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Always Learning: Staying mentally active in retirement with U3A

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Always wanted to pick up a new skill but didn’t know where – or how – to start? The University of the Third Age (U3A) might be your answer, says Barbara Lewis, former national chairman of the U3A. 

Barbara Lewis, former national chairman of the University of the Third Age (U3A)The University of the Third Age is a great way to keep mentally and physically active in retirement. It attracts members from all backgrounds and says learning is for everyone. Classes are built around self-help study groups, with no exams or qualifications. U3A encourages everyone to have a go – if there’s not a particular group you want to join, create one!

We spoke to Barbara Lewis, former national chairman of the U3A, and asked her to describe her experiences of making the most of retirement:

When I retired early from my job at Kodak, I asked myself “What do I do now?” I’d had a great job that took all my time and so I took a break and sat on the sofa for a year catching up with my reading. Gradually, I thought: “Hey, what do I do next? There’s got to be more.”

Then I heard whispers while attending a local keep-fit class about something called U3A – the University of the Third Age. A new U3A was opening close by and I jumped at it – and the experience changed my life.

What I had stumbled on was an organisation of men and women who regularly gather together to share their experiences, knowledge, philosophies, values and ideas. They learn from each other.

It is a forum for the growth of the human spirit, the development of friendships and the exploration of ideas to enrich our quality of life in the Third Age.

Open to all

So many people want to study but put up artificial barriers to learning – “I’m not good enough, I was hopeless at school”, “I finished all that study years ago”, “There isn’t a college near me that does what I want and if there was it would be too expensive”, “Learning is for younger people”. Now is the time to think again!

A new U3A was opening close by. I jumped at it – and the experience changed my life

This organisation, run by its members, has around 350,000 participants in 944 U3As around the UK. As a movement it has defied the trends of shrinking adult education classes. In Hertfordshire alone, the county I live in, there are some 35 U3As and 14,000 members.

No tests or exams

And if you couldn’t find one and wanted the challenge of starting your own, you would soon find like-minded people and support. New U3As range from 60 or 70 to 3,000 members. Mine is middling – with 600. They are all built around self-help study groups with mutual support, whether you want to learn or impart the knowledge you have acquired in life.

Maybe you have dreamed of studying philosophy and are intrigued to try it. You can join a study group in the certain knowledge that some people will have lots of knowledge, some a little and some absolutely none at all.

There is nothing formal about the arrangements, this is not a place to study for exams and achieve certificates. Informal learning is just that, informal. You are in a convivial environment and, as such learning is fun.

The hidden benefits of joining

U3A takes the view that everything in life has an educational value. You may never imagine walking, for example, to be educational, but it can be. People may join for the physical exercise, for the sociability or because the person leading the group is holding an interesting discussion on the local environment. It may be that you want to pursue watercolour painting and want a supportive friendly atmosphere. There are hundreds of opportunities.

People join the U3A for a multitude of reasons: it may be the next thing after retirement, they may hear about it from friends and neighbours and want to ‘give it a try’, the children may have grown and flown. It may be that a loved one has passed away and this feels like the end and they cannot find anything worth doing. Combating loneliness is a powerful effect of joining a U3A.

Having a go

Everyone has something to contribute - your point of view is just as valid as that of the person sitting next to you

U3A members come from all walks of life. As a self-help organisation we know everyone has something to contribute. Our concept of ‘those who learn will teach and those who teach will learn’ bears fruit in our non-judgemental attitude. Sometimes it is a shock to realise you have a voice and that your point of view is just as valid as the person sitting next to you.

When I first joined I realised they did not have a music appreciation group. I asked who was interested and instantly we had a group of 21, who have now been together for 12 years – no-one has left.

When I asked what music they thought we should be considering, everyone started with the assumption that it must be classical. But when I said I liked country and western music, the whole scene changed and we have explored everything from jazz and country to popular, classical and romantic music.

It’s an endless voyage of discovery. The U3A has been such a joy to me and I commend it to you too!

For more information about the U3A visit their website.

Barbara Lewis is the former national chairman of the University of the Third Age.

This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own. This article was originally published in January 2015 and updated in September 2016.


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I am in my second year of U3A membership. I feel this article gives a misleading overview of U3A. Whilst there are members who use the group activities for education (i.e. learning a language or computing), the vast majority of members attend for the social side of things. I am in walking groups and local history groups and the learning aspects are not to the fore but meeting people on a regular basis certainly is. We have one hour talks during the winter (followed by tea and biscuits) and trips out in summer. Talks vary from subjects such as history of local stately homes to WW2 airfields and trips have included a visit to a local vineyard (with tasting of course). Don't let the word University put you off, it is nothing of the sort. If you want some interesting things to do and meet new people, find your local group and go along to see for yourself. You will be made welcome.My comments are based on my experience with my local U3A but I would imagine are consistent with other groups

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