Share your expertise by volunteering for a charity you love.
Humans are wired to require social interaction and a sense of purpose. With older adults living longer, healthier lives, retirement has become a life stage brimming with opportunity. Relieved of many career and family obligations, seniors finally have time to devote the lifetime of experience and knowledge they’ve earned to interests and causes about which they are passionate.
Connecting with Community
Volunteerism is a powerful way for seniors to connect with new people, maintain a sense of purpose and feel an ongoing sense of contribution to their community in later years. After all, public health and social scientists have long documented the benefits of social engagement for older adults, including promoting longevity and increased vitality by reducing the risk of heart disease, hypertension and other chronic illnesses. Beyond stimulating the brain, social engagement can ward off feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression common after retirement.
Fortunately, many seniors already experience these benefits from the time they give volunteering. In fact, last year more than 21 million older adults (a quarter of all people 55 and older) contributed more than 3.3 billion hours of service in their communities according to the Center for National and Community Service. Seniors make up approximately one-third of the volunteer base and put in more than 40 percent of the total hours. Based on the estimated value of a volunteer hour, the economic benefit of senior volunteers is $75 billion.
Top-ranked volunteer roles among seniors include providing professional or management assistance to nonprofits and collecting and distributing food. Two specific organizations are profiled on the following page, but there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities for retirees of any physical ability level who are looking to get involved. See Senior Volunteer Opportunities below for additional ideas.
Help the Hungry
Hunger affects individuals and families throughout the country. Approximately one in six older adults face the threat of hunger and millions more live in isolation, according to Meals on Wheels America, an organization of more than 5,000 nutrition programs nationwide devoted to preventing hunger and malnutrition. With 2 million volunteers — close to half of whom are retirees — serving 2.5 million people annually, Meals on Wheels programs prepare, pack and deliver a daily meal to individuals who need it. Most recipients are living independently and can stay in their homes longer with security and dignity thanks to the service.
Lory Howlett-Barton, director of development and marketing at Colorado-based Meals on Wheels of Boulder, describes clients as members of the community’s “invisible population.” She says they’re isolated and often experience challenges due to an inability to navigate transportation and technology.
“We knock on the door each day knowing we might be the only human the client gets to interact with that day,” Howlett-Barton said. “Our delivery volunteers get to know the folks and build a relationship, so it’s healthy for both the volunteer and the client.”
There are plenty of opportunities for volunteers who can’t or choose not to drive as well. Daily help is needed to sort hot and cold foods and pack the meals for drivers. Other opportunities vary by location but include things like clerical tasks and trimming and cutting flowers for birthday bouquets. Howlett-Barton says all of these roles are critical to their operation.
“The wheels would fall off of our organization without the valuable time devoted by all of our senior volunteers,” she said.
Build the Future
Habitat for Humanity is a homeownership program for low-income families where volunteers work side by side with qualified buyers to build both a house and a sense of pride and community. Many retired volunteers work with Habitat for Humanity either on build sites, in affiliate offices or, most often, at Habitat for Humanity ReStore, a thrift store of new and used materials donated by the community providing a low-cost home improvement store. There are jobs for seniors of every physical capability, and all ReStore proceeds benefit other Habitat programming.
Habitat for Humanity International sponsors homes in nearly 70 partner countries and has worked to build strength, stability and independence for 6.8 million people at home and around the world. No prior construction experience is required to help on build sites, and there are tasks for all types of individuals and abilities. Professionally trained staff help teach and guide volunteers on all activities, and volunteers walk away from a task feeling empowered. For those looking to give time at a ReStore location, tasks may include — but certainly aren’t limited to — sorting and pricing donations, helping customers find items or working as a cashier.
“Volunteering with Habitat gives one a sense of completion,” said long-time volunteer David “Ziggy” Ziegler. “What a joy to see the progress each day! It is a great way to give back and help others while learning new skills.”
Robyn Burns, Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver director of communications & marketing says they love all volunteers and couldn’t do what they do without them, but seniors have the added benefit of more flexible schedules. They also bring a special level of life experience that others haven’t yet earned.
“Our regular volunteer program includes people who can make a longer-term commitment of 26 days or more per year, and 90 percent of these folks are age 55 and older,” said Burns. “These regular volunteers make a big difference for Habitat families because they help us meet construction goals and timelines and keep our ReStore locations running. It’s this community of volunteers that helps us build a community of homes.”
SENIOR VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
Giving time through volunteerism is good for both mental and physical health as you age. You’ll make connections, friendships and relationships with other volunteers, and it’s good for your community! These are just a few of the organizations eager and willing to welcome you into their family.
WORK WITH KIDS
- Senior Corps Foster Grandparent program connects senior volunteers with children in schools and youth facilities to mentor and tutor students in literacy, math and writing. http://www.seniorcorps.org/rsvp/foster-grandparents/
- Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs adult volunteers with kids in need of a caring adult to build long-term one-on-one relationships. http://www.bbbs.org/become-a-big/
- Many children's hospitals rely on volunteers to assist families during a child's stay. This may include things like reading stories or monitoring a playroom. Contact your local children’s hospital.