Towards the end of last year I saw an advertisement that promoted the idea of a University of the Third Age (U3A) for Hobsonville, an area that is to the north-east of the Westgate end of State Highway 16.  I already know a little about the U3A – it's an organisation that promotes and runs learning activities for older people (although I'm not quite sure about how best to define the term 'older people').  Basically, any group of elderly people who wish to come together for a cup of tea, some companionship and perchance, some intellectual stimulation would find a U3A appealing.  For the cost of a gold coin, a morning of seminars, talks and laughter can be received and, it seems, a regular monthly newsletter as well.  That’s the Henderson version of the U3A but there are other forms which have evolved largely as a consequence of the interests and energies of local organisers. 

From my reading, it appears that the U3A movement was ignited in France as far back as 1968 when legislation was enacted that required the university sector to provide more community education.  I know this from reading an informative account of the history and mechanics of the U3A penned in 1996 by Richard Swindell from the Faculty of Education, Griffith University and Jean Thompson, a representative of University of the Third Age, Great Britain and some of the preliminary comments I’ve made here stem from their work.  (See “An International Perspective of the University of the Third Age”.)  The idea of the U3A was specifically ignited by a course on gerontology and the movement spread very rapidly as Swindell and Thompson wrote:

In 1973 a highly rated gerontology course, run by Toulouse University of Social Sciences exclusively for local retired people, led to the formation of the first U3A.  The U3A was open to anyone over retirement age; no qualifications or examinations were required or offered, and fees were kept to a minimum.  By 1975 the idea had spread to other French universities as well as to universities in Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Italy, Spain and across the Atlantic to Sherbrooke in Quebec and San Diego in California.  AIUTA was formed in the same year and, by 1981, more than 170 member institutions belonged.

Ironically, in Aotearoa New Zealand at around that time (1969 if my memory serves me correctly) the Keith Holyoake led National Government of the day, within which the late Brian Talboys was Minister of Education and George Gair was the Associate Minister, were doing the opposite of what France had done.  They actually cut subsidies to secondary school ‘hobby’ type evening classes but maintained subsidies for ‘vocational’ classes.  The effect was to reduce participation rates for women whilst hardly impacting at all upon those people, mainly men, who were taking part in ‘vocational’ learning.  This cut though, excised many avenues for ‘intellectual recreation’ although university extensions classes were unaffected.  But whether through evening classes or university extension, activities of the elderly were not really a part of the equation. 

Thus the U3A movement appears not to have started in New Zealand until some years later – in 1989.  Again, I’ll cite Swindell and Thompson but bear in mind when reading the quote below that their source paper was written in 1996 and it seems reasonable to presume that the U3A movement will have proliferated and prospered since then.  Here’s what Swindell and Thompson wrote:

U3A is quite new in New Zealand.  The first group was established in Auckland in June 1989.  Since then it has spread throughout the country but few groups have been going more than two years.  Each group is independent and is modelled on the U.K. self-help approach.  Accordingly, the groups remain responsive to the needs of the local community.  Although the courses are basically educational, the great majority are run in private homes so groups tend to be small and friendly, and participants get to know each other well.  About 15 is the preferred class size.  Some of the more popular classes may attract 20 or more, however, not many homes can accommodate such large groups in comfort.  The study program is flexible and covers a wide variety of teaching and learning styles and preferences.  Some courses are academically quite demanding, others are more of a recreational nature.  In addition to the regular academic program many groups hold monthly general meetings in suitable halls, and these often feature an invited speaker.  The group meetings are popular and well attended, and help build a sense of belonging to a diverse and growing organization. (Data on the U3As in New Zealand were provided by John Stewart.)

