Third Age Trust – Written evidence (INQ0064)


The Third Age Trust works with over 1000 volunteer-led learning co-operative charities and organisations in the United Kingdom. They are called U3As. Founded in 1983, the Trust works with all member U3As in the United Kingdom, it is a support, development and advisory agency for member U3As. To achieve this it centres its work on key aims which are to facilitate the growth of the U3A movement; to provide support for management and learning in U3As; to raise the profile of the U3A movement and to promote the benefits of learning in later life through self-help learning. They developed three guiding principles for the development of U3As which have provided resilience for the movement since inception, and enabled its significant growth to becoming a movement of 430,000 mainly older people in 2019


The U3As vary in size from 9 people to 3000 people, with an average size of between 100 and 500 members. They comprise of learning groups (interest groups) which are chosen, led and developed by participants. There are over 30,000 interest groups in the United Kingdom, covering a diverse range of topic areas, from art appreciation, to Japanese to zoology. The charities are self-funding with each participant contributing a yearly amount averaging between £15 and £30. The U3A interest groups meet in members’ homes, local halls and community facilities such as places of worship. The learning model is based on peer to peer learning. Members learn subjects together. They choose the subject areas, the content and the pace. Each person contributes to the learning process, and each contribution is equal in value and relevance. Any member in a U3A can start an interest group.


The Third Age Trust is responding to questions 11 and 13 in this call for evidence.


Question 11

Healthier Ageing “How feasible is the Government’s aim to provide five years more years of health and independence in older age by 2035?


a)              What strategies will be needed to achieve the Government’s aim?


Key to the strategy on promoting health and independence is a paradigm shift in how older adults are viewed and represented in the media, in policy and society at large. The U3A movement is a major example of successful ageing. It is a model based on contribution of older adults both from the experience of the life course and of contribution made with others in the present. This approach means that older adults are participating as equals and not as service recipients. Recent research “Learning not Lonely” has demonstrated the powerful impact of self-inclusion and participation as equals. The research demonstrated that participants felt it provided:-

-              A constructive use of time

-              A sense of purpose

-              Increased Confidence

-              A feeling they still have something to offer

-              Feeling that life skills and life experience are not wasted

-              Feeling valued


Equally important was the fact that the movement has resilience being entirely self-funded and not reliant on external funding. The U3A was here yesterday, is here today and will be there tomorrow. The importance of resilience should not be underestimated – there are many short term initiatives which offer new opportunities to manage health and ageing, but their impact is significantly impacted by their short termism and the lack of funding to continue the intervention or opportunity.


Low cost of entry allows and encourages participation. This coupled with knowing exactly how those contributions are being spent means that participants have a personal interest and stake in ensuring that the activity continues. The supporting charity, The Third Age Trust [the Trust] is small (14 members of staff, supporting a movement of 430,000 people) and information is transparent and accessible.


The movement at local and regional level is volunteer-led. The U3As are provided with frameworks for organisational governance, finance and insurance by the Trust but locally they manage their own activities. The movement is predicated on volunteering. It is a powerful model of mutuality.


The model has many attractions, it is low cost, a model of positive ageing, older adult-led, resilient in terms of funding. It builds communities and celebrates peer to peer learning. Yet it is difficult to encourage policy makers to engage with a volunteer-led movement of this magnitude. Often policy makers can not understand that volunteers, in this instance retired people, can self-organise in their thousands on a daily basis across the United Kingdom with its different nations, and legal requirements.


The recommendation is that significant time is spent on gathering evidence about the impact of such volunteer-led models. The model is simple and replication could benefit many other approaches to healthy ageing. The Trust is calling for the development of a coalition of common interest supporting and developing models that are self-funding and volunteer-led that are built on the premise of positive ageing would assist the Government in achieving its “five years more” aim.


13. What would be the implications of a paradigm shift to people leading healthier lives for longer, and spending less time suffering ill health?


The impact of the U3A model on ageing well was considered in “Learning not Lonely” . Key findings demonstrated that participants

-              Experienced clear physical and mental health benefits

-              Felt connected and made new and strong friendships

-              Successfully managed major life changes such as moving, bereavement and retirement itself

-              Benefited from improved self confidence

-              Became engaged and embedded in their local community

-              Learned new skills.


A participant said “when you have worked all of your life, how do you fill your life? You could sit within four walls…instead I have found friendships and new experiences, experiences that I would never, ever have thought I had the chance to do”


It is clear that participation in enjoyable self-directed activity changes lives and gives meaning and even adventure in later life. The extra years would be well spent and the small investment repaid many times over in preventing social isolation, maximising wellbeing and enjoying new activity.


20 September 2019