Yesterday I had a telephone call from Rupert (not his name). I usually see him once a fortnight but recently he has been away suffering from bone marrow cancer. The news was good. Following courses of treatment he is now clear, although it is too early to confirm permanent recovery. Part of my pleasure is selfish. Rupert is a clinical psychologist and has a special interest in Eastern religions. He has been an invaluable contributor to the fortnightly philosophy group which I lead. And he offers his professional skills freely to members of the group.
The third age of life, following childhood and full employment, can be a long one. And, for some, it can be miserable. Lack of regular human contact and a range of interests can lead to loneliness, depression and increasing poor health. About half of this population live alone and some ten per cent report loneliness. This may come from illness or bereavement, and the loss of companionship in retirement from working life. The rate of depression is high and, without treatment, the effect on general health, not excluding suicide, is serious. Perhaps we do not value ordinary, everyday, relationships until we lose them.
The misery is not relieved by hearing that third-agers are a drain on society consuming an unfair share of public resources. They may not know that as a group they contribute a net £40 billion to the economy including taxation, social care and volunteering. Alison Pollock, Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University, London, even suggests that they are used as a convenient excuse by government for starving the NHS.
Friendships tends to develop, and to be maintained, when circumstances provide opportunities to be in each other’s company — which in turn results in finding common interests and sympathies. So a solution might lie in a structure which is designed to further these aims. I would suggest one organisation which is having considerable success is the University of the Third Age. This originated in France, establishing extra-mural connections with formal universities. In the UK, it operates independently, and is broader in its approach. It has 400,000 members, with an ambition to double this by the end of the decade and, under the auspices of the Third Age Trust, recently celebrated the opening of its 1,000th centre.
I have no formal connection other than as a member and a leader of a group for many years but my experience, in a leafy suburb, will convey the atmosphere. Central to the organisation are the small groups which meet regularly. Typically, they work under a leader and meet in a private house or council premises. The coverage is extensive. I note 85 current groups in my local U3A. They cover many aspects of the arts, music science, current affairs, history, active pursuits and games. And, if anyone chooses to start a group related to their special interest they will get the help they need to promote it. In addition there are formal talks, study days, short courses, organised expeditions and summer schools.
The learning methods tend to be informal. While much will depend on the leader, the main source of knowledge will be in the membership of the group. Discussion and participation are the key. The knowledge will often lie in the experience of the membership. When my wife started a current affairs group, several years ago, she found herself surrounded by retired international experts. Her expertise lay in knowing how to use them.
My own philosophy group discusses respectfully religious and secular views. The favourite topic is moral philosophy. Needless to say, this is more about defining the questions than arriving at answers. That is the nature of philosophy. Some of the issues end up in this column, and vice versa. Over the years the group has of course had turnover. This is not because they choose to leave but because old people, rather inconveniently, die. In my imagination I see already a group of ex-members up in Heaven – and still discussing. I wonder if they have the answers now. It must, for instance, be easier to conclude a discussion about what Socrates really meant, if you can ask him directly. Though, knowing Socrates, you are more likely to get another question than an answer.
The University of the Third Age has no political agenda. Apart from the wide variety of views, its strength does not lie in such power but in knowledge and truth – achieved through formal and informal debate. I have no doubt that the members are better prepared to contribute to society through formed opinions and constructive voting choices – skills particularly needed at the present time. And they are likely to have more friends, and to live longer and more happily too.