Three key terms stand out from the quote above and they are that programmes are independent, responsive and flexible.  Basically, the independence factor attests to the fact that any group of people, anywhere, and at any time, can form a U3A and that appears to be precisely what has happened in West Auckland and indeed Auckland as a whole (there are 22 U3As in Auckland alone).  Being responsive affirms the imperative of meeting learner needs although I’m unclear about the extent to which learners are canvassed about their learning needs, or even if that happens at all.  And being flexible is certainly what appears to have happened, not just within Aotearoa New Zealand but in other countries as well.  For example, many walking events which centre on learning, and numerous travel tours have been organised in countries where the U3A operates.  Aside from experiential learning outings, the U3A movement has also embraced flexibility by making its offering available over the Internet.  But whatever the delivery mode, face-to-face, experiential, or electronic, the overarching intention seems universal, namely to engage older adults in lifelong learning.  There are, it seems, some very sound reasons for that happening.  Brian Groombridge (1982) proposes five reasons for ongoing adult learning for the elderly.  Again, quoting from Swindell and Thompson, when they summarise Groombridge they noted that:

Groombridge (1982) suggests five major reasons why policy makers, society at large and the elderly themselves should recognise the importance of late life education.  These are:

·         Education can foster the self-reliance and independence of the elderly ... thereby reducing the increasing demands being made on public and private resources. 

·         Education is a major factor in enabling older people to cope with innumerable practical and psychological problems in a complex, changing and fractured world.  

·         Education for and by older people themselves strengthens their actual or potential contribution to society.

·         Self-awareness by older people, their self-interpretation and the communication of their experiences to other generations fosters balance, perspective and understanding which is valuable in a rapidly changing world of conflict.

·         Education is crucial for many older people who strive for expression and learning.

My first realisation that this was a ‘happening’ phenomenon came in 1991 when I read the foreword of Sharon B. Merriam and Rosemary Caffarella’s (1991) wide ranging book on dimensions of adult learning.  In that foreword, I learnt that, for the very first time in history (from the 1990s), the demographic balance had tipped so that there were, from that point on, more adult learners than there were juvenile learners. 

Clearly, this was a consequence of a range of things.  Enthusiastic post-WW2 fertility rates and a mainly generous welfare state within which egalitarianism was espoused led to more baby-boomers being born.  Moreover, improved contraception methods and the advent of working couples (as opposed to stay-at-home mums) later meant that people were better able to ‘manage’ their reproduction rates.  And so, over time, the proportion of younger people being born diminished and correspondingly, the ratio of healthy, longer living older people grew.  Baby boomers, and their parents, postponed ‘shuffling off their mortal coil’ (they wanted the chance to live life to its fullest even if it killed them!).  It was no wonder, given these demographic trends that the U3A came into being.

So with my smidgen of knowledge about the U3A, and being both supportive as well as curious about this Hobsonville initiative for establishing another branch of the U3A out West, I decided to find out some more about what was going on.  A phone call to Jenny (not my wife Jenny, but another lady of the same first name) confirmed that the Auckland collective of U3As were keen to set up a new branch at Hobsonville.  The upshot was that I offered to help and so I invited the Henderson folk who were behind the proposed Hobsonville initiative to visit me at the Woodhill Park Research Retreat.  A small group of women came and they explained to me that it seemed that there was a substantial level of interest in the Hobsonville Massey area and that's why they were testing the waters with an advertisement – they wanted of gauge how much potential interest there might be.  

Now I'm all in favour of such initiatives and I think that the Hobsonville initiative can certainly fulfil a need and indeed, I've been told that around sixty people turned up to the first gathering.  Thus I have no doubt that there is a substantial momentum already at large for accelerating success. 

I'm bound to say, though, that there could also be a great deal of potential for starting an additional U3A elsewhere along the corridor that connects Helensville / Parakai (and the South Kaipara north of Helensville) with Waimauku / Muriwai and Huapai / Kumeu / Riverhead.  A more or less centrally located facility where those communities could congregate might be the Waimauku Hall but there's no doubt that there are other potential venues too including the Helensville Community Hall, the Arts Centre at Huapai, and either of the Kumeu or Riverhead Halls.  Perhaps a moving feast of U3As could be a realistic option.

Time will tell as to whether or not a U3A for the State Highway 16 corridor is established.  I suspect that with the growing number of people who are entering the fifty plus age group (and that renders them eligible to join 'Grey Power') another U3A might not be that far off.  Perhaps it will be small in the beginning but that’s OK.  All that’s needed is a small group of keen people, a venue or three plus an audience who are willing to learn from willing speakers.

