The BBC news website carried a release today, presumably from the University of the Third Age (U3A) which is positive news on a number of counts. It describes the U3A as “A self-help education network for the elderly” and talks about how it is planning to extend its courses into care homes.

This creeping into the territory of the Fourth Age represents an important step. One would assume that many active members of the Third Age community now might well be entering the Fourth Age community and so opinions and attitudes can be changing. Staying engaged and active are key to a healthy lifespan at any age, and it is easy to forget that older adults with perhaps reduced capacity to get around require the same stimulation as everyone else.

Many communities of older people, perhaps united because they are in one place, not necessarily a care home environment though, could benefit from a positive attitude towards taking engaging activities to them. What is needed though, is for proper support to be given to this initiative. The emphasis on ‘on-line’ enablement is perhaps a little limiting. It is a start, however. But what matters greatly to those who benefit from engagement in later life is the social side of learning – the reasons to do something different, even a reason to get out of bed.

The U3A’s success has been down more to the dedication of individuals who could be bothered, rather than actual funding and support from the Government. Self-directed learning activity has become a bit of a buzz word, but not for any reason apart from the fact that it can be overseen and delivered by other people, without recourse to funding. Sadly, this immediately starts to exclude some of the harder to reach people – one would assume – but, in fact, it does not, since U3A activities are often extremely low cost and provided by members for members.

Part of my research is to consider the nature of U3A’s success and their feelings about what they do. They are, however, an organisation made up of members, and each group in the UK has its own identity and tends to set its own agenda. Unlike U3As in various other countries, there is little involvement from other bodies such as Universities yet. It is a fantastic idea, and the news today puts U3A and older adults with needs in the media spotlight for once. If this news can have enough impact, as opposed to simply being a single article on the BBC website, then it could mark the start of a focus on the welfare of older adults and the services available to them.

Let us not forget, however, that many groups and individuals have been going into the care environment for years to engage older adults. Mainly philanthropic, it would be good to think that some proper importance could be attached to the whole area and that the research and efforts of many people will not be in vain. The ideal would be to have a supportive network infrastructure underpinning the whole range of activities available to care, residential and retirement homes that enables those delivering the services, and assures those receiving the services, without adding an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

I have to say that I am uncomfortable with the terms “Third Age” and “Fourth Age” because they might marginalise people further from society, have connotations associated with growing incapacity and frailty and belie the potential contribution people classed as such can make to society. We do not talk in terms of First or Second Ages, as such, and the stages of life defined by the terms are far more complicated. The moniker “University of the Third Age” was established three decades ago and has become synonymous with a certain kind of activity-based initiative, but it differs enormously from country to country. However, we must go with what is understandable to the general pubic and it will be part of my research to identify exactly how to define the stages of life for older adults.

University of Third Age expands to old people’s homes 21/3/12 BBC News