Volunteering, wellbeing and getting out of Janet’s way
Read our first evidence briefing, looking at the benefits that people in later life gain from making a contribution to their community.
From serving as a magistrate or volunteering in a charity shop, organising a street party or helping a neighbour with their shopping, older people provide a huge amount of unpaid help to people and communities across the country.
The evidence shows that this benefits the people who are giving help – leading to new friendships, providing a sense of purpose, and increasing their happiness and wellbeing.
Social connections, meaning and wellbeing are all important elements for a good later life, and that’s why at Ageing Better, we want to find ways for more people in later life to contribute their skills, knowledge and experience to their communities. To make this happen, we need to understand people’s experiences, as well as what the evidence tells us. And if I ever forget that, Janet reminds me.
When I met Janet, she was making bracelets – one of the craft activities at a weekly session at the Walter Sickert community centre in North London. It’s only a 15 minute walk from Ageing Better’s offices, but it feels a long way from the busy, thriving shops, cafes and bars around Angel tube station. The community centre sits in the middle of a big council estate, across the road from another. There are fewer shops, emptier pavements, and the pedestrians here are hurrying somewhere else, not browsing for antiques. It’s a reminder that there are plenty of people in London who aren’t wealthy, and who don’t own a big house – including many in later life.
Help on Your Doorstep
he craft session is run by Help on Your Doorstep, a local charity which also holds coffee mornings at the centre, as well as gardening activities in the communal areas of the estate. There’s a member of staff to supervise, but help and advice on how to do the different activities, as well as tea and coffee, are provided by volunteers living on the estate. One volunteer told me that helping at the scheme enabled her to manage her own mental health problems better. Another volunteer, a younger man with learning difficulties, was bursting with pride as he showed me round the community garden and explained how the children had planted pots to make it beautiful.
I was pleased to hear about the value of the scheme, not just for older people on the estate who it was “for”, but for the volunteers.
Making a contribution
Janet told me that she came to the centre every Tuesday, mainly for a chat and a laugh with her two friends – that was obvious even before we spoke, as she giggled at the top her friend had just bought and teased her that it was “too young” for her. I asked her what she did the rest of the week. As well as working part time and looking after her husband, who’d been off work for 6 months, every Friday she holds a tea party for another friend of hers who can’t get out of her home any more. Janet didn’t talk about it like this, and she’d probably never use this language, but she is providing what the health and social care system calls “informal care” for at least three older, less active and more isolated people.
Then Janet told me that she was going to be busier soon, because she’d “got herself elected” as the new chair of the community centre on her estate. She was full of ideas for how to turn things around, and create something in her community “as good as they have here” – or even better.
The benefits of volunteering
Janet was amazing – overflowing with energy, creativity and generosity. She is a (not so quiet) lynchpin of her community, helping people out, stepping up when she sees a need, and getting stuff done. The benefits for Janet were obvious. I could see that she gained a lot of energy and satisfaction from making a contribution.
But Janet also showed me that a lot depends on the person – she does it because she is the sort of person who notices where help is needed, and is motivated (and bossy!) enough to give it. It’s not obvious how to encourage more people to become more like Janet – or whether they’d want to.
So we’ve decided to start our practical work by spending time in communities like the one Janet lives in – places where reported levels of volunteering are relatively low. We want to work with older people themselves, to understand what’s already happening where they live, who’s already making a contribution, and what kinds of outside support, if any, might help. This could mean finding ways to encourage more people to do more, but it might also mean finding ways to support the ‘Janets’ better.