Volunteering – how it benefits older people and how it can be encouraged

One of the “tasks” of later life, as defined by psychologists, is “generativity” – the “giving back” by older people to society and specifically to oncoming generations. While not mentioning the concept of generativity specifically, numerous policy statements and “strategies” emphasise that the contribution and participation of older people is an important part of positive ageing, with benefits to individuals, communities, and society as a whole.

The “Better Later Life – 2019-2034” document from the Office for Seniors has a section – Enhancing opportunities for participation and social connection. The objectives under this heading include to – reduce loneliness amongst older people; provide them with opportunities to contribute to society; and to support volunteering.

Volunteering can provide a replacement for work and family roles that may figure less prominently in later life. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence of how volunteering can benefit older people in terms of well-being, mental and physical health. This is especially the case when the volunteers make a real physical, cognitive and emotional commitments to their activities. As a recent British report concludes –

As well as helping others, we help ourselves through building confidence, social connections and a sense of purpose.”[1]

Other research, this time from the USA, suggests that volunteerism among older people tends to be concentrated in more advantaged groups – those who have more education, higher income, better health, and some religious involvement. These conclude that more older women than men volunteer, but older men are more likely to volunteer than are younger men.

 Given these benefits, it is worth looking at ways to encourage volunteering among older people, to widen participation among under-represented groups in the population and to counter the barriers which may be discouraging.

A good local example of these effects and responses comes from the post-earthquakes experience in Christchurch. Michael Annear’s Ph.D thesis provides many examples of how older people not only showed their willingness to work voluntarily, but, at the same time, demonstrated their own resilience. They provided support to family, friends, and community members (for example, having people living with them); assisted in disaster recovery activities (being involved in community information centres, arranging forums for information and advice); engaged with social networks to give emotional and psychological support. This response became a source of spiritual growth and personal learning. Helping and caring for other people often assisted their own recovery.

The conclusion was that older people were a valuable resource for community recovery and family support and that the diversity and effectiveness of their coping styles offered valuable lessons for younger people. Annear called older people the “unsung heroes in the aftermath of the earthquakes”.

One of the heroes was John Patterson (then aged 75), who organised older people’s forums and called upon civic and national leaders, heads of insurance companies and other agencies to listen to their views and explain themselves. He challenged the myths about older people:

“Younger people will be thinking “those oldies at their forum will be having a good chat over a cup of tea but they needn’t worry, we will look after them”. Look around this room. We have (present) an ex-Mayor of Christchurch, an ex-Dean of the cathedral, an ex-cabinet minister. We have ex-builders, plumbers, school teachers, nurses, engineers, accountants, etc. We have an enormous amount of skills, talents, expertise, experience, know-how and wisdom. It is high time that the powers that be and leaders of this city recognised this. They should be looking for ways to use this huge and growing resource.”

 The Centre for Ageing Better in the UK produced a report – Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers, in 2020. This is a practical tool to support organisations working to engage with volunteers aged over 50 and to widen participation. This report, like the USA research, found that those who are least healthy and least wealthy are the least likely to take part in volunteering, but also the most likely to benefit.

~ Judith Davey

[1] Centre for Ageing Better (CBA) 2020, Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers.


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