Having lived through a global pandemic for more than a year, many of us are learning what it means to lead a more isolated live and deal with feelings of loneliness. As human beings are social creatures, we are looking forward to the end of the pandemic when we can share our time with others and feel more emotionally and physically connected again.
However, many senior citizens do not have the same prospects to look forward to. With children moving out and focusing on their own path in life, less friends being around over time, and retirement replacing a phase of life that was filled with work and a sense of productivity, many senior citizens can feel disconnected, lonely and useless.
Dealing with isolation through volunteering
Now that the spotlight has shone bright on what isolation can do to us as individuals and societies, it is time to put more sustainable mechanisms into place to deal with isolation, especially among senior citizens.
One important way to strengthen social inclusion, and thus the well-being, of senior citizens is through volunteering. This includes not only volunteering for senior citizens, but also volunteering by senior citizens – so-called ‘silver volunteering’.
Volunteering for senior citizens
Volunteers can engage in a wide range of activities to support senior citizens in leading an active social life, for example by regularly visiting them, taking them out for activities, or exchanging letters and phone calls.
In Slovenia, for example, the non-governmental Sopotniki Institute offers safe and free transportation services to senior citizens who lack mobility opportunities to go to cultural events, private visits, stores or healthcare appointments. With the relationship between volunteer drivers and senior citizens at heart, the project aims to prevent or break isolation and loneliness, especially in remote areas.1
Volunteering by senior citizens
Older people around the world feel compelled to volunteer themselves and engage in so-called ‘silver volunteering’. Engaging in volunteer activities can help them feel useful, productive and connected to the communities around them, increase levels of interaction and physical activity, and strengthen their sense of agency and self-esteem. This has positive effects on their wellbeing and social inclusion, directly contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 3 (health and well-being) and the principle of leaving no one behind.
In Senegal, the non-profit Corps of 3rd-age Volunteers (Corps de Volontaires de 3eme Age, CV3A) allows senior citizens to volunteer in diverse fields, ranging from education, health and social dialogue to local development, governance and environmental protection. The programme aims to give senior citizens the opportunity to put their experiences and skills to service for their country and region, promoting intergenerational solidarity, and creating a community of like-minded volunteers.2
Similarly, RSVP Singapore – The Organisation of Senior Volunteers provides meaningful volunteering opportunities to more than 2,500 senior citizens per year to serve their communities, build relationships and share experiences.3
Both in their 70s, UN Volunteers Carmen and James Haddow can attest to the many benefits their volunteering brings both to the UN missions they serve and themselves as older volunteers. Rather than spending their retirement in relaxation, they decided to serve the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) as UN Volunteers. Volunteering has not only helped them stay healthy and mentally alert, it also allows them to pass on their knowledge, experience, and confidence to younger colleagues.4
Volunteering has helped us enormously, because it's kept us healthy, and it's kept us mentally alert. I would recommend it to anybody who is fit and well enough to be useful. We're both really valued, and I have personally received so much support from my supervisors and managers in UNAMA, the UNV Office in Afghanistan and UNV headquarters. I'm just so grateful to have the opportunity to be a UN Volunteer. -- Carmen Haddow
These examples are supported by research by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, published in a report on “Volunteering by older people in the EU”. Reviewing 30 case studies on volunteering by senior citizens, the report demonstrates that "volunteering in old age may be a tool to promote social inclusion of the older population and to improve quality of life for all generations."5
The study finds that volunteering helps senior citizens expand their networks by forming new relationships, feel more useful and self-confident, develop new skills and a sense of being able to make a difference, and generally improve their health and well-being.6
It has become evident from research and practice that volunteering in old age may be a tool to promote social inclusion of the older population and to improve quality of life for all generations. – Ehlers, A., Naegele, G. and Reichert, M. (2011): p. 1.
It’s time to promote silver volunteering
Clearly, the roles that volunteering for and volunteering by senior citizens can play in strengthening social inclusion and the well-being of senior citizens are not mutually exclusive. Nor should they be stand-alone measures to ensure that senior citizens and other marginalized groups are not left behind. The point is that governments, civil society organizations, the private sector and communities should actively create opportunities for older people to volunteer and lead socially active lives. This requires not only reliable funding and support at policy and practical levels, but also recruitment and retention strategies that are specifically tailored to older populations. And crucially, we need to strengthen recognition of the value of silver volunteering.
Celina Menzel is a Programme Analyst on Volunteerism Policy at UNV. She works on promoting policy integration of volunteering as part of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.
1 Slovenia (2020): Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals: Second Voluntary National Review, p. 30.
Interreg Europe: Good Practice: Sopotniki – (Cotravellers). European Regional Development Fund.
Presentation by Marko Zevnik, CEO Sopotniki Institute, at a RUMRA Breakfast at the European Parliament in Brussels in June 2018.
2 Comité National de Coordination et de Promotion du Volontariat (2014) : Famille des Volontaires.
3 RSVP Singapore: Vision & Mission.
4 UNV (2020): Embracing their 70s with the UN: a tale of two senior UN Volunteers.
5 Ehlers, A., Naegele, G. and Reichert, M. (2011): Volunteering by older people in the EU. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, p. 1.
6 Ehlers, A., Naegele, G. and Reichert, M. (2011): Volunteering by older people in the EU. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, pp. 31-32.