I had planned to open this blog with an explanation of the benefits of volunteering. Then I met Bill. Bill works at Whipsnade Zoo, which is part of the Zoological Society of London. I say ‘works’, he actually volunteers one day a week, something he says makes his life much more bearable. Bill tragically lost his wife and was at a complete loss when his daughter suggested he apply for a volunteer role. “I’d never have considered doing this, not in a million years, but I’m so pleased that I have,” says Bill with a beaming smile. “I get to interact with visitors, educate children about conservation, and I’ve met so many lovely people, it’s like we’re a little family. It means I only have six days of the week to fill. Six days to be on my own.”
Bill’s last comment struck me and has stayed with me, and yet, he’s not alone. In England, the government says six percent of the adult population are currently experiencing chronic loneliness, impacting their mental and physical health. And it’s estimated that more than a million people, over the age of 75, go up to a month without speaking to a soul. Imagine that? It’s absolutely heartbreaking but easy to see how it happens and how quickly this situation becomes someone’s life.
Now I know I’ve done something I don’t normally do… focused on the negative, but that’s the reality of retirement life for many. It’s important to acknowledge it and understand it, so we can learn to tread a different path. Volunteering is a great way to do this – we help others and in doing so, we help ourselves.
After speaking to Bill, I watched as he interacted with zookeepers, helped children spot the almost impossible-to-spot chameleon, and laughed away to himself when the cheeky lemurs came out to play. The Bill I saw here was engaged and, at least on the outside, extremely content. A shining example of why re-engaging with some sort of work – paid or unpaid – is crucial, in my mind at least, to a successful ‘retirement’.
Let’s take a step back
For so many of us, our jobs and careers shape our identities, providing us with a sense of purpose and usually, a team of comrades. Then, almost overnight, that is lost. When we retire from our job, we immediately lose our identity and often experience the slow and steady decline of our working relationships too. It stands to reason, if we’re not in the same physical space as our friends, those friendships become harder and harder to maintain.
I know I paint a grim picture, but it’s not all bad news. There is an answer. Yes, you guessed it, to volunteer. When we take on a new role – paid or unpaid – we immediately gain a new purpose and in turn, a new identity. Alongside that, we more than likely find ourselves with a new circle of friends. And, chances are, given we’re all working toward a common goal, this group of friends will share both our interests and potentially, our life goals.
And there’s more . . . .
As in the case of Bill, volunteering combats loneliness and isolation something, sadly, we’re all more likely to experience in older age. It’s also been seen to improve mental, physical, and emotional health plus lower the risk of dementia or other health issues.
If that’s not enough to convince you of the merits of giving your time to help others, there’s more. Volunteering is an opportunity to learn new skills and share your life experience. It builds self-esteem, confidence and opens doors we never imagined opening. It can help to bridge the generation gap too. And that’s a gap worth bridging as being with younger generations helps to keep us young – at least in heart and mind, if not in body!
Where to start?
So many benefits, and very few negatives, but many people put off volunteering simply because they don’t know where to start. No more excuses.
There are also hundreds of organisations offering volunteer programs abroad. You almost always have to pay for these though. Help save endangered turtles in Greece, or lemurs in Madagascar. Share your years of experience in education programs in Sub-Saharan Africa or get your hands dirty building hospitals and regeneration projects in Cambodia. The opportunities are endless, they’re life-affirming and enriching in equal measure. And whether you volunteer in your local community, or venture to the ends of the earth, in my mind there really is little reason to not give volunteering a go.