Whilst the U3A group from Henderson was visiting me, they invited me to become a guest speaker at their March gathering.  I accepted and especially liked the invitation to speak about whatever I wanted to.  I was told that an average audience was probably in the vicinity of 130 to 150 people and that they met from around nine through to eleven thirty or thereabouts at the Henderson Bowling Club.  (Seniors, you see, can't afford to pay for parking tickets and parking permits lapse at Henderson after a few hours!) 

I have to say now that the U3A event has passed, that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of meeting with them.  (Click here to see the slide show presentation.)  Having dwelled upon the invitation to focus on a matter of my choice, I opted to make the case for continuing education for the elderly. Basically, there appears to be little provision for gerontological education even though that demographic is continuously swelling. Indeed, since the turn of the century (millennium) the number of adults living on earth has actually come to outnumber, for the first time ever, the number of people who can be classified as' juvenile'. 

But provision for elder-education is meagre if not downright mean.  Try finding out about this for yourself.  Have a look in the Internet for ‘elder education’ using whatever search engine or engines you prefer.  Look also for policies pertaining to retirement, superannuation and ongoing education for the elderly.  Have a look too at the demographic trends that are inexorably marching on – less children being born, more and more older people as a feature of the globe; less younger (below retirement age) workers and ever more older human resources whose considerable reservoirs of prior experience are being overlooked. 

I’m confident that there's an industry out there amongst, about, for and from the elderly but it's not about retirement schemes and superannuation packages!  That ruse for parting people with their money is unsustainable.  And it’s not about inveigling people who have reached so called ‘old age’ into retirement villages so that they can exist as older versions of ‘The Stepford Wives’ (although I hasten to add that those who wish to have such an existence should certainly not desist from choosing to do so!).  Instead I think that there’s a potential industry for tapping into an older, now underutilised, workforce where a rich treasure-trove of skills can be put to use for the benefit of society.  

It's a potential industry that will, in some ways, formalise the kinds of learning exchanges that Ivan Illich (1971) proposed when he mooted ‘deschooling’ society.  It's an industry that politicians should be tapping into for the benefit of generations to come.  It’s an industry that would enable aging individuals to apply their skills and hand on their understandings to society.  They would do so in an untenured manner at a less than full-time pay rate.  They would share their skills because they wish to do so. 

The ideal beauty of such an industry is that it would enable the elderly to, in turn, enable younger people to learn from the accumulated experiences their elders.  Instead of being ‘retired’, older people would ‘earn’ their superannuation but their basic superannuation entitlements would remain because, after all, even the elderly are entitled to eat and to partake of the occasional tipple… 

And of course, older folk would also be able to learn from the young who, as has always been the case, continue to know everything!  Seriously though, the notion that John Dewey coined of everyone being ‘sometimes teacher sometimes learner’ should be a governing mantra of such an industry.  But it’s an industry that seems to be 'waiting to be formed’; it’s an economic opportunity that governments the world over have yet to seize.  This may sound like idealistic oratory – political clap-trap perhaps, but the fact is that governments the world over have an ever-growing problem of providing for 'us' – the aging folk who still have skills which we could  and should share.

When I spoke to the U3A in Henderson, I also noted that aside from the need to provide education opportunities for the elderly, there's an equally pressing need to teach the community at large about the phenomena of aging and about the lifestyles of the aged.  Aside from theories of retrogenesis which are concerned with brain (cerebral) decay in people who have one or other form of dementia, there do not really seem to be many 'grand' theories about developmental regression or aging (which can be more accurately likened to developmental seepage leading to a terminal subsidence).  

I used the analogy of three glasses: when children are small, parents nurture their offspring so that they, the children might achieve their innate physical (psycho-motor), affective (social) and cognitive (intellectual) potential by the time they reach adulthood.  Those three domains were devised by Benjamin Bloom in 1956 when he presented his Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, a way of creating a hierachy of skills that coincided with stages of a child's gradual development. 

As parents, we want our children to fill the three glasses of physical, affective and cognitive potential(s) to the fullest.  We want them to reach optimal levels of potential although the rate and extent to which they become replete depends upon the make-up and innate capabilities of each individual.  And to a large extent, of course, the environment within which they develop is a powerful factor.  That’s the nature – nurture debate.

