Volunteering in later life

Nobody will have escaped the impact of the loss of many hundreds of thousands of volunteers, who, because they were aged over 70, were asked to stay at home as coronavirus began to sweep the nation.  I had been furloughed from my part time job, so in order to help plug the gap, I like thousands of others across the nation, volunteered to help out in my local hospital, doing whatever needed to be done.

The process of becoming a volunteer was intense, with over 20 assessed online courses to pass at rate of at least 80%. Enhanced DBS checks and references followed, and of course, becoming familiar with everything that was required, meeting the staff and the fellow volunteers, as the hospital opened its doors to me.

What the hospital needed from me, was help with the cleaning. There are long, long corridors in my local hospital, so many doors, light switches, tables, chairs – so many different things that an individual might touch. My job and those of the other volunteers, was to clean everything we could see that someone may have touched. It was hot, physical work. But it gave some much needed breathing space to the “real” cleaners who had the difficult and, let’s face it, dangerous work of cleaning the wards, including of course the wards where people were infected with coronavirus.Volunteer

For me, it was a wonderful way to feel less helpless in the face of a difficult set of circumstances. I met some hugely inspiring people, and I felt immensely proud to have contributed to the health of the nation, in even some small way. Although I am now back to my regular work, I will have a life-long connection with my local hospital now, and I couldn’t be more proud of it.

But it was also a hugely valuable insight into how much older people in my community contribute to the effective running of my local hospital – all of which had been invisible to me before now. This inspired me to investigate the social and cultural capital provided by older volunteers more generally, and I was humbled to learn that by the time people reach later life, the vast majority already have some experience of contributing to their communities.

People contribute in so many ways; some get involved in formal civic roles or volunteer with charities or public sector organisations, some engaging in community or mutual support groups,  helping out friends and neighbours; some run sporting or social clubs; and some share their knowledge and experience with others of all ages in kinds of interest groups from knitting to knot tying!

It was very heart-warming to discover the reports that very few people in later life make no contribution of any kind. But of some concern, was learning that the talents and energy of some of our older people was going to waste, as there can be encounter barriers to getting involved. The Centre for Ageing Better, in their “Guide to Age-friendly and inclusive volunteering” which you can access here, gives the following barriers to getting involved:

Costs
Not feeling valued
Transport needs
Inflexible offers
Physical access
Lack of neutral spaces
Language
Bureaucracy Lack of resources
Lack of confidence
Digital divide
Stigma/stereotype
Fear of over-commitment
Lack of welcome

 

From my own experience, I can report that not only did I need excellent digital skills to complete the application and training process to volunteer at the hospital, I also needed: people to reach out to for references, who could also respond digitally; to have great social confidence to just show up at a huge organisation and pitch in with others; to be able to fund my own travel, to get myself there and back; and be able to undertake the physical demands of what was required.

 

Yet it has been proven time and time again that helping others and making a contribution to community life is very, very good for us. It makes us feel happier. It boosts our self-esteem, combats loneliness and increases our sense of purpose and overall satisfaction with our lives. And of course the return on investment in recruiting and training volunteers is spectacular! So why wouldn’t we ensure that sure that all this “good stuff” is available to each and every one of us?

 

As we head into a new way of being due to the global pandemic, let’s ensure the new arrangements for volunteering include providing access for those  who are older, those with poorer health, those with less disposable income, those that have previously not engaged with the community. And of course those that just lack the confidence to get started. With all the available talent harnessed – just image what we might achieve!

 

Click on the link to identify an independent advocate in your area, who may be able to help you get started on a new voluntary endeavour!

 

by Colette, OPAAL and NHS Volunteer