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University of the Third Age: It’s never too late to learn

20 Jul, 2023

The human brain has the astounding ability to learn new things—regardless of age or station in life. Applying yourself to learning new ideas, concepts and skills is essential for good cognitive health. But other benefits include an increase in skills, social interaction, gaining new perspectives, increase in self-confidence, improving and correcting knowledge and experience.

Despite the data on later-life learning being limited, one research paper says “data from a small number of studies on the topic suggest that continued learning in older age can have a linked effect on public health by raising health awareness and promoting better health practices and outcomes; providing multidimensional health benefits, including but not limited to, maintaining cognitive, mental, and overall wellbeing; building social capital and promoting motivation, social cohesion, and inclusiveness; and re-integrating and empowering older adults to withstand later-life challenges in increasingly complex realities of social isolation and loneliness, the importance of which has been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Enter the University of the Third Age (U3A).

U3A originated in Toulouse, France in 1973 and rapidly spread to universities across Europe and the USA. U3A is a university in the original sense of the word: a community of people devoted to learning and is a volunteer co-operative of older people who share many educational, creative and leisure activities. Although it is called a ‘university’, being in your ‘Third Age’ (semi-retired and over the age of 50), is the only qualification needed to participate. Students can choose from a range of disciplines with the emphasis on mutual education in a wide range of subjects including arts; crafts and music; current affairs; games and sports; history; humanities; languages; lifestyle, exercise and health; literature; and science and technology. 

Retirees have a lifetime of knowledge and experience, and the sharing of that knowledge with other members forms the cornerstone of the organisation. No formal qualifications are required to lead or attend courses and there are no exams or degrees to be obtained. This all helps to remove barriers and allows people from a wide range of socio-economic and learning backgrounds to come together to learn and enjoy each other’s company.

U3A made its way to Australia in 1985 with the first courses being offered in the Southern Highlands in 1997. 27 years later, it boasts a membership of over 1,000 and 70 courses being offered each school term.

Henley Brae Retirement Community welcomes U3A

Having heard about U3A operating in the Southern Highlands, Kate Shying, Community Manager at Henley Brae Retirement Community, approached them with the offer of hosting some courses at the Community’s Pavilion. “We had been looking for events that had some connection with the community and that stretched residents in their learning. At the end of April, we began offering three courses in the Pavilion: French, Music Basics and ‘Way of the Soul’.”

The courses which are also open to the community, have been well attended and Henley Brae will continue to offer new courses each school term.

Kate concluded, “It is a great opportunity for our residents to reconnect and stimulate their brains without having to leaving the site.”

U3A at The Residences, Castle Cove

The Residences at Castle Cove has also been running U3A courses for several months. Residents have enjoyed learning across a wide range of topics covering ancient history, music, literature and the arts.

As more research comes to light about the benefits of later-life learning, one thing is for certain, older individual’s active participation and contribution to society doesn’t end at retirement. Later life learning opportunities like we are seeing at Henley Brae, and The Residences reactivates, enhances, and enriches it.