A university for the aged

2012-02-23 00:00

GETTING old, they say, is not for sissies. We can’t reach our toenails to cut them. Our knees are stiff. We don’t hear as well as we did. Our aches and pains are legion. But the reality is that most of us are going to get quite a lot older. The Biblical “three score years and 10” no longer applies. Improved nutrition and health care mean that those of us who have now reached 70 are statistically likely to live until we are 87, along with our aches and pains. One in every five people already living in developed countries will live to more than 100. That proportion will increase in future years.

That is a worry for future planners. If more than a third of the population is over the retiring age of 65 (as will be the case in Britain, for example, in just seven more years), who will pay the taxes? How will the diminishing proportion of those in paid employment afford to support an ageing population? How will health and social services manage?

But spare a thought, too, for the worries of the elderly. Many of them are going to outlive their savings. A fiscus under threat will not be able to assist them. They will need to go back to work — in a current climate of unemployment. In South Africa, faced with the need to find jobs for young school leavers, it is unlikely that old men will be kept on beyond retirement. We won’t get jobs. We will have to learn to be entrepreneurs — and we don’t even know what the word means, let alone how to become one.

We fear not only poverty, but senility. Better health care means that our bodies live for longer, but there is no guarantee that our minds will be as durable. Thirteen percent of those over 65 years of age in the United States have some form of dementia, and 43% of those over 85. We see friends and colleagues who have succumbed. Some of us live through the agony of losing a spouses or partner to dementia. We fear for ourselves. We don’t want to lose our minds. Perhaps it was better in the old days when we all died at 70.

So are our lives filled with gloom and fear? Is old age really no fun? Of course that is not true. Precisely because there is an edge of uncertainty, we grasp what we now have and enjoy it. Many of our children earn far more than we ever did, so we don’t have to save for them and can merrily spend the children’s inheritance. We can travel. We can enjoy our sport. We can enjoy our grandchildren (and hand them back when we get tired). We can find romance. And we can exercise our minds to ward off the dreaded dementia.

There is an organisation called the University of the Third Age. It has nothing to do with any university, nor does it award degrees or conduct examinations. It began in Toulouse in France, where the local university began offering classes for retired people, but when it spread to England, as it soon did, it morphed. No longer attached to any university, it changed into a self-help organisation. Retired people offered their expertise and their interests to other retired people, who wanted to learn and stretch their minds.

U3A, as it is popularly known, quickly grew into a huge enterprise in the United Kingdom. It soon spread to Australia and New Zealand, and more latterly to South Africa. It clearly filled a need. Retired people found that between them, they had vast reserves of knowledge and experience – and a hunger to learn more. They could pool knowledge and mental stimulation for each other.

The typical business of a U3A is not to hold large monthly meetings with an interesting speaker. There are plenty of other organisations which offer that, and although many U3A branches do offer a monthly speaker, the point is not to compete with what is already there. The essence of U3A is the small group of people led by a fellow enthusiast who meet, perhaps weekly, perhaps monthly, around a particular interest. In the larger branches, there might be as many as 20 different interest groups, covering a wide variety of interests, from gardening to language courses to Shakespeare to appreciation of the music of Wagner.

There are branches in all major cities. Large cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria have several branches. There is a branch in Durban, and a small branch in Howick. Surprisingly, given that Maritzburg is a university city, there is no branch in the City of Choice.

In July this year, all of the independent branches in South Africa will meet in a national conference for the first time. We discover that there are no fewer than 10 000 members of U3A in South Africa. That’s big. That’s exciting. Isn’t it time that someone in Maritzburg got it going here too?

• The Howick branch meets on the second Wednesday of every second month. The next meeting is March 14 at 2.30 pm in St Luke’s Church hall. Inquiries: 033 239 5007. The current interest groups range from current affairs, art appreciation, modern English music, language classes and astronomy, etc. The interest groups meet at various times, some weekly, some monthly.


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