For retirees volunteering usually beats work. Volunteers are not usually competing against co-workers, are not facing pressure to make economical use of time, are not usually micro-managed or given impossible deadlines and are not ordinarily forced to accommodate oversized workplace egos. Instead, volunteers can focus on the work experience itself.
But there is more—volunteering leads naturally to the idea that a meaningful life involves service. Once someone starts living as a volunteer, he starts thinking that way in other contexts, which opens a new view of life.
Range of Options
Volunteer opportunities are nearly everywhere. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the range of opportunities is to spend some time on related Internet sites.
- DOMESTIC: In the United States, the Senior Corps connects seniors to community needs. It can be used to find options in far away places or near home. Volunteer.gov offers opportunities on public lands working with natural or cultural resources in national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands. Volunteer Match is a private web site linking volunteers to opportunities mostly in the U.S. A search for “environment” in “USA” and turned up 6,740 listings.
- BOTH INTERNATIONAL AND DOMESTIC: The Catholic Volunteer Network has thousands of international and domestic opportunities offering spiritual enrichment as well as service work. Most opportunities are open to all, Catholic or not, and many secular organizations list options at the Catholic Network. Other religious sites help people find opportunities: Jewish domestic or international, Methodist international, short-term domestic and international, Presbyterian Health Care Services, Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Muslim, among others.
Retirees hoping to work in their local communities might also contact their local governments, chambers of commerce, or churches. Additionally, animal shelters, libraries, hospitals, schools and senior centers often offer volunteer opportunities.
Volunteering may begin with family and friends. Many seniors regularly babysit for their grandchildren and sometimes have legal custody. Others help family and neighbors with yard work or remodeling.
Many retirees belong to groups—photography clubs, choruses, quilting guilds, church groups—that periodically serve others or that give members a pathway to helping each other.
Where to Fit
With so many options, retirees can relax and be confident that they fit somewhere. They may consider activities they especially enjoy or social problems they are drawn toward. Two fellows I know love the outdoors, one fishing, the other hiking. They volunteer for work improving streams and maintaining trails. On their workdays, they reinforce friendships as well as improve natural resources.
I deliver meals at midday on Fridays to homebound people. My wife, a registered nurse, volunteers one day each week at a local Nurses Clinic. Another couple we know is raising their seven-year-old granddaughter. A friend babysits his grandchildren two to three days each week. And so it goes.
Some assignments fit poorly. Years ago I volunteered to join the Board of Trustees of The Athens Library, and the county commission appointed me to a standard six-year term. Soon I discovered that board meetings—even though they are well-run—remind me too much of the thousands of meetings that occupied my career. When my term expires, I will probably not reapply.
Retirees change too. We have evolving interests and gradually declining capabilities. Building a trail in an Appalachian wilderness may be great fun for a healthy 65-year-old person but impossible for that same person at age 75 or 80.
As retirees grow into volunteering, more and more of their lives become oriented to service. Retirement is also a time of recreation—travel, hobbies, sports. But for many people, a retirement devoted exclusively to recreation grows hollow. The middle-life decades of work and family responsibility becomes part of us, and volunteering allows that to continue and deepen, yet without so much stress. In other words, volunteering offers spiritual growth in later life when people are often most receptive.
Volunteering keeps seniors engaged and useful—it introduces them to new people and expands their knowledge and experience. For clients, volunteers provide services they otherwise would not have—like lunch, help with math or inspiration from a wonderful song—and those services dignify the clients with the testimony of volunteer presence and effort. Realizing this, living it while thinking about it, gives people a later life fully connected with the richness of ordinary humanity.