Making a difference: older volunteers as community builders
The Coalition Government is committed to promoting unpaid voluntary work in the ‘Big Society’ agenda; albeit in a new regime of budget cuts, service cuts and demands of more for less, including from unpaid volunteers. One important element of Big Society is social action, encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society. To date the social action of young people is targeted through the National Citizen Service, but older adults, especially women, make up a significant component of those who give time helping others.
Older people are typically characterized as recipients of care who make ever increasing demands on over stretched and underfunded social care services. But older adults, especially women, make up a significant component of those who give time through volunteering for organisations. Gerontologists identify older women as “kin keepers”, sustaining the family, but research also shows that they give time as volunteers to organizations and community groups and they also act as “neighbourhood keepers”, vigilant about the changing fortunes of the localities in which they have invested much of their lives. For older men and women, the neighbourhood may be even more important than for younger people.
In my recent work I have sought to understand more about the qualitative experience of volunteering, to understand the motivation for, and meanings attached to, volunteering. Volunteering usually combines elements of self interest and giving to others:
*‘Give to each other’ (mutual aid) – people volunteer to help people like them, wanting to put something back in their community or to an organisation that has helped them in the past;
*‘Give alms’ (Philanthropy) – helping people different to them out of a sense of altruism. They feel fortunate and wanted to make a difference;
*‘Get by’ – people volunteered in reaction to a personal need or as a result of an individual life event like retirement or bereavement. This is volunteering as a form of self-help;
*‘Get on’ – people who volunteer as a way of developing new skills and experiences that are valued in the labour market to help them get a job or change career. This is volunteering for career development.
Our study found that volunteering plays a valuable role in developing social capital within communities. Volunteering enhances the levels of active citizenship and community spirit in an area and helps people build up a sense of belonging to a place. On a personal level volunteering also develops an individual’s self-confidence and provides a structure for their lives – getting them out of the house and interacting within the community.
The role of older adults in community building will the focus of our first seminar on December 8th, to find out more and register please visit: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/funding-and guidance/collaboration/seminars/archive/older-citizens-seminar.aspx