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Volunteering benefits for older Australians

Last Updated at December 10th 2021
Volunteering is a vital component of Australia communities, giving life and support to organisations, charities, councils, and Government bodies alike.

Key points:

  • A large portion of older Australians give their time to volunteering ventures after they retire
  • Volunteering can reduce loneliness, social isolation and depression and provide a sense of purpose
  • Older people report higher levels of health and wellbeing if they are involved in volunteering
Older ladies volunteering at a charity
Volunteering can provide older people with a sense of involvement, belonging, self worth, and purpose after retirement. [Source: Shutterstock]

An estimated 6 million people volunteered formally through an organisation in 2020 and contributed 596.2 million hours to the community in 2019.

The older Australian cohort is an important volunteering demographic with 2020 data showing a formal volunteering rate of 25 percent and a 29 percent informal volunteering rate for 55-69 years olds, and a 28 percent formal volunteering rate and 26 percent informal volunteering rate for people 70 years and older.

Chief Executive Officer of Volunteering Australia, Mark Pearce, says that older Australians provide a valuable contribution to the volunteering communities ecosystem.

"[Older Australians] are valuable for a whole lot of reasons, but in the context of volunteering, there is both the value to the volunteer themselves but also to the community," explains Mr Pearce.

"I think that the experience of patience and having a different voice with a different perspective brings an entirely different experience to those parts of the community that benefit from the engagement of older people.

"Additionally, older Australians - especially those who are retired - do have more time available, so consequently, especially if they are within programs and volunteer through organisations, there is continuity of their experience through that program.

"They can bring guidance and structure, they can bring advice that wouldn't otherwise be there should people be more episodic in their volunteering. There is more of a sense of ownership within the program oftentimes from older Australians because they spend more time and they have the ability to more deeply engage with volunteering as a consequence."

Why older people love volunteering

Volunteering Australia reports that volunteering can provide older people with community cohesion and community participation that they may not find in other activities.

Mr Pearce says that many older Australians enjoy giving back to their communities in some form and being able to volunteer in their community can also develop and maintain strong networks outside of the home.

He adds that older people can become disconnected from society when they are older, especially if they have been working for most of their lives and then retire.

This disconnect can leave older Australians with a lack of purpose, drive and self-worth which can feed into mental health related issues, like depression.

Volunteering can provide older people with a sense of involvement, belonging, self worth, and purpose after retirement.

"I think community participation is at the heart of community. I like to say, for me, volunteering is a profound aspirational statement about the communities in which we live and how we want them to be," explains Mr Pearce.

"Certainly for people who bring a wealth of life experience and lived experience, the opportunity which may well otherwise not be available to older Australians to participate in and shape community, especially if they are retired and have lost that ability through work, the ability to continue to benefit and shape society, shape community, they can do that through volunteering."

For Christine Salih, volunteering has become a big part of her life after she started helping at Meals on Wheels (MOW) South Australia in 2016.

Being able to volunteer added greatly to her happiness and made her feel more connected to her local community. Her first day volunteering included her making a chocolate cake from scratch because there was no one to make any sweets.

Ms Salih says, "As a volunteer, I really enjoyed the feeling of community and fun in the kitchen and that we were creating a nutritious meal for people who were not able to cook for themselves.

"I was very pleased to be able to have the time to volunteer and think everybody who can, should do some volunteering. I think it makes us more aware of people less fortunate than us and also allows us to appreciate just how lucky we are. You also learn new skills."

Benefits for older Australians

Global studies and Volunteering Australia's own experiences have shown that older people benefit from volunteering both mentally and physically.

A recent American study from 2020 found that older Americans who volunteered over 100 hours in a year had better mental health outcomes and better physical outcomes than those who didn't volunteer.

Mr Pearce says, "[Volunteering] speaks to the ability to mitigate a lot of those circumstances which may well sit around - loneliness, depression and disconnection.

"Again, we come back to this fundamental sense of involvement and participation within community, and the real benefits come from reconnecting or connecting in an ongoing fashion or reconnecting with community which they may not have otherwise done in the past."

Benefits of volunteering include:

  • Reduces loneliness, social isolation and depression
  • Increases physical activity and assist with cardiovascular health
  • Reduced stress and lowers blood pressure
  • Boosts social activities and connection
  • Connect with others and create strong social networks
  • Can maintain or improve memory and thinking skills
  • Boost in fun and happy emotions
  • Improves overall wellbeing and quality of life

Mr Pearce adds that volunteering is being discussed as a piece of future national health policy in Australia.

Overseas in the United Kingdom, doctors can prescribe volunteering to people as a part of treatment for depression and issues associated with loneliness.

"It's part of the prescribing structure in the UK and it is being considered here, especially for older Australians, to say if you are feeling the effects of loneliness and disconnection, if you are feeling the effect of depression which comes as a function of disconnection, then volunteering is a good way of alleviating some of those symptoms," explains Mr Pearce.

"You can see that it actually has really profound benefits which are based in medicine."

Volunteering has given Ms Salih renewed purpose and a sense of belonging.

"The moment that sticks with me most is the day that started me on this journey of volunteering with Meals on Wheels. I was a total stranger and made to feel welcome and part of a team, Ms Salih says. "As an employee, there have been many times in the last 20 months that customers have expressed thanks and appreciation of our meals, which is very rewarding and makes me proud of my kitchen and the great volunteers we have."

Ms Salih loved volunteering so much, she ended up moving into the role of branch coordinator of the West Torrens Meals on Wheels branch in Adelaide at the age of 63.

Informal and formal volunteering opportunities

There are two types of volunteering older people can get involved in - informal and formal volunteering. Formal volunteering takes place within organisations and is relatively structured, while informal volunteering is less structured, unfunded, and tends to be through community groups.

For example, delivering meals to older people through Meals on Wheels Australia is considered formal volunteering. Whereas giving a helping hand to your local Church is considered informal volunteering.

Mr Pearce says that it is harder to get data on how many older volunteers there are in informal roles because these volunteering opportunities tend to be not recorded.

However, he says either option is a fantastic way to get involved with your community, whether that is with your local religious group or with a large organisation.

When searching for volunteer work, he suggests either utilising online search engines, like Volunteering Australia's GoVolunteer.com.au or Seek's Volunteering website, or looking at different options in your local neighbourhood.

Many organisations provide opportunities for participation, like art, sport, the broader health care community, and even in aged care.

"You can almost look across every aspect of human involvement in the community and there will be something," says Mr Pearce.

"There will be an organisation or opportunity for Australians, and certainly older Australians, to be involved in. Contacting organisations within neighbourhoods is a really good way to develop those connections."

If you have a specific interest or hobby, you may find benefit looking into volunteering opportunities in those areas, like town beautification projects or a local community garden for green thumbs, or if you are a sport fan, many sports clubs need volunteers on their boards or in the food canteen.

Alternatively, local councils will have volunteering opportunities available that they regularly advertise for.

What volunteering option are you considering to take up? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Quality of life factors for older Australians
How to get involved in your community
Keeping your brain healthy as you age
Social support for older men

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