But as those same individuals grow older, their potentials begin to diminish.  Time in the form of age, does, in fact, weary them.  Their domains of physical, affective and cognitive prowess eventually reduce to ultimately subside altogether.  In short, those same three glasses of potential which we had so earnestly hoped would become fulfilled by adulthood, gradually become less full in old age until there’s nothing left.  But the rate at which the three glasses of potential ebb depends upon the make-up and innate capacities of each individual: some retain robust physical health but lose their affective or social skills.  Others become physically feeble and frail.  (Click here to see the presentation as a PDF rather than as a slide show.)

As far as I have been able to determine, there is a paucity of 'developmental psychology' research into gerontology and in fact, what little there is, is typically laden with stereotyping of the elderly.  The elderly are typically portrayed without gender, without cultural memberships and without socioeconomic considerations.  They are, per se, socially featureless and culturally amorphous. 

I say this because I’ve discovered that comparatively recently, a small team of adult education researchers from Taiwan and Georgia in the United States (Chen, Kim, Moon & Merriam, 2008) examined how older adults were portrayed in the academic literature.  They reasoned that “Understanding how older adults have been portrayed would provide a foundation on which future scholarship can build” Chen et al, 2008, p.3).  To undertake their investigation, they analysed adult education journals from 1980 -2006.  More specifically they reviewed 93 articles across five adult education journals and found that three themes emerged.  They say (p.3):

First, older adults have been portrayed as a homogeneous group in terms of age, gender, race, class, ethnicity, and able-bodiedness.  Second, older adults have been viewed as capable and motivated learners with few cognitive or physical limitations.  Third, programmatic responses have been driven by the life context of older adulthood. 

With respect to able-bodiedness, they note “not only are a substantial number of people living longer but they are living longer in good and functional health.  Moreover, according to the Health and Retirement Study (2007), there is also an increase in the level of educational attainment in successive generational cohorts of older adults” (Chen et al, 2008, p.4).  That means that older adults probably enter learning situations with an array of learning strategies at their command – they have learned how to learn. 

But as Chen et al have pointed out, investigations into programming suitable offerings seem to have dwindled since the 1980s when there was an interest in what to provide for whom.  True, there has been a study (Murray, 1981) that compared the reading abilities and preferences of institutionalised and non-institutionalised older people.  Regrettably, there appears to have been little effort made so far at gauging the learning potential (and sharing capabilities) of the elderly.  Determining the learning potencies of the elderly should, therefore, be a high priority not only for adult educators but also for the elderly and for the innumerable communities of interest which operate within society. 

Lest I be accused of being ‘one-eyed’ I need to add an important comment here – not as a late marker of balance, but rather, as a comment that is a reality check.  Older people do lose their three domains of life’s capabilities (those physical, affective, and cognitive domains which Benjamin Bloom first described within his educational taxonomies in 1956).  Over time, the evaporation of one or more of these domains is bound to diminish their effectiveness as humans.  To paraphrase Dr Spock from Star Trek “It’s life, Jim, just as we know it”.

A lifetime of personal experience of being hearing impaired and seeing other family members become, over time, people who also have diminished hearing, has taught me all about the impact of hearing losses on learning opportunities.  Experiencing the way in which another elderly family member gradually lost her ability to read because of failing eyesight also provided a salutary life lesson.  This ‘sharp as a tack’ woman has not lost her mental skills.  But the loss of that critical pre-requisite physical skill of being able to see has meant that she is now physically incapable of reading.  That rich vein of learning stimulation has, therefore, petered out for her.  Hence, the radio has become her seriously important best friend and lifeline for accessing an alternative form of ongoing learning. 

I’m convinced that given the emerging army of old folk amongst us, there is a clear need for educators, social planners, economists and health leaders to collaborate in not only promoting, but also actually undertaking, some much needed research into educational gerontology.  I say ‘actually’ because even though there appears to have been little by way of espousal, there has, regrettably, been even less by way of action.  What do you think?  Comments welcomed.