Learning later in life is an eagerly awaited joy

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by Caroline Green

I am struck by the eagerness with which group members, including myself, embrace the opportunity to learn. We all arrive early, ready to start on the dot of the appointed hour, giving ourselves time to say hello, get settled and organised.

We love the fact that the U3A gives us the opportunity to learn in our later lives. We may not realise just how important to our mental well-being and physical health this learning opportunity or activity actually is.

During the U3A Anniversary Lunch last month I met up with an old friend, Frances Dick, who was telling me about a U3A short memory course she had just signed up for and how much she was really looking forward to starting.

I was intrigued, and wondered exactly how a four-week Memory Course, organised and run by Jen Scott and co-facilitated by Alison Smith and Tony Phillips, fitted in with the U3A.

Jen has a psychology background and heard about the course from her previous membership of Maidenhead U3A. Alison has a medical background as a GP, and Tony has an interest in psychology. All three successfully piloted the course at Wetherby and now offer it to the membership three times a year. 

The course is based on a handbook piloted by the Aughton and Ormskirk U3A and the participants all sign up for their own reasons. It is primarily to provide information about the reasons behind memory loss, with reassurance that memory problems can be part of the normal ageing process, all of which aims to reduce anxiety. It also promotes exercise, social and mental activity, with advice on how to maintain the flexibility of brain function, and the preservation of memory.

Going out, having face to face contact, meeting and talking with friends, neighbours and family, reading, writing, exercise, reminiscing, learning new activities are only part of the way we build up our memory bank.

As Alison said, ‘Use it or lose it’ is the key to keeping our memories intact and in good shape. It was a fascinating meeting and very obvious from the laughter and conversation, that support within the group would last well after the four weeks were over.

Last month, after chatting with one of its members, Arthur McCune, I was invited by Viv Wilkins to go along to the Local History Group.

They were visiting Spofforth, and something I learned on the walk, a personality I discovered, embodied everything we U3A members have at our disposal. I travelled to and from Wetherby by bus, using my bus pass (a bonus for us retirees) to the meeting point at Spofforth Castle.

I arrived in good time so had the opportunity to chat with a few people before we set off on our walk, ably guided by Margaret Power, who is a long-time resident of Spofforth.

Members of the group comprised people who were resident in and around the Wetherby area, but also a number who were new to the area and wanted to find out what treasures Spofforth had in store, and get to know the local area.

Margaret had started her studies when recording the inscriptions on the grave stones in All Saints Church, Spofforth, and gradually built up her knowledge. We were guided around the main village; starting at the Castle, which isn’t really a castle but a fortified Manor House, heard ghost stories, discovered the Chapel House dated 1810 with art deco glass, heard about an 8th-9th Century Charnal Pit and saw a pack horse bridge.

We learned that Spofforth Village Hall is used as a GP Surgery, holds classes, dog training and social activities and the village has a great community spirit. Over 20 people enjoyed the walk, listening to Margaret, chatting with each other, making new friends and discovering old places.

What was most memorable for me was visiting Blind Jack of Knaresborough’s grave in the Churchyard. Blind Jack, or to give him his full name, John Metcalfe, was the first professional road builder to emerge in the Industrial Revolution. Born in 1717 he was blinded by a smallpox infection at the age of six. His father paid for fiddle lessons as a means of earning his living as he became older, which he did with great success. Even though he was blind, he became a horse trader and carrier of all manner of goods with his pony and trap, which is how he came to become a road builder. He built over 180 miles of roads mainly in the North of England.

Blind Jack, who lived a full and active life, married and had four children, served in the Army, and given his wide variety of activities is a lesson to us all to do everything we can to keep our cognitive reserve in good shape. Having no sight did not seem to impede his activities.

After the walk I returned to the bus stop, in good time, and caught the bus back to Wetherby, in the company of friends. I hope you too, have an opportunity to get out and about this month and enjoy what Spofforth has to offer.