Groups of pensioners around the UK are finding mental stimulation through talk and tape recorders. Martin Whittaker reports
At a sheltered housing complex in the Forest of Dean, a group of elderly ladies sit in a circle and natter about the past.
Roger Drury, a worker from the local community project Forest Artworks, sits among them, gently prompting them with questions. And as they talk, he records their words on tape.
He has been coming to Wynols housing estate, Coleford, Gloucestershire, for the past seven months and has recorded hours of reminiscences, which he then transcribes.
He aims to publish a book and eventually, he hopes, the material will become an educational resource, or perhaps go into the county's archive - part of a collection of oral history.
Today the group discusses how the Forest of Dean has changed, the effects of coal mine closures and railway cutbacks in the Fifties and Sixties. They talk of what they did on the day an old railway crossing over the Severn was destroyed when a barge collided with it.
Connie Preece, a 77-year-old widow, recounts how she survived after accidentally swallowing cyanide while working in laboratories at Engelhard Ltd, a local precious metals refining company which produced the gold for the crown Prince Charles wore at his investiture in 1969.
Later she says: "I used to come here on a Monday to play bingo. We didn't do anything, except talk among ourselves. Now we're discussing things I didn't even know had happened round here. I think it's nice - you are educating yourself."
Roger Drury is also enthusiastic about this project, which has received funding from Gloucestershire County Council's adult education department.
It is, he says, a two-way process, bringing education to members of the community who would otherwise not have access to it, as well as providing a potential resource of living history.
He says: "Its aim is to put a value on people's own stories, their own background. Whoever they are, there's a story to tell and sharing it is a positive thing to do. It breaks down barriers. These are people who don't have access to other educational links.
"We have talked about going into local schools and telling these stories. I have made videos of some of the people in this group, just sitting and talking to camera. I showed it in the junior school just over the way and it went down really well. We're going to follow that with a visit from this group."
Reminiscence work is on the increase. The Federation of Workers, Writers and Community Publishers has just been awarded a lottery grant for a similar project, taking to people like the Wynols estate pensioners.
FWWCP co-ordinator Tim Diggles says: "Everything nowadays seems to have a national vocational qualification or something like that to it, which is very useful if you are career building or need to go for jobs. But people who have retired don't particularly want that - they want the skills but not to have to go through such a rigid way of working."
One organisation is taking the idea of tapping into the skills and experience of older people to its logical conclusion.
The Dark Horse Venture is a registered charity which runs an award scheme to help older and retired people use their hidden talents, skills and experience. For the past 12 months it has been running the Age to Age project in conjunction with the Institute of Human Ageing at Liverpool University.
The aim is to use the vast untapped resource of retired people to provide the raw material for education packs, which will then go to help others who would otherwise have no access to learning.
Subjects studied can vary from football to women's role in World War Two. Dark Horse's national co-ordinator Steve Goodwin explains: "We are asking older people to reflect on things like childhood memories, rural life, working life.
"What we are focusing on is ordinary people, people who never get asked, people in nursing homes. You also have older people who are more University of the Third Age type people, who enjoy researching things.
"We sent out 20,000 leaflets through libraries and social services asking for people to contribute, and we have a travelling exhibition going throughout the UK. Now we're starting to recruit thick and fast.
"It's a great opportunity for people who are housebound, or people who maybe cannot write, to sit down with a tape recorder and to reflect. It's involving older people who otherwise would have been written off as having nothing left to say or contribute. There are very intelligent people out there who are just vegetating because there's nothing available for them."
There is a lamentable lack of statistical data on the elderly and learning. According to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the proportion of students aged 65 and over in further education in 199495 in England was 1.8 per cent.
For higher education, evidence is equally sparse. According to 1996 figures in the Dearing report, participation among the over 50s in higher education for the UK is 0.27 per cent, but there are no precise figures for the over 65s.
The report says: "Despite steady progress in rates of participation amongst older students, higher education still remains a young person's experience. "
NIACE has been running a campaign, Older Bolder, to push for more and better education opportunities for the over-50s.
In the run-up to the forthcoming publication of the Government White Paper on lifelong learning, NlACE's Jim Soulsby, who runs Older Bolder, is watching with interest. He says provision for the elderly has been piecemeal and mainly left to community groups like Forest Artworks.
He says: "There's a whole debate trying to take place at the moment about the benefits to society of keeping older people involved, and there's a role for the education sector.
"It's about mental stimulation, about maintaining citizenship and interest in the world around them. There's strong anecdotal evidence that it does decrease dependency."
But he adds: "Involvement of older people in learning over the past 10 years in the main has been through the voluntary sector, through the United States, through writers' groups, and not necessarily through the formal education sector."
Access to courses for the over 65s varies by region, he says. Being on a pension is not enough to qualify you for fee remission, you have to be on means-tested benefit.
"The whole funding of further education means that because they're so strapped for cash, colleges are withdrawing these remissions across the country, " says Jim Soulsby. "One area might have excellent provision, another will be quite bad."
Help the Aged is aware of these shortcomings too. At the end of this year the charity is publishing a paper about the involvement and inclusion of older people in various areas of life. One area it will deal with is lifelong learning.
Spokeswoman Alison Rose says: "There's a problem of older people's access to education in a whole range of areas. One of them is in sheltered housing. Because there are cutbacks in residential housing, it means there's fewer staff to help people do what they want to do. There are just the basic services, not a broad range of services older people may want to get involved in.
"We are also concerned about cutbacks in adult education generally. They seem to be focusing more on vocational qualifications for younger people, taking away the access for older people. We have found that if older people keep up their interests and involvement in society, they're going to be healthier people."