When we talk to teenagers about giving back to the community through volunteerism, we run through all the obvious benefits: building a resume, learning employable skills, getting a letter of reference for future work and scholarship opportunities. But why should older adults volunteer? When I chat with seniors in our community, some latch onto the idea that volunteering is best left to the kids; after all they are energetic and have lots of time. While this may or may not be the case, I am always quick to remind them that seniors who volunteer in the community may not need to ensure they have a job reference anymore, but they probably do want ensure a more connected and less lonely future.
When I think of the seniors I know who are also caregivers in the community, those who give unconditionally often at the expense of their own health, I wonder where they fit into this discussion. Family caregivers suffer an especially acute form of isolation and loneliness after years of caring for a loved one, one that is often coupled with fatigue and burnout. They are tired. The idea of doing more is ill-making. It is true, that when we’re in the midst of the crisis, adding to our workload isn’t wise. That said, for some caregivers, an opportunity to connect in a different context is also an opportunity to break out of the isolation and might just help to establish their own social safety net.
Volunteering might just be the best inoculation against isolation we have
The seniors who volunteer with us don’t come because they are passionate about making coffee litres at a time. They don’t arrive because washing dishes is their favourite pastime or reading to a child is their long- lost calling. They come because when they are here, they are known and appreciated. They connect with friends and neighbours for an hour or two and they get caught up on one another’s lives. When they take this small action they are breaking out of that vacuum of isolation. For caregivers, this type of volunteering might be thought of as respite in motion.
Give an hour to stave off loneliness
Some of our volunteers come to us newly widowed looking for a way to move on, often paralyzed with grief. Some move into the community to be closer to family and don’t know a soul, while others have children and grandchildren and friends who have moved away and are less reachable. Whatever the reason, all of them are living with the growing awareness that with aging comes a new kind of loneliness they may not have anticipated just a few years earlier when life felt busy and over-full. However, for seniors who give even a few hours once a month, new friendships with people having similar experiences is a welcome gift. So often we see how these connections become a network of support: our volunteers notice each other’s absences and changes in health and are quick to check in on each other’s well-being. Bonds are forged through service and coffee cups that sustain these friends and neighbours through the ups and downs that life brings.
The hardest part is showing up
Many of us count ourselves out of volunteering because we are certain that we have no skill or ability that could possibly be of help. Maybe we are new to the country and English is not our first language. Some of us are afraid of the unknown, afraid of not fitting in, of not having fun or not getting it right. I promise you there is something for everyone in all sorts of community organizations across the North Shore. If you haven’t volunteered before, or you haven’t in a while, consider this your invitation to try.
Erin is the Manager of Seniors’ Services at Parkgate Community Services Society in North Vancouver. The thoughts and opinions in this article come from her own experience and hope while working in community.