The University of the Third Age aims to help older adults continue learning and staying mentally active into their retirement years. Priya Kulasagaran takes a look at what they have to offer
What happens to people who retire? Certainly their minds don’t stop being inquisitive and agile just because they’ve left the workforce, and it can be boring to stay at home to just while away the hours. With that in mind, the University of the Third Age run by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) was set up to continue the lifelong process of learning for those over the age of 55.
The U3A started its life as a pilot project named the Lifelong Learning Initiative for the Elderly (LLIFE) in 2007. Initiated by the then director of UPM’s Institute of Gerontology, Prof Dr Tengku Aizan Hamidy, the programme was based on data compiled as well as surveys of senior citizens in Kajang done by the Gerontology Institute under a three-year project funded by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Malaysian Government.
According to Prof Tengku Azian, the pilot paved the way for the U3A, a plan she had been hoping to implement locally after observing similar institutions in other countries. “We’ve looked at British and French models for this project, where the elderly can take up courses that they never had the opportunity to do in their younger days. It’s not a proper university where they graduate with degrees but it’s about gaining new skills and knowledge which they use to continue contributing to society,” she said.
With almost 70 participants enrolled in the three-month pilot, there was enough proof of demand and the U3A was set up a year later.
Currently U3A offers some 39 non-academic courses covering a wide range of subjects including languages, art and craft, gardening, healthy cooking, swimming, traditional Chinese medicine, fitness, computing and digital photography. There are two semesters of three months each. Participants can sign up for one to three courses per semester, for a fee of around RM80. Each additional course is an extra RM30. Instructors are either members of the teaching staff of UPM, or industry experts with a wealth of experience.
Meanwhile, senior citizens in Bandar Utama have also formed their own U3A Bandar Utama (BU), which started as a branch of the main organisation in 2015. Since then, the Bandar Utama branch has elected to become its own registered society. Current president Peter Chong said the decision to establish Bandar Utama’s own chapter was to allow the body to be responsible for its finances and cater for the local population.
“At this point, we have some cross memberships between U3A BU and the larger U3A Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, but it is minimal with less than 10% holding memberships,” said Chong. “Previously, members had to travel all the way to Serdang for some of the courses, or even up to Hulu Langat if they wanted to learn gardening, for example.”
For U3A BU committee member Albert Teh, classes are driven by a combination of demand as well as the availability of teaching resources and space. “Cooking classes are always in high demand, but we cannot conduct them frequently because of lack of facilities,” said Teh. Gerontology topics such as nutrition, financial planning, assisting technologies and ways to approach death are also touched on.
Former lecturer Easwary Perumal, 70, said she found a new passion for art when she signed up for an acrylic art class with U3A. She recalled her first class to be an emotional one, saying that she was in tears over how “horrible and ugly” her painting was. “I’ve come a long way from that first class,” she said with a sly smile. This is quite the understatement, as her paintings have since been exhibited at numerous events. “I started out just wanting to learn something new, and it developed into a much more meaningful interest. I think older people need to be given the chance to try new things, because you never know what sort of hidden talents you might discover,” she said.
The organisation also keeps an eye out for new courses that may be relevant to its participants – its last term earlier this year featured a course on entrepreneurship. “Older adults want to learn how to be independent, and we felt that this was a good route to take – setting up your own business!” says committee member Lily Fu.
“We’re always open to organisations or individuals who want to offer their skills for our participants, particularly IT and computer skills. Technology is unavoidable now, and we all need to keep up. The most important thing is that we all want to keep learning and nurturing our minds; it gives people a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Plus, you get to meet like-minded people and make new friends!”