
“I’ve seen so many instances where people say, ‘I live only once and if I enjoy my cigarette I’m going to have it and if I enjoy my dessert I’m going to have it,’” she says. “You cannot argue with that, but it does have consequences.”
That she is still making the most of life as she gets set to enter her 10th decade on earth in October should come as no surprise for anyone who has read her book, a fictionalized version of real-life events published 2014.
A Life of the Twentieth Century, written under the pen name Irene Even, covers her life from her early childhood right up until her retirement.
Born in the Romanian village of Nagyfalu, Ms. Steiner was sent to a Jewish boarding school in Budapest, Hungary, at age 12. That existence changed dramatically two years later when the Nazis arrived.
“As soon as they marched in, they had these posters that Jews have to wear a yellow star and they have to move into the ghettos,” she says. “Most of the kids from the schools went home because most of us came from the provinces to Budapest, but I was left behind.”
Ms. Steiner and other children were approached by men from a Zionist organization, who gave them a choice to either go into a bunker or to carry false papers and act as a Christian. She ended up with false papers, and after the Russians took over Budapest, she ended up immigrating to the Palestinian territories, and ultimately, Canada.
Having seen so much upheaval in her own life, Ms. Steiner says she looks on with keen interest as countries across the globe deal with mass migration and conflict. But while she completed her degree in philosophy and classics just last year, she refuses to elaborate on how her experiences shape her opinion of our current state.
“You know, I’m not a professional philosopher.”