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A CASE STUDY OF U3A IN AUGHTON-ORMSKIRK
Summary At their best, local U3A Groups provide an excellent vehicle for older people to organise their own lives in ways which foster informal learning around interests, encourage active retirement and strengthen community networks. While pursuing interests in the company of others is the explicit purpose of the U3A, these activities can also be important in promoting healthier ageing, supporting active citizenship and mobilising a range of often under-used talents in meeting locally-important challenges (from reducing personal isolation through to promoting global sustainability). U3A Aughton-Ormskirk in West Lancashire, with more than 1700 current members in a small locality, offers a vibrant demonstration of these possibilities.
Origins and development The U3A began in France in 1972 and spread to the UK in 1982. Its local entities are self-managing through volunteer leadership and the AughtonOrmskirk Group emerged seven years ago when Dr Alex McMinn (himself with an eminent career in international public health) met some former colleagues in a super-market, also with distinguished occupational experience, complaining about their post-retirement boredom. With Alex’s leadership, they decided to do something about this and saw that U3A offered a promising vehicle. Things took off! In the intervening period not only has the membership grown to 1700 locally, perhaps a quarter of the retired population, but this branch has, amoeba-like, prompted the emergence of nine other U3As in its West Lancashire vicinity. The Aughton-Ormskirk Group produces 6500 hours per month of volunteer activities and contributions. The U3As are largely self-funding (there is a £15 per annum membership fee and usually very modest charges e.g. for refreshments unless there are external costs incurred e.g. in going to the theatre). This Group makes use of locallyavailable facilities – the village hall, the local church hall, the Scouts and Guides headquarters. (Indeed finding suitable meeting places with appropriate access and parking for such a large network is itself a challenge.) It has also attracted Big Lottery grants, one of which has contributed to further development of these headquarters to mutual benefit and equipped it with a suite of internet-connected computers. (The stated function of this technology is e-learning, taking advantage of the huge range of learning materials on the web, but by down-loading Skype – and getting the support of some members who were already ‘computer savvy’ – other members have also found a great way of staying in touch with distant family and friends!) The U3As are democratic associations which exist to provide education and leisure activities for people no longer in full-time employment (although for some members the U3A has become almost full-time!). No qualifications are required, and none are given. The themes for these activities are locally generated and depend on both the interests and the skills of the membership. That is, many activities depend on mutual aid. In this U3A there are currently 90 different groups, some of which pursue activities common in more formal education (French, Geology, Computer Studies); some of which are more aesthetic (Art Appreciation, Digital
Photography, Drama, Guitar Playing); some of which are games-focused (Bridge, Badminton, Bowls); some of which are outdoor pursuits (Birdwatching, Gardening, Holidaying); a lot of which also involve physical activity (Ballroom Dancing, Cycling, Walking); and some of which are about surviving practically (notably the Moneywise group which focuses on financial issues), all advertised on the web and through a high-quality Newsletter (produced in-house using volunteer skills).
Underpinning this tremendous growth of membership and opportunities is the recognition that all members bring a life-time of experience and expertise to this enterprise and that effective self-organisation requires not only a democratic structural form (typical of voluntary associations – an elected committee and officers, an AGM, etc – this U3A is a registered charity in its own right with an independent Board of Trustees) but also investment in developing the skills required, for example to lead groups and to deliver particular kinds of activities (e.g. the ‘mindgym’). It also requires careful attention to effective ways of including new members. With such a high density of local participation, many people find out about U3A by word-of-mouth. But, for example, both Churches and Health Centres stock leaflets introducing U3A and GPs may make referrals. Even more important, this group arranges a weekly coffee morning to welcome newly-interested people to come and meet existing members, including those leading groups in which the newcomers may have an interest, at the same time exploring what they may want to ‘bring to the party’.
Because of all this, to quote Cllr. May Blake, the West Lancashire Older Persons Champion, ‘The local development of U3A has been hugely impressive. I have never known something take off so well which gives older people the opportunity to take part in the things that they really value doing.’ In 2008 Aughton-Ormskirk U3A gained the Queens Award for Voluntary and Community Service. Sustaining community and active citizenship Of course this size of membership and variety of activities are impressive enough. A large number of older people are being helped, and helping themselves to lead fulfilling lives. To quote Dr. McMinn, ‘’Most of us want to live long, live well and die quickly!’ But U3A also serves very significant latent functions. Health and well-being is an explicit focus of the adult learning programme and reflected, for example in the wide range of active pursuits. More subtly, almost all these activities provide effective ways of building and sustaining relationships and staying socially connected. Members point out that whether shopping in the small town or waiting in out-patients, one is always likely to spot other members. U3A is important in feeling part of the local community.
