KUALA LUMPUR: For many, retirement might mean a one-way ticket to boredom and early decline, but those enrolled in the “University of the Third Age” (U3A) might beg to differ.
The U3A, a hybrid of the British and French models, is a programme under UPM’s Lifelong Learning for Older Malaysians project. It ropes in those who are part of the “third age” – retired individuals who no longer work full-time – to continue what it calls “lifelong learning”.
For RM50 a course, those above 55 get the chance to pick up skills like cooking, dancing, gardening, rock climbing, cycling and even using Adobe Photoshop.
Each course stretches over a few days a week for a month. Once they complete their courses, U3A members take part in a graduation ceremony, complete with certificates, robes and mortarboards.
Former Petaling Jaya city councillor Peter Chong is a founding member and president of the Bandar Utama U3A centre. His centre sees some 200 people – mostly Chinese ladies aged 60 to 65 – as regular attendees.
Chong, 55, said the idea to open the centre came about four and a half years ago when elderly residents in Petaling Jaya asked if he could help them find a place in town instead of having to go to UPM in Serdang.
“At the time, I was an MBPJ councillor so I allowed them to use the MBPJ hall,” he told FMT, referring to the Malay initialism for the Petaling Jaya City Hall.
Once he had taken a look at the U3A project’s courses and goals, he decided to lead the group as well.
After a while, he found it difficult to get resources and support from U3A at UPM. It was then that he decided to make the Bandar Utama centre an autonomous organisation.
Despite the somewhat awkward decision, Chong believes it is better for the Bandar Utama centre to be independent as this allows it to decide on the courses it offers.
“The classes we offer attract different social mixes,” he told FMT.
In Serdang, for example, there was a bigger Malay population. “So they had a course for gamelan (Malay traditional ensemble music).
“But that doesn’t work in Bandar Utama,” Chong said. Here, his members prefer ukulele lessons, guitar classes and courses on handicraft, flower arrangement and even ballroom dancing.
Those leading the courses are a mix of trained professionals, such as for swimming or Zumba, and volunteers from the U3A group.
“Our catchphrase is, teachers learn and teach as well,” Chong said.
The courses at the Bandar Utama centre come and go according to popularity. Right now, swimming, rock climbing and cycling courses are in high demand.
“But we’re not competing with other senior citizen clubs that resident groups have,” Chong said. “Ours is education- and learning-based whereas those are mostly socially based.”
The RM40 membership fee – RM25 for yearly membership and a one-off registration fee of RM15 – goes towards paying the volunteers who teach the courses, conducting outings, maintaining the facilities and holding outreach programmes.
For Chong, it is especially inspiring to see the community take part in graduation ceremonies and art exhibitions. The look of content on their faces is all he needs to keep up the initiative.
“Most people don’t realise that a lot of senior citizens just look after their grandchildren and watch TV. They shut themselves off from society. That’s how they get sick – their quality of life goes down if they’re like this,” he said.
“One of the ways to improve their quality of life is to make ageing more graceful and keep them alert with new skills.”
Most of the U3A courses are promoted by community members through word of mouth. The centre has seen a steady increase in members, with those who are not quite in their golden years or retired more than welcome as well. These members are charged a slightly higher fee. Regulars at the centre must be at least 50 years old.
Chong hopes to see a mushrooming effect in areas without such programmes in place for the senior community. He says there is more to life than what conventional retirement may imply.
“That’s why our tagline at the Bandar Utama U3A is ‘you live, you learn, and you love’. What you give at the end of the day adds to the quality of life.”