If you think senior citizen volunteers are more trouble than they're worth, maybe you just haven't figured out how to work with them. The first part of this article is aimed at managers or program leaders who might want to attract older adult volunteers for community development work, and toward the bottom of the page we talk directly to retirees.
Most older adults who volunteer are highly reliable, want to be useful, have a sense of the public interest and public good, and are energetic enough to do the job if you describe it to them accurately.
In addition, when they see the big picture, they’ll do menial but essential tasks cheerfully, providing they are treated well. Most of them have life wisdom to offer and can make appropriate complex decisions if they understand your organizational culture.
Best of all, they have a very strong work ethic and are highly reliable about doing what they say they will do.
So if you are in a neighborhood or local government situation where you are having to lay off paid workers, perhaps you can replace some of those functions by training a group of senior citizen volunteers.
• If you are in the position to supervise volunteers, you'll need to swallow your prejudices against older adults. Just like any group of outsiders in a particular context, retirees will sense your attitude a mile away.
Just as you would expect varying capabilities from children who ask to help you with Thanksgiving dinner, you should adjust your expectations of mature adults according to the particular capabilities that each person brings to you.
• Some senior citizens are every bit as mentally and physically fit as they were 20 years ago. Others are aging badly physically and mentally shut down at age 50. Others begin to exercise and eat right for the first time in their lives. So differences will be incredibly important.
• Try to determine the motivation of potential senior citizen volunteer. Ask the question directly, and if you don't receive a plausible response, ask again. Let them know that any answer is all right; you just want to know.
Then if you decide to accept the volunteer, play to that motivation. Like volunteers of all ages, many older adults will have strong personal experience behind where they choose to offer their time and effort.
• Be sensitive to the desire of many senior citizen volunteers to travel, stay home to host their grandchildren, and attend significant events in the lives of their loved ones. If you frown every time they want to take a trip, you're going to lose a high percentage of them.
Of course you have every right to expect adequate notification if they will not be filling their normal role, and "adequate" varies from situation to situation.
• Assign worthwhile and meaningful tasks. Seniors have many choices of where to volunteer, and those who are lively enough to volunteer usually expect to see some benefit of their efforts.
This doesn’t mean you can never assign a paper-pushing or processing function to an older adult; it just signifies that if this is the work you really need done, make sure to explain carefully the benefits of the task to your overall cause.
• Profuse thanks and minor appreciation events really help you maintain relationships with senior citizen volunteers. They grew up in a more polite era and expect good manners.
It's not that the thanks are the motivation, but it’s simply evidence to them that you are a decent human being worth working with and for.
• Try to empathize with the retirement schedule. After people have been retired a while, their sense of time is simply different, in many cases.
So if you have a volunteer who usually arrives at 10 a.m. and you ask for a 7 a.m. arrival on 24-hour notice, expect some resistance. It's not that they aren’t awake at 7 a.m., but it's more that they have their well-deserved morning routine down pat.
You may think they have "nothing to do" because they're retired, but any volunteer worth putting to work in your organization has more than enough to do.
• If you live in an area prone to severe winter weather, hurricanes, flooding, and the like, be prepared to have the senior citizen volunteers be more cautious than you might be yourself.
At a certain age, people begin to be more risk-conscious. Furthermore, they'll begin to question how sensible you are if you insist on their attendance in the face of snowstorm or hurricane forecasts.
• Don't expect a 40-hour work week for free. If you're trying to replace what was once a full-time position, you need three or four volunteers to cover those inevitable vacations, family events, and other diversions for this stage in life.
Also if the job is really critical, in that you're finding a substitute for what should be paid work, remember that older workers are sharper and more in tune with workplace norms for the first five years or so after they retire. After that, they get out of touch with what's considered proper workplace behavior. You can still find them valuable, but probably not in a mission-critical situation.
• If computer skills are needed in the particular volunteer position for which you are considering senior citizen volunteers, ask directly about their skill level and of course try to verify the results.
Don't assume anything when it comes to this; sometimes highly intelligent and capable seniors resist computerization. Sometimes they are eager to learn. Other times they are more skillful in technology than their much younger counterparts. But if you take on such a volunteer, allow double or triple the time you would expect to take to teach a younger person the same skills.
Many will love computing once they get the feel of it, and others will continue to be perplexed. You don't know how this will turn out until you try it; it doesn't seem to be correlated with intelligence.
• Contrary to what you might expect, the likelihood of sick days for senior citizen volunteers actually is probably lower than for younger people. Again, older adults who volunteer are just a sub-set of all senior citizens, and they want to keep active and pays attention to health.
They will not be "calling in sick" with petty illnesses, hangovers, or loves lost.
If you are reading this page as a retired or semi-retired person thinking about how you can volunteer on a more intense basis than your career permitted up until now, you have figured out by now that this page is written from the perspective of the organization seeking volunteers. But we can offer you two resources:
(a) If you have a high level skill that is in demand in non-profit organizations, such as management or communications, you may want to investigate the several programs and initiatives of an organization called Encore. You may have heard of their Gen2Gen Encore Prize for innovative work with youth.
(b) If you perceive that your interests, talents, energy, or time frame are more suited for local and exploratory adventures, talk to your local United Way about how to become involved. Even better, walk down the street and knock on doors of nonprofits near you to begin to understand their needs. You may make a new friend even if you don't land that ideal volunteer position immediately.
Our experience is that many, many volunteer coordinators are receptive to your efforts, and some programs simply could not exist without senior power. However, others have had a bad experience or are relying on stereotypes. Here are a few specifics:
• Be honest, very honest, when you are interviewed. Tell the truth about transportation, health, computer skills, prejudices, your life experience and work experience, and how much you are out of town or otherwise unavailable for volunteering.
• There's no need to mention every hangnail you've ever had. If you have a significant health problem that you feel sure will flare up from time to time, level with the supervisor. Otherwise, your bursitis doesn't need to be disclosed.
• Don't lecture, and don't tell the paid person how to do his or her job, no matter how much you may wish you could do so. When you begin to act like a parent, whether in an interview or when you actually begin to volunteer, you set up your supervisor to begin to act like a child. Now you don't want to work for a whiny child, do you? We didn’t think so.
• Be a bit watchful that your dress and mannerisms don't scream old age. We don't mean that you have to start going clubbing every night, wearing the latest fashion, or otherwise acting other than your age.
By all means, be yourself, but be your youngest self if you have to work around middle-aged folks. If you are working for a twenty-something, they will think you are an old fuddy-duddy no matter what you do, so you might as well be natural in that event.
• Be open to learning and to meeting new people and new situations. Otherwise, get out of the way. The workplace is changing right now at breakneck speed, so don’t expect that once you learn the routine, things will always be that way.
• Be honest if you don't want to volunteer any more. Don't ignore that feeling and hope it will go away. If it's over, it's over. And that's all right; you've been helpful.
For volunteer opportunities specific to older adults, see the AARP volunteer opportunities listing or AARP's Create the Good program. And of course if it’s a job you really need, AARP can help you too.