University of the Third Age giving 7,000 Northern Ireland men and women a new lease - the youth club for older people
The University of the Third Age is growing fast in the province and is helping people of retirement age find new friends and interests - and it wants more men to join its ranks, as Ivan Little discovers
A quiet and sometimes life-saving revolution is taking place in Northern Ireland among the kind of people who aren't normally associated with dramatic and radical change. Seven thousand men and women who have reached the age to stop work if they want are showing they're actually not the retiring types as they enjoy a new lease of life in the University of the Third Age (U3A), an organisation often dubbed a youth club for older people.
Right across the province, more and more seasoned 'students' who might once have twiddled their thumbs at home in their golden years are turning their hands to a remarkably diverse range of activities which are keeping them busier than ever and enabling them to make new friendships.
And the opportunities for establishing fresh companionships and pastimes have been particularly important for widows and widowers trying to re-build social interaction after losing a life partner with whom they used to do everything.
One long-time member of the organisation insists that it is no exaggeration to say that the U3A had "actually saved the lives of people who might otherwise have had nothing to fill their days and nights".
The number of U3A branches in Northern Ireland has soared to 25 and some have grown so big that they've had to set up offshoots.
More new branches are in the pipeline and the hope is that the profile of the organisation, which officials admit is largely middle-class and female, can become more balanced.
All the while, new activities are being added to the programmes of the U3A, whose members in Belfast can already avail of no fewer than 45 different interests, from drama to dance, walking to writing, books to bridge and wine tasting to whist - not to mention philosophy groups, summer schools and Scrabble groups.
Indeed, there are so many activities on offer that a monthly newsletter for the Belfast group runs to four A4 pages, making the over-used 'something for everyone' phrase ring true with the U3A, whose sole condition for joining is that members must not be working full-time.
There are no age limits and many of the recruits have brought the skills they honed in their working careers with them to the U3A, lending their talents to leadership and organisational roles as conveyors.
"Just because we're retired doesn't mean our brains have retired," says former GP Maria Curran, who arranges speakers for the organisation's monthly gatherings in Belfast, attended by hundreds of people.
It's all a far cry from the organisation's beginnings.
The U3A idea was born 46 years ago in France and a decade later spread to Cambridge in England, but it was another eight years before a branch started up in Northern Ireland, in Londonderry.
By 2000, there were new branches in north Down and Ards and on the north coast.
After an advertisement was placed in the Belfast Telegraph, a small group started up in the city in May 2001.
Ann Hayes was among 11 people who attended the first formal meeting in a cafe on the Antrim Road.
"Slowly but surely, the Belfast branch expanded and members set up interest groups for books, bridge and walking, which is the top activity in the U3A," she explains.
Today, the membership in Belfast stands at over 800 and new 'converts' are signing up every week, thanks mainly to word of mouth.
"That undoubtedly has been the strength of the organisation," says Belfast vice-chair Maureen Pimley, who first heard about the organisation from a stranger as she lay beside a swimming pool in southern India.
"I was fascinated," she adds, "so I Googled U3A on the stranger's recommendation and decided I would join on my return to Northern Ireland from England, where I had been living.
"However, when I went along nine or 10 years ago, there was nothing for people interested in theatre or live music, so I formed a new group and took it from there. 'Do-it-yourself' is a byword of the movement.
"Coming back to live in Northern Ireland after so long across the water, I had no friends here, but now I consider that I have 800 friends - the members of the Belfast U3A.
"I particularly enjoy going to the theatre and I know I will always have company. We've seen some great plays and productions that might have come as a shock to some people. After one recent play at the Lyric, by David Ireland, some of the members said they'd heard words that they hadn't known existed."
A recent trip to see Richard O'Brien's colourful Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Grand Opera House also surprised some U3A visitors, who knew nothing about the production's eye-catching content.
There were audible gasps as a male actor appeared on stage in stockings, suspenders and a basque, but by the end of the show, the shocked ladies had been won over.
In the same theatre at Christmas, members of the U3A are regularly the only organised group of grown-ups at the pantomime among hundreds of screaming schoolchildren.
