Dolores smiles at the camera with green tree leaves behind her

Dolores' story

Dolores Long was born in Manchester in 1943. She left at 18 and moved to London to train as a teacher, eventually becoming deputy head of a comprehensive school in Sheffield. 

At 44 she left Sheffield to be a VSO volunteer in Tanzania. She didn’t permanently return to the UK until a few months before her 60th birthday when she moved back to Manchester and continued working in education until she was 73. 

Now 80, she tells us about her experiences and why the activities on offer for older people frustrate her. 

"I'd always known that at some point in my life I wanted to work abroad. I got massive support from my family. Nobody said, ‘that's not a sensible thing to be doing at your age’. 

"When I went to Tanzania I thought I was going for two years and my job in Sheffield was being held for me. After six months I knew I wasn't going to go back to that job. I worked in Tanzania for three years at a government teacher training college, then in Egypt with the British Council, in Bangladesh with aid organisations and in Zambia with VSO again. 

"Whenever I met anybody, their first question would be ‘Are you married? Where's your husband? How many children have you got?’ At first I wondered whether I should be a bit discreet about my private life. Then I just thought ‘No, it’s not a bad thing for people, particularly women, to realise that you can do something different in midlife.’ 

"People were fascinated that I was a single parent and I had given up a well-paid job to go to Tanzania. When I left, the students gave me a really nice send off and couple of the women said ‘we've learned a lot about teaching from you but the thing that's been most important to us is seeing that you can do these things without being married and you can do them on your own’.

"When I was coming up to 60 I thought ‘If I don't go back to the UK now, I'll never get a job.’ I came back to Manchester because I knew that it was going to be easier to get a job here. It took me quite a long time to get an interview, probably because of my age, but I do think that the experiences I've had and the jobs I've done gave me a confidence and they picked up on that in the interviews." 

I realised that when I walked into a classroom that these teenagers from around the world were thinking ‘how come we've got the old woman?’ They were too polite to show it but I felt it and I could understand it because there were lots of cool younger staff. But once I got my foot in the door I can honestly say I didn't feel as though my age was a problem.

"I didn't want to go back into school teaching at the age of 60 so I was looking for work with older students. I took part-time roles teaching at Strangeways prison and at Risley Young Offenders Institution before moving to a language school where I worked until I retired at 73." 

A real role model 

"The thing that made all the difference to me in my life is that I had a very, very unusual mother. When I was growing up in the 1950s lots of women didn't go out to work but my mother was the main breadwinner and she worked full time. I was brought up in a household with three brothers but there was distinction made in terms of our activities. We all helped around the house and my brothers washed and ironed their own clothes, did the cooking, did the housework. 

"My dad didn't drive and didn't like traveling and mum knew that if she didn't do it on her own then it wasn't going to happen. She drove us from Manchester to Pompeii because she’d always wanted to go there. Three children and two army surplus tents in the back of a car!" 

I only thought about it when I retired, but the thing that made it possible to keep working until I was 73 was that I could get there very easily on public transport. I realised what a difference that made at that age, I think. I could walk out of my front door and get on the bus straight to work. I would not have wanted to do a long complicated commute by car.

"She also set up the first course for mature women in Manchester after realising how many had dropped out of education to have children kids when they were young. I was really lucky having a very, very strong role model for ‘you can do these things as a woman and you can do them at any age’.

"My mum would have been applauding me all the way on my travels and I always feel very sad that she didn’t see it happen. But I would not have gone away while my parents were still alive because they needed help and support." 

Rejecting ageist assumptions

"The most interesting things in my life happened from ages 40 to 60. I often used to think ‘my God, how lucky am I to be having these experiences at this age?’ Until I was in my early 40s it was a very straightforward life. It was slightly tougher because I was a single parent but even so it was fairly normal. I never expected that I would have the experiences that I had.

"When I got to my early 70s I realised that I had enough money to live on. My mum got dementia when she was 75 and I thought ‘we never know when things are going to happen that might stop us doing what we want to’. I realised that I needed a few years of doing all the things that I had never had time to do." 

My mum started getting dementia. I was a deputy head of a comprehensive school and really busy. I always used to get really annoyed that whenever anything went wrong the social worker would expect me to be able to drop what I was doing and sort it out. 

I used to say ‘have you phoned my brother? Social workers would say ‘wouldn't it be easier for everybody if your mom came to live with you?’ and I would say ‘well, no, because I have to work full time and I have to go out so she would still be on her own, leaving the kettle on or wandering about the streets. Because I had to go out to work full time. But there was a kind of sense that I wasn't doing my duty as a daughter. 

"One of the things I find difficult about getting older is I often find that the events that are put on for my age group are not challenging enough. I realise I'm very lucky to be fairly healthy but I don't want to think that being old is all about gossipy coffee mornings. I just think there should be things available for older people that push you a bit a bit more. 

"I don't actually spend an awful lot of time with older groups. I'm active in the Labour Party, I'm in walking groups, and I enjoy still being able to do activities with a mix of ages. There is an assumption that older people are all very similar but we are as varied and different from each other as younger people."

I always knew I wanted to work abroad so I did the TEFL course and that qualification gave me the opportunity to go into teacher training and work abroad. As soon as I met the other people who were on the course I realised that I was 20 years older than most of them. 

I think the advantage was that by that time I'd had 20 years’ experience of working in education and I that gave me confidence when I was doing my teaching practices. And I absolutely didn't find a problem being on a course with the younger people, I actually I enjoyed it.