Loneliness can be a major threat to health. In later life of course many people suffer big losses, first perhaps from retirement – loosing familiar routines and valued activities – and then commonly bereavement – loosing life-long relationships and close support. Many members of the AughtonOrmskirk Group recognise explicitly that for them U3A has been a ‘lifesaver’. Widower Norman Hurst says frankly that, ‘Following the loss of my wife, like so many others, I was at a complete loss and having great difficulty coping…..(Joining U3A) turned out to be the best ‘counselling’ I could ever have encountered. I met many people who had been in a similar situation to myself and fully understood how I was feeling and what I was going through…..Looking back I don’t know how I would have coped without the friendship and support of U3A.’ Local G.P. Dr Simon Andrews writes, ‘It is fair to say that U3A have radically transformed the lives of many retired people, particularly perhaps so the widows and widowers and those living alone….I have grown to trust and respect their contribution so much that I now feel absolutely confident and comfortable giving out contact information for U3A to patients who I am seeing…Because they are apolitical and non-religious and inclusive, I have no hesitation in recommending them to all sections of the retired patient community.’ Looking outwards, U3A with its resourceful members and local networks can also play a significant part in civic life. A powerful example is this Group’s work with UNESCO to advance the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. Supported by Lancashire’s Green Partnerships Awards, U3A has worked to encourage its own members to be serious about sustainable development personally (‘Don’t leave the bill to the next generation. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.’) and, as citizens and consumers, to become advocates for sustainability to other public and commercial agencies, sharing its ideas here with U3As throughout the country. Innovation to meet new challenges In popular discourse, old age is sometimes seen as a problem, not least to the not-so-old. As this last example suggests, U3A by contrast recognises its members as bringing the assets of life-time experience and often the time to make use of these assets in new ways. Moreover the diversity of its
membership also makes U3A potentially a crucible of innovation – an informal ‘silicon valley’ for addressing new social challenges. Three examples illustrate these possibilities. In Aughton-Ormskirk many members are keen to ensure their Group is as inclusive as possible and a few retired from careers which make them experts in the new communication technologies. U3A, as a partner with developers in establishing an extra care housing complex in Ormskirk, has encouraged all the flats to be equipped with desk-top computers and plans to hold some of its group meetings in the complex. Beyond this a group of members is working on how best to use the internet to ensure that, for example house-bound members can ‘participate at a distance’ in its meetings and activities. Already its monthly meetings are ‘broadcast’ on the internet and high profile events are also captured on DVD. A second example involves pioneer work in promoting cognitive well-being, neatly captured in the concept of the ‘mindgym’. Anxiety about memory loss and the physical conditions which may contribute to this are common in later life. Launched at a local meeting where Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield (an eminent neuroscientist) was guest speaker, U3A is developing and testing a range of methods for helping people understand, prevent and manage everyday memory problems. These include an innovative Memory Course, both ‘practical and fun’, delivered by appropriately-skilled volunteers through a four-week, 6 hour programme in well-supported small groups, whose efficacy is being evaluated by the University of Liverpool. Like the work on sustainable development, this innovation is being written up in the form of a guide book for Course leaders so it can be disseminated widely, including through relevant professional associations. The third example shows this U3A’s willingness to explore its own limitations. Dr. Andrews writes about the diverse membership of this Group but there is also recognition, despite the breadth of its activities, that the concept of University and this form of active networking may have less appeal, for example, in the deprived urban estates in West Lancashire. Dr McMinn is keen to explore, perhaps with new leadership, how best to ‘grow’
a similarly effective approach to social networking and mutual aid in this different context. Key lessons The principles underpinning the success of U3A Aughton-Ormskirk are straightforward: Older people bring a life-time of experience and skills which are assets to their communities. They are also capable ‘self-organisers’. The ‘University of the Third Age’ offers one positively-valued umbrella for this self-organisation around passions. Leadership with good facilitative skills is required to promote effective social networking, welcome diverse members and mobilise creative contributions. The sustainability and growth of this kind of organisation depends on volunteers investing their different skills in ensuring that what it does, it does well. Summarising the benefits in one sentence, through U3A, many older people are finding ways of living their lives to the full in the company of others while at the same time promoting healthy ageing and staying socially connected. This U3A has both a website and an e-mail contact address, respectively: www.aughton-ormskirk-u3a.co.uk email@example.com This case study was first prepared in 2010 as a contribution to the Department of Health’s Building Community Capacity initiative, now part of the national Think Local, Act Personal programme to reform adult social care. More information at www.thinklocalactpersonal.org.uk