‘Grandparent boom’ in the auditorium

  • 2011-12-07
  • By Egle Juozenaite

TAKING ATTENDANCE: Professors face a classroom of students eager to learn.

KLAIPEDA - The elderly in Lithuania constitute an increasingly growing group, and along with it grows the average age of the overall population. According to Eurostat, the median age of the Lithuanian population in 2060 will be 48.1 years, whereas in 2010 it was 39.2 years. Therefore, during the next fifty years the average age will increase by nearly a decade, so there is a need to think now about how these elderly people will be employed. What will they be doing on a late autumn day? Knitting socks, watching TV melodramas and rarely coming out of the house?

On Oct. 1, 2010, a day which commemorates the International Day of Older Persons, Klaipeda University signed a contract with the public institution Treciasis Amzius (Third Age) establishing a chapter of the University of the Third Age, in its Faculty of Health Sciences. This initiative was led by Arturas Razbadauskas, dean of Klaipeda University’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Irena Linkauskiene, director of Third Age.

The first University of the Third Age was established at the University of Toulouse, in France in 1972. It was started by Professor Pierre Vellas and was mostly associated with the local university. The idea was so successful that it spread to many other countries, and by 1975 the International Association of U3A branches had been formed. “In 1995, Lithuanian Medardo Coboto University of the Third Age joined the International Association of Universities of the Third Age (IAUTA), which has its headquarters in Lyon, France,” says the official Medardo Coboto University Web site.

Klaipeda University investigated the situation in other countries. “It seemed that in many places the largest public universities, and not only them, have universities for elderly people, so we decided to establish the University of the Third Age in Klaipeda,” said Razbadauskas, who is also a working surgeon.

“Klaipeda’s University of the Third Age, as well as other U3As (University of the Third Age) around the world, strives to improve older people’s social integration into society, to promote meaningful learning, maintain employability, physical activity, and tries to  increase the level of knowledge and culture. U3A also provides opportunities for people of retirement age to remain an active part of society and to have the opportunity to enjoy an easy senescence,” he added.
The Third Age studies last for two years. University students average in age from 66 to 75 years. Lectures for the elderly occur once every two weeks, for two academic hours. The first year of studies were successfully completed by 652 students - 600 women and 52 men). “Now, there are about 700 people in the first year course, and about 300 at the second course of studies,” notes Razbadauskas.

Studies at the university could be described as a voluntary activity for all. Students do not pay tuition, and teachers do not receive any compensation. “It is just a desire to give and share, the initiative, which promotes solidarity between the generations,” says Razbadauskas.

Linkauskiene, currently director of Third Age, said, that “already in 1996 there was the bud of the U3A’s formation, but the government did not support it. For a long time we needed a gerontology specialist, who could work with health. Even before the establishment of U3A we had been inviting doctors and academics to give lectures, so now we are very happy that, finally, we have got our own university.”

The NGO Third Age is an institution of Third Age People with Disabilities. “However, disability does not mean that we are sitting in a wheelchair. We have a variety of ailments and illnesses, but we all can walk and we are supporting each other. The enthusiasm maintains us,” adds Linkauskiene.

Many elderly people attending the lectures already have a university education and work in occupations such as teachers, doctors or journalists, so that during lectures some things are already familiar to them, and others simply add to their existing knowledge. “We didn’t expect to meet so many students. They do not fit into one classroom; we had to put them into two rooms. The lectures are read using a multi-media method and broadcast to the two audiences. There are so many students at the University, as it rarely happens that so many gathers together, but seniors fill all the places. The rooms are packed,” exclaimed Razbadauskas.

Klaipeda U3A students listen to a variety of lectures. They are also trained in computer literacy. Students can go to computer classes, use the university libraries. Seniors have their own email. They are active users of social networks such as Facebook. Here they have their own group, where they talk with each other and discuss topical issues.
U3A also focuses on health sciences. At this university people are taught a healthy lifestyle where they listen to lectures on disease prevention, the impact of age, the aging of the body, as well as on non-traditional medical procedures. “We introduce to people non-traditional medicine, such as dolphin therapy. In addition, at University of the Third Age we had a guest professor, Partap Cauhan, from India. He gave a lecture on Ayurveda. Course instructors are focused on the philosophy of life and practical tips for helping understand, and helping [students],” explained Razbadauskas.

“Sometimes we meet with [potential] guest speakers who offer to read lectures to students on a variety of medications, dietary supplements or procedures. These are promotions; we do not accept these teachers, as they are just here for profit, to sell more pharmaceuticals. I myself, as a doctor, can say that a handful of various drugs and dietary supplements will not solve the problems. The most important thing is to eat healthily, to exercise and live a balanced life,” he added.

Such education is a kind of informal education, but it could be formalized. “If students want, they can formalize their studies. If students would like to study for a bachelor’s  degree in Health Sciences, it would be decided on how many credits could be received,” explained Razbadauskas.

On whether the University promises to expand, Razbadauskas said that “everything will depend on funding; if the University of the Third Age will receive support, then there will be further discussion on U3A activity expansion. Now the university gets support for various institutions such as libraries, theaters, but in order to obtain more support and funding for U3A, we need to submit a variety of projects, which could help to get more support.”
Elderly people are also the subject of students who study Health Sciences at Klaipeda University. They learn how to help them, how to work with them and rehabilitate them after serious illness, so students and seniors are closely tied together. “Ergo therapy, or occupational therapy, is an area for us; we involve the students in activities related to this, developing a relationship between generations,” noted Razbadauskas.

The elderly are very active and willing to participate in various activities, to express themselves in artistic fields as well. Linkauskiene herself in 2008 published a book of poetry: Ugniazole Zalia (Celandine Green), the same year the Third Age’s creative chronicle almanac Saulejauta 8 (Sense of Sun 8) and six other seniors’ books were published. The organization also has its own ensemble Juraine (Marine antecedents), and actively collaborates with other U3A groups from other Lithuanian cities.

Seniors with smiling faces rush to their lectures; they arrive by public transport or in their own cars, some of them accompanied by relatives. U3A student Aldona Marija Gedviliene said “I am coming to the classes by car, no problem.”
“We could have more lectures; now we don’t have [very] many of them. I like to go to the University and, no matter whether it rains or snows, I go there to meet people and to listen to valuable information. When I will graduate from the U3A I will receive a certificate showing that I attended the University of the Third Age, so that I can show it to my grandchildren,” laughs another senior student, Joana Kaktaviciene.

“We are very busy; immediately after the lecture we will go to the Alternative Art Center where we create paper cutouts, learn floral basics, monotype. Together with my colleague Prane Kaminskiene, we held our art exhibition. My grandson also attends art school, so I’m helping him to draw sketches; we cooperate and work together,” says Joana, a ripe old age student, before returning to the auditorium to listen to another lecture.