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Loneliness, healthy ageing and the u3a contribution

Jill, Vice Chair of u3a in Kennet, was recently published in the Royal Society for Public Health’s peer reviewed Journal. Her article discussed the health-related issues resulting from loneliness for and older people in particular and relates these to the benefits of u3a membership. Here she gives a summary of the article.

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated social distancing and lockdown requirements exacerbated loneliness for all age groups, and particularly for older people who were most likely to be clinically vulnerable.

Loneliness can affect both mental and physical health and a recent report from the Royal College of Nursing stated that the effects of loneliness and isolation can be as harmful to health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Furthermore not only are lonely individuals at higher risk of the onset of disability but loneliness also puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline.

I proceeded to outline the benefits of u3a membership as a means of addressing these challenges. I explained that the organisation provides education and stimulation with members taking responsibility for leading groups and sharing their skills and life experiences. In effect: the learners teach and the teachers learn, and no distinction is made between them.

I went on to describe how u3a is organised across the country and emphasised that it provides:
• social contact, for example, via the regular monthly group meetings and Coffee Exchange sessions (connect);
• physical exercise including walking, cycling, table tennis, and so on (be active);
• opportunities to explore new interests (take notice);
• learning without pressure in the absence of exams (keep learning);
• sharing knowledge and expertise; the opportunity for members to lead groups (give).

These benefits match the findings of the New Economics Foundation as described in their 2008 report ‘The 5 ways to wellbeing’ setting out approaches to maintaining positive physical and mental health.

I also referred to the Third Age Trust 2018 report, ‘Learning not lonely’. This confirmed that members reported major benefits from being part of u3a including confidence, combatting loneliness, feeling supported in new communities, learning new skills and, perhaps most importantly of all, feeling valued and enjoying life.

The Covid-19 pandemic created many challenges with successive national lockdowns, social distancing requirements and the recognised clinical vulnerability of many u3a members. Nevertheless u3a members across the country responded positively by embracing technologies: Zoom, YouTube, social media, national radio podcasts and conference call arrangements. Furthermore new hybrid arrangements have been developed with meetings being held both in person and online to support ongoing member activity, participation and the attendant health benefits.

In conclusion it appears that membership of u3a offers a wide range of physical and mental benefits helping to address some of the problems that accompany loneliness and ageing.