Providing Purpose & Meaning For Older Adults Through Volunteerism

One of the things that amazes me is the dedication individuals have to volunteering for organizations close to their hearts, especially those who are older adults. In all my years in ministry and working in the non-profit sector, I have been moved by older adults who volunteer in their community to help those most in need.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), 1 in 3 volunteers at local community organizations are 55 years or older. And in 2012, 20 million seniors volunteered nearly 3 billion hours that year. CNCS also found the percentage of volunteers who are seniors has steadily increased over the last decade. Nearly three-quarters (72.4%) are volunteering informally by doing favors for and helping out their neighbors, seven points higher than the national average.
While volunteering gives older adults the ability to give back to their community, there are also numerous other benefits for older adults who decide to volunteer.

First, volunteering allows older adults to bridge gaps with younger adults. Younger adults often volunteer to build resumes and fulfill community hours, and this gives older adults the opportunity to find common interests with their younger counterparts.

One of the ways I had the opportunity to see this done is through my work while in AmeriCorps. One of the outreach programs our AmeriCorps program operated was a community house in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a town that struggled with poverty due to the fall of the steel industry in the 1980s. While our community house (called the I-Care House) had a multitude of college students from Slippery Rock University (where our AmeriCorps program was based) we also had a great deal of older adults who were seeking to give back to their community by volunteering at the I-Care House. What was a remarkable experience was seeing college students working side by side with older adults as they read stories, served meals, and tutored local children after school. This provided older adults the opportunity to be engaged with younger generations while giving young adults the opportunity to learn and share passions with older adults.

The second benefit for seniors to volunteer is that it prevents isolation and promotes physical activity.

While serving as a church intern in 2012, I had the opportunity to not only learn preaching and pastoral care skills but also had the opportunity to work with many church members who were older adults. What amazed me was the effort and energy they gave to the church and its various ministries. From serving as deacons to serving meals to those who struggled with homelessness, most of the older adult volunteers served well over 25 hours a week. For these older adults, volunteering allowed them to be engaged while giving them the opportunity to have a social community—something which is especially needed for older adults who live alone and struggle with feeling isolated.

The third and final benefit for seniors to volunteer is that it gives seniors the opportunity to make a difference in their community and in their world.

“As our nation’s older population rapidly grows, we have a tremendous opportunity to unleash the power of older volunteers on our most pressing problems,” says Dr. Erwin Tan, Director of Senior Corps at CNCS.

When I worked professionally for a non-profit organization that provided enrichment opportunities for youth, I found myself amazed at the talents and skills older adults gained in their former careers. From volunteers who spent their lives working in finance, business, social work, ministry, and teaching, the skills and knowledge older adults have can have a tremendous impact on non-profit organizations and ministries. And most importantly, volunteering allows older adults to have a feeling of worthiness and meaning in retirement.

During my time working professionally for this organization, I had the opportunity to work with a volunteer during a summer camp program that was led by a retired school teacher. While this woman has been retired for over ten years, she told me that being able to work with kids fulfills her passion for making a difference in the lives of youth now that she is outside the classroom.

“Children is what drove my career for over 20 years as a teacher,” she told me. “And for me to continue to make a difference in the lives of kids gives me passion and meaning as a retiree.”

For community and non-profit leaders, there is a great need to seek older adults who can be part of our organizations as volunteers. There is a tremendous great deal of skills, gifts, and passions older adults have that can help fulfill our organization’s mission.

However, more importantly, reaching out to older adults to become volunteers gives them the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others in their community and in their neighborhoods. While this opportunity will make a difference in the lives of those we serve, it also makes a difference in the lives of those who are volunteering—giving older adults meaning, value, and purpose. Like young adults, older adults need to feel valued and needed. And for anyone, regardless of whether they are older or younger adults, volunteering provides feelings of self-worth and value.

Feature Image by Freepik