They also regularly go on day-trips to matinees in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Maureen, a former fashion buyer, says she can't recommend the U3A highly enough "because retirement was for long seen as seen as something to be dreaded, the end of anything worthwhile".
"But with the U3A, members want to make the most of life and live it to the full, keeping mentally and physically fit. For others, being part of the U3A has also been a way of combating social isolation and giving them something to get up for in the morning," she explains.
Lena McCann, a former business consultant who's now chairperson of the Belfast U3A, adds: "Making new friendships has been important for many members. Another big thing for me, as someone living on my own, has been the boost for my self-confidence.
"There's no way in the past that I could ever have imagined standing up to talk to a roomful of people.
"But I know they want me to be there."
Maureen says the range of activities on offer in the city is staggering.
"We have dozens of interest groups for members who are learning languages, playing golf, going to the theatre and to hear jazz. We also have a classical musical group and a Glee Club choir. And that's not even the half of it," she says.
Many members have found talents they didn't know they had.
"That's particularly true of the writing groups," says Lena McCann. "Many people have discovered that poetry and stories come quite easily to them.
"We've had expert visitors from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland who have given assessments of the work of our members and we've even had some folk who have won awards for their writing."
For many older people, the world of computers and social media is still a mystery, but U3A officials are trying to encourage more of the organisation's members to embrace it.
They have also arranged talks to warn people about the potential risks posed by scammers, both on and off the internet.
Yet for all the expansion of the organisation, officials admit that thousands of people from across Northern Ireland have never heard of the U3A, whose leaders also acknowledge that they need to get their message across to more working-class areas.
The overwhelming majority of members here are middle-class, and in Britain the U3A has been accused of being "all white, elitist and middle-class".
Across the water, officials have striven to entice more people to join from different nationalities and there are indications, say officials, that they are having more success.
But in Northern Ireland, officials of U3A still find that many people who've tried an activity say the organisation's not for them and drift away.
A commonly posed question by prospective new members is whether or not transport is provided for people to get to interest groups.
The answer is no and that makes participation difficult for people who don't have cars.
Officials concede that it's a hard barrier to break down, especially for an organisation which isn't a publicly funded service provider.
Officials also want to attract more men to the U3A.
"It is definitely more female-orientated," says Mavis Turner, the membership secretary of the Belfast U3A, "but I think that it's changing. A lot of women are persuading their husbands to come along to see what the organisation can offer. And in recent months there has been a healthy increase in the number of men who are applying for membership.
"What we have found too is that husbands and wives don't necessarily have to pursue the same interests.
"The husband may go out on a walk, for instance, while his wife heads off to another interest group."
The U3A also organises holidays, which are particularly popular with people who are living on their own.
"The walkers, the bridge players and the gardeners have all set off on breaks recently together. To go away with a group of people that you know and trust is fantastic," says Mavis, who joined the U3A after retiring from her job at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.
"I found that enlisting with the organisation made retirement a seamless affair and opened a new avenue for me. And in recent times I have been involved in setting up new U3A groups, and that has given me a great deal of satisfaction.
"We are registered charities, so there are regulations for us to follow in terms of training and the forming of steering committees after open meetings.
"There are, however, some areas in the province where we would still like to see new groups being established."
Joining the U3A won't break the bank. In fact, membership fees have been reduced from £20 a year to £15.
"Obviously, the interest groups have extra charges of their own to cover the costs incurred on the day. They're self-financing, but we still think people are getting a bargain," says Maria Curran, who adds that the U3A has also had an unexpected but welcome spin-off in terms of older people's health.
"People who are on their own tend to make lasting friendships through the organisation," she explains. "And if they're not well, they'll find that their friends will call with them and help look after them. The support network has been a very positive plus for people who were previously socially isolated."
It isn't, of course, unusual for people who used to work together to meet up maybe once a month for coffee.
But one U3A member, who doesn't wish to be identified, says: "I did all that for years, but we were mostly talking about the past. It was all about reminiscing. With the U3A, there's not so much looking back. There are so many activities to occupy us, there's no real time for nostalgia. It's all about enjoying ourselves and learning."