Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
Time for a New Activity
Today is your 75th birthday. You've decided that this is the year you are going to reduce your work hours dramatically. You've been employed for 60 years of your life, with only a vacation here and there when you haven't worked. You like the idea of having more time with your partner and getting a chance to travel and also relax at home. Yet, the prospect of suddenly having very little to fill your days concerns you.
As you wonder how to use your time, one option that comes to mind for you is volunteering. But, where to start? In this lesson, we look at the role volunteerism can play in the life of an older adult, as well as the factors that influence your likelihood of volunteering.
According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, between 1974 and 2005, the volunteer rate of older adults (age 65 and older) increased by 64 percent. Why have so many more older adults chosen this activity?
One explanation for this trend is the increase in education and income for those who are retiring now compared with previous generations. A higher level of education and income tends to create an interest in contributing help to the types of issues that non-profit organizations address. A person with a well-paying job may also see their skills as valuable and worthy of contributing to others.
Many older adults may also be conscious of the benefits of volunteering. In addition to making a contribution to the community by offering their time, older adults can receive health and wellness benefits as a result. Imagine again that you are 75 and retiring after 60 years of employment. You are not likely going to be happy watching television ten hours a day, no matter how much you love reality shows.
While the topic is still debated, those who research volunteerism among older adults have suggested possible reasons why those who volunteer seem to have improved health outcomes. Some note that volunteering makes a person feel more useful, while others emphasize the increase in social connections made during these activities. Still others believe it helps people feel more in control of their lives and gives them a sense of purpose and identity.
If volunteering has such a positive impact on older adults, why isn't everyone doing it? One reason, already mentioned, is that not everyone has the financial resources to leave full-time paid work behind. For instance, even if you are 75 years old and want to cut back your hours, if your expenses are more than your income from Social Security and savings can cover, you may need to stick with paid work to help create a more secure future.
Sometimes even if a person still works part-time, they may opt to volunteer as well. In fact, this scenario of both working part-time and volunteering is a common scenario among older adults who can afford not to work full-time. Volunteerism tends to increase for people in their late 50s and 60s. After age 70, the rate drops, and then drops even further in a person's 80s. If a person has volunteered earlier in life, they are more likely to volunteer later in life too.
Having a spouse who volunteers can also influence whether a person decides to participate. While some studies suggest a gender difference in those who volunteer, the gender gap is not consistent across all countries. In the U.S., Australia and Canada, for instance, women are more likely to volunteer, but men are more likely to contribute a higher volume of hours. In most European countries, men are more likely to volunteer.
In addition, health issues factor into why some adults can volunteer and others cannot. Not only are those in poor health themselves less able to volunteer, but older caregivers who are supporting a spouse, partner or aging parent or relative also may not have the time and energy for such activities.
Doorways to Volunteerism
As a 75 year-old, about to semi-retire, you've decided you are going to volunteer. How do you find a good fit for your skills, interests and schedule?
If you were already a member of a club, organization or religious community, this might be your first place to look since it is a common path for older adults to volunteer within a group they are already a member. Yet, this is only one avenue. Many services are available to help match an older person with a volunteer opportunity.
Along with listings of activities from arts to travel to support groups, members of senior centers are often encouraged to volunteer their time and talents. These centers can help connect a person with a need in the community. Many volunteer associations exist for this purpose as well. Senior Corps, a government-funded program started during John F. Kennedy's administration, has several key programs to help those 55 and over provide service to others. AARP's Create the Good campaign is also designed to help make these connections happen.
Specific skills may also be valuable to different types of volunteer organizations. The AARP Experience Corps offers opportunities for educational tutors over age 50 to help improve student literacy in disadvantaged schools. For business-minded individuals, an organization called SCORE can offer a chance to mentor those starting their own business. Still other opportunities exist in nearly every nonprofit organization, including helping the parks service or public libraries.
Volunteerism is high among older adults, particularly those in their late 50s and 60s. Older adults most likely to volunteer include those with a high education and income level, those with a spouse who volunteers and those who work part-time. Health and wellness benefits, such as the stronger sense of purpose, can draw an older adult to volunteering. On the other hand, poor health can be a strong barrier to volunteering, reducing the rates of volunteerism in our 70s and even more in our 80s.
Older adults find connections to volunteer opportunities through organizations in which they are already a member and also through senior centers and volunteer associations. The federal government and other agencies play a role in supporting the concept and helping meet the many needs of communities and individuals through matching volunteers with a chance to donate their time.
At the end of this lesson, you should find that you can:
- Explain why older adults may consider volunteering
- Describe the variety of factors that lead to volunteerism in late adulthood
- Discuss the volunteering demographics of older adults
- Analyze the different openings that an older adult can find into the world of volunteerism
- Consider the types of volunteer jobs an older adult may take on
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