Yesterday I had a telephone call from Rupert (not his real name). I usually see him once a fortnight but recently he has been away suffering from bone marrow cancer. The news was good. Following courses of treatment he is now clear, although it is too early to confirm permanent recovery. Part of my pleasure is selfish. Rupert is a clinical psychologist and has a special interest in Eastern religions. He has been an invaluable contributor to the fortnightly philosophy group which I lead. And he offers his professional skills freely to members of the group.

The third age of life, following childhood and full employment, can be a long one. And, for some, it can be miserable. Lack of regular human contact and a limited range of interests can lead to loneliness, depression and increasing poor health. About half of this population live alone and some 10 per cent report loneliness. This may come from illness or bereavement, and the loss of companionship in retirement from working life. The rate of depression is high and, without treatment, the effect on general health, not excluding suicide, is serious. Perhaps we do not value ordinary, everyday relationships until we lose them.

The misery is not relieved by hearing that third-agers are a drain on society, consuming an unfair share of public resources. They may not know that as a group they contribute a net £40 billion to the economy including taxation, social care and volunteering. Alison Pollock, professor of public health at Queen Mary University of London, even suggests that their contribution is used as an excuse by government for starving the NHS.

Friendships tend to develop, and to be maintained, when circumstances provide opportunities to be in each other’s company – which in turn results in finding common interests and sympathies. So a solution might lie in a structure which is designed to further these aims. I would suggest that one organisation which is having considerable success is the University of the Third Age (U3A).

This originated in France, establishing extra-mural connections with formal universities. In Britain, it operates independently, and is broader in its approach. It has 400,000 members, with an ambition to double this by the end of the decade and, under the auspices of the Third Age Trust, recently celebrated the opening of its 1,000th centre.

I have no formal connection other than as a member and a leader of a group for many years, but my experience, in a leafy suburb, will convey the atmosphere. Central to the organisation are the small groups which meet regularly. Typically, they work under a leader and meet in a private house or council premises. The coverage is extensive. I note 85 current groups in my local U3A. They cover many aspects of the arts, music science, current affairs, history, active pursuits and games. And, if anyone chooses to start a group related to their special interest, they will get the help they need to promote it. In addition, there are formal talks, study days, short courses, organised expeditions and summer schools.

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