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What to do in retirement: our over-50s reporter checks out U3A

Monday, September 19, 2016

Craft session

The UK’s biggest ‘University’ has no campus, no lecturers and definitely no student loans stretching into infinity. Set up in 1982, it's the ‘University of the Third Age’ (or U3A for short), currently keeping the brains and bodies of almost 400,000 older people busy. Tony Watts, a member of the Partnership Development Group of the Age Action Alliance, has been discovering what the ‘U3A’ might offer him after he retires from full-time work.

  • A thousand local social and learning hubs
  • Seminars, language classes, exercise groups and leisure pursuits
  • A great way to stay healthy, social and active
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An astonishing array of courses

For some 383,000 people in Britain, a number growing by 6 per cent per annum, U3A is the opportunity to stretch their minds, tone their bodies and build their social circle.

‘We’re aimed at people no longer in full-time employment,’ says national chair Pam Jones, ‘primarily those in later life who have “divested themselves” of their main responsibilities of working or raising a family.

‘That said, many members still have part-time jobs and a large number have voluntary roles as well. Many also have caring responsibilities.’

Go along to any group and, as well as receiving a warm welcome, you’ll find there’s an astonishing array of topics to pursue. Cheddar Valley U3A in Somerset – my local group – is typical, with around 400 members and some 50 active groups – from Spanish to singing, poetry to pottery, walking to woodwork and craft classes to ‘Cooking for men’ – where gents learn how to negotiate the kitchen.

I dip into the Science Group to test the water. Marion Clements – a former science teacher – is leading this morning’s session on the circulatory system. Crammed into one of the member’s living rooms is a lively group of around a dozen men and women – many of whom have retired from jobs in engineering, science and medicine, but who are keen to keep their knowledge current as well as enjoying a pleasant few hours.

‘We’re here to learn from each other,’ says Marion. ‘It’s all about sharing what we know in a very sociable and stimulating setting.’

Marion’s presentation is followed by questions and answers, and others chipping in their own facts and figures on what keeps our pulses racing; I leave feeling distinctly more erudite – and the biscuits and homemade cakes weren’t bad either…

Marion says that numbers will vary, depending on the topic – and can cover any branch of science and technology; next, another member will be marking time with a talk on old clocks.

Cooking session

''We're here to learn from each other''

With numbers steadily going up, future meetings of the Science Group are planned for the common room kindly offered gratis by a local care home – keeping costs down like this enables those on tight budgets to fully participate.

While the ‘learning’ part is a serious element of the U3A’s philosophy, most groups do not try to be academic in their approach. There are no exams or qualifications at the end of a course: all the groups are run by fellow members – many passing on skills and knowledge built up over their lifetime, and sharing their passions with others.

Quiz session

''It's a time to develop ourselves''

While nominally each group has a leader, other members bring their knowledge to the group too – and guest speakers are often invited. If enough people think there’s a topic they’d like to pursue, a new group is born.

There are groups dedicated to keeping physically active too – Tai Chi, walking, dance – while a host of social activities, outings and gatherings brings members together on a regular basis.

‘The move out of full-time work can prove very challenging,’ says Marion Clements, who joined Cheddar Valley U3A 14 years ago after the loss of her husband, and also now has a national role as Vice Chair. ‘The workplace can also be the place where you have many of your friends. Equally, some of us have had a busy time raising a family or caring for someone.

‘When that role is lost, it can create a huge hole in your life. The U3A filled that gap for me – and I know it has done the same for so many other members. It’s also a chance to develop part of ourselves where perhaps we thought it was too late.’

As Pam Jones points out, ‘An awful lot of older people can find themselves isolated: joining a U3A can break down the barriers that form around us. We know that loneliness and isolation contribute to poor health – so effectively the U3A can save you going to the doctor!

Another member of the Science Group is Sue Bathe, who joined Cheddar Valley U3A a couple of years ago, and she an her husband are good examples of how membership can turn your social life around. ‘I joined when my husband retired,’ she says. ‘He realised that he knew few people locally: he had been commuting quite a distance for many years so had had very little time for socialising, while I have always been involved in village life.

‘We decided to join and we soon found groups that interested us – I’m doing craft, science and digital photography amongst others. We now help with the communications for the group: I edit the newsletter while Geoff has taken on the website. In my working life I was a research engineer where proofreading and editing technical papers were part of my job.

‘We realised how many more people we now knew when, at the local Flower Show recently, a dozen or more of the people who came to talk to us were from the U3A. We both really feel part of our wider local community now.’

So where does the U3A go from here? ‘We’re continuing to grow,’ says Pam Jones, ‘and there’s no sign of that slowing. With all the ‘baby boomers’ coming into retirement there will be plenty of new members joining in the years ahead.’

Will I be going along to my local U3A when I can finally give up the ‘9 to 5’ in a few years’ time? Absolutely. There’s a whole new world of learning out there!

You can find out more about U3A on the website. For more insights on retirement, follow Tony Watts on Twitter (@tonywattswriter)

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