Volunteering – good advice from the UK

Judith Davey 27/11/20

In many of my blog posts I have mentioned “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 the importance of contribution and participation as part of positive ageing – outlining the benefits to individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Volunteering is a major way of realising contribution and participation, but many organisations are finding it difficult to recruit volunteers, and older people are a major source for this.

There is plenty of evidence of how volunteering can benefit older people – serving
as a replacement for work and family roles that may figure less prominently in later life. British research has shown that volunteering among older adults is correlated with increases in well-being, mental and physical health. “As well as helping others, we help ourselves through building confidence, social connections and a sense of purpose.”

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

Given these benefits, it is worth looking ways to encourage volunteering among older people and the barriers which may discourage them. The research findings also suggest that widening participation among social groups is a relevant goal.

“We have an ageing and increasingly diverse population. We need a new
approach to community participation and volunteering to ensure that more people enjoy the wellbeing benefits of being involved with their communities” (CBA, 2020).

The Centre for Ageing Better in the UK has recently published a report – Helping Out – Taking an inclusive approach to engaging older volunteers. This is a guide designed as a practical tool to support organisations working to engage with volunteers aged over 50 and to widen participation. On the basis of widespread consultation, this report again 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.

Barriers to volunteering

The CBA review found that many people face practical, structural and emotional barriers to taking part in volunteering. These barriers can worsen for people as they age and their personal circumstances change – for example, developing a health condition or taking on caring responsibilities. Types of barriers identified were –

Practical – cost, transport needs, physical access, language.

Structural – inflexible offers, bureaucratic processes, lack of resources, digital divide.

Emotional – lack of confidence, stigma/stereotypes, lack of welcome, fear of over-commitment, not feeling valued.

The main messages from the CBA report, to combat these barriers were –

Connect and Listen
• Spend time listening and getting to know your volunteers to find out what skills and experience they bring, and what they want to do. Use conversations rather than formal applications.
• Listen and empower people to do what matters to them – and in ways that work for them. Consider diversity.
• Celebrate everyone’s contributions and share stories, successes and experiences. Encourage regular participants to welcome and support newcomers to help them develop confidence and new skills.
• Instead of using the term ‘volunteering, which can be off-putting, talk about ‘helping out’, ‘being a good neighbour’ or ‘giving time’.

Remove barriers
• Make the application, joining and induction processes simple, with clear and accessible information and concise forms.
• Focus on the person and the support they might need as an individual. Often emotional barriers are overlooked, such as lack of confidence or self-esteem.
• Think about ways to support people to take part. For example, offer respite for carers, help with travel to venues, access to and training for digital work.

Be flexible
• Make activities fun and welcoming. The social aspect may draw people to opportunities to help in their communities.
• Create a range of opportunities to suit different circumstances, interests and abilities and different levels of commitment.
• Try out different low-tech, low-cost, low-risk ways of engaging with people. Offer a choice of quick, easy tasks, in shorter chunks of time that people can take part in
with little or no commitment.
• Consider developing ‘taster’ or ‘micro-volunteering’ sessions and activities.

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

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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