Volunteering for a better later life
People aged over 75 are just as likely to volunteer once a month as people aged 16-49. We think it’s time to focus on older volunteers too.
Recent years have seen a huge push by government and the voluntary sector on youth volunteering. Rates of volunteering among 16-25 year olds rose by 50% between 2010 and 2015 . Millions of young people have been mobilised. It’s a great success story.
But at the same time, and without any of the same attention, people in later life have continued to contribute. People aged over 75 are just as likely to volunteer once a month as people aged 16-49. We think it’s time to focus on older volunteers too.
At the Centre for Ageing Better, our focus is on helping everyone enjoy a good later life. People over 50 tell us that social connections and a sense of purpose matter just as much as health or financial security. Volunteering has always been an important way for people to maintain friendships and meaning into later life.
Our recent report on the benefits of making a contribution in later life found consistent evidence that older people who help others are happier as a result. By doing something that matters for others, they gain increased self-esteem and a sense of purpose. Older volunteers who receive positive feedback are less likely to be depressed, and there’s even evidence that people who volunteer regularly are likely to live longer.
There is an important social component to this – volunteers meet new people and make new connections. There’s also evidence that undertaking voluntary activity improves the quality of people’s current relationships. These opportunities to deepen and extend their social contacts are particularly valuable for older people whose existing social networks have shrunk, for example as a result of bereavement or retirement.
However, contrary to popular wisdom, retirement isn’t a major trigger for starting to volunteer. The evidence does show that when people retire, they increase the amount of time they spend volunteering, but it also tells us that most of them were already taking part in voluntary activity before they retired. Fewer than one in five people take up volunteering for the first time after retirement. Like any good habit, volunteering is best acquired early.
And many people still don’t have the habit. People who would have the most to gain from volunteering in later life – because they are lonelier, for instance, or don’t feel much sense of meaning and purpose in their lives – are actually less likely to take part. Older volunteers are generally healthier and wealthier than non-volunteers, and already have stronger relationships and social networks. People aged over 50 who are in excellent health are five times more likely to volunteer than people in poor health, for example.
Formal volunteering is still predominantly a middle class activity. Rates of volunteering in the most disadvantaged communities in England are only half those in the richest places. This may be partly due to higher rates of ill health and disability in disadvantaged communities, since poor health is one of the biggest barriers to taking part.
There’s also some data suggesting that rates of volunteering are lower among BAME groups. From our discussions with voluntary and public sector organisations, many recognise that their volunteers don’t fully reflect the local population or the people who use their services. These organisations can probably do more to encourage inclusivity and diversity in their volunteers, in the way that employers increasingly do in their paid workforces.
However, we also need to better understand what’s really happening in these communities – it seems likely that there is lots going on that isn’t captured in official surveys or academic research. For some BAME groups, for example, unpaid help is focused on the extended family or places of worship, and many people may not even consider this as volunteering. While there are often fewer organisations or formal volunteering opportunities in disadvantaged communities, people are just as likely to help each other out in need. This kind of ‘informal’ voluntary activity is the glue that holds places together, but it’s much harder to count in a survey.
So we’re about to launch research led by older people in four disadvantaged communities across England, to better understand the real patterns of voluntary activity in these places. We’ll explore what people are already doing to help themselves and their neighbours, and the best ways to support them.
elping others can be a powerful source of meaning and connection in later life. We want everyone who wants to take part to have the opportunity to enjoy these benefits, regardless of their health, income, ethnicity or background. To achieve that, we need to celebrate the huge contribution older people already make to their communities, support them in what they’re already doing, and break down the barriers that hold them back.
First published in the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network.