Concern about the health effects of loneliness in older people is part of the motivation behind the government strategy on loneliness. Loneliness is a risk factor for poor health and dementia; some argue that it is worse than smoking. One proposal in the policy is the expansion of social prescribing services – “Social prescribing connects people to community groups and services” so that, for example, GPs can prescribe such things as dancing, gardening etc., according to an individual’s social, emotional or practical needs. It is predicted that social prescribing will be in every GP practise within the next two years.
The U3A wasn’t created to help old people who are lonely and depressed, rather to advance lifelong learning in the third age. However, this would clearly have benefits for the lonely, since this “lifelong learning” covers a very wide range of activities, involving learning in its widest senses, carried out in a social setting.
The “Learning not Lonely” report produced by the Third Age Trust demonstrates that being a member of the U3A addresses many relevant issues – e.g., making friends, engaging with one’s community and feeling supported. One of our members, Ethel, 80, commented “I have made some friends, I have a lot of acquaintances, when I walk in to Bingham people say hello or stop and chat, I no longer feel isolated. I am out doing something every day. I have met people I knew from my old village who say I look ten years younger and I feel it”.
Importantly, the benefits of U3A membership align to the factors considered necessary for good brain health by the Global Council on Brain Health. Being old, lonely and depressed is definitely not good for you. The GCBH have produced reports which present the evidence on, and make recommendations for, how diet, exercise, sleep, social engagement, cognitively stimulating activities and mental well-being can support and help protect cognitive and brain health. They conclude that many factors in these areas are beneficial for brain health; that people who did more physical activity experienced less brain shrinkage and less scarring of white matter; but “Perhaps best of all is a combination of physical activity, mental stimulation and sociability.
Mixing exercise and exploring new ways of doing things and sharing ideas (and helping others)”. This description clearly fits with the range of activities available to U3A members, who can lead and take part in, within a social setting, physical activities, language learning, arts, music, crafts, history, games, travel and others. Thus being a member of the U3A can contribute significantly to reducing loneliness, and to maintaining physical and mental health. Importantly, members of the U3A are active and purposeful, doing things for themselves, rather than having things done for them.
February’s TAM describes two U3As who are contributing to services and social prescribing for older people, and the NHS suggest membership can help combat loneliness and isolation. From our local perspective in Bingham, when looking for resources and support in the Notts area one is unlikely to find out about the U3A. The U3A doesn’t come up when looking for relevant services on the Age UK website, even though there are 6 U3A’s between Bingham and Nottingham (where the nearest Age UK resources are); the U3A doesn’t appear in the Nottingham LION (Local information online Nottingham community directory, helping to find activities and support), even though there are 34 U3As in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. Interestingly, Ethel heard about the U3A from an old family friend who attended her husband’s funeral.
There is clearly plenty of room for raising the profile of the U3A in Notts. We are doing a number of things regarding our local U3A. We have had discussions with Bingham Medical Centre and will be leaving newsletters there, and have created a poster for display there and on relevant community notice boards. We hope to develop the relationship with the Medical Centre further. We have contributed to various local publications and had a piece on local radio. We actively engage with the Notts Network of U3As and hope to take part in the Flash Mob planned by the national U3A. We have had a short course on Brain Health and the Notts Network is running a conference on Aging Well this year in October.
There is poor public understanding of what U3A is. Membership of U3A doesn’t just involve attending sessions put on by others – it is run by the members, for the members, so members are active in pursuing what they want to pursue. U3As make good use of community spaces. The interest groups cover the whole range of things needed for good brain health and they are very social. The U3A needs to be brought to the attention of government and health organisations, and to people, so that they know it is there for them to support their mental and physical health in their third age.
Evett, L (2018) Supporting brain health for the over 50s, short course Bingham U3A
GCBH: Global Council on Brain Health (2017, 18) Reports on Nutrition, Physical Activity, Sleep, Social Engagement, Cognitively Stimulating Activities, Mental Well-Being, and Brain Health, https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/
Government Publications, Strategy on Loneliness (2018) A connected society – A strategy for tackling loneliness, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-connected-society-a-strategy-for-tackling-loneliness Accessed 11/2/19
Midlands Social Prescribing Network (2019) MSPB Conference – going beyond services, https://www.events.england.nhs.uk/events/social-prescribing—going-beyond-servicesAccessed 15/3/19
NHS (2018) Loneliness in older people, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/loneliness-in-older-people/
The Social Prescribing Network (2018) https://www.socialprescribingnetwork.com/Accessed 15/3/19
TAM: Third Age Matters (2019) page 5: Members aid retirement services study; U3A helps social prescribing for community, TAM, 35, February 2019, published by the Third Age Trust
U3A report (2018) Learning not Lonely, Third Age Trust, https://u3a.org.uk/images/misc/impactreport/impact-report-2018-06-1.2-final-web.pdfAccessed 11/2/19
Notts Network (2019) Aging Well conference, Nottingham University, October 2019