Growing old. It isn’t for wimps. In my middle-age years, I experience the indignities of my body changing without my permission. More significantly, I watch and try to help my parents who can no longer do some things they’ve always done. As we age, dealing with change and loss is a near universal physical and emotional challenge.
Volunteering is one thing people often give up as they age. Their inability to drive, or to go out at night, or to manage stairs, means they can no longer sing in the choir, deliver Meals on Wheels, serve on that committee, or work on a Habitat for Humanity home. These are especially painful losses because helping others gives us significance.
We can do little or nothing about many of the losses and changes of aging, but volunteering is different. Although volunteering will change as we age, it can still be an important part of life.
First, keep in mind that volunteering includes far more than the tasks done for church or a community organization. It’s whatever we do for others without receiving a paycheck, like babysitting grandchildren, phoning your neighbor to make sure they’re okay, sending a card to a sick friend and giving someone a ride to their doctor appointment.
What we can Give
Then, instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we can look for the abilities we still have. If someone can walk, use a telephone, carry on a conversation, laugh, tie a shoe, read a book, write a postcard, smile, or open a can of soup, they can use these abilities to help people.
We can give more than just our abilities. Did you see the recent “Happiest Americans are the Oldest” news report? “Life gets better in one’s perception as one ages,” the study author said. Older people have seen more of life and have survived tough times. They have a lifetime of stories to tell, and first-hand memories of things we read about in history books. Perspective, attitude and personal history are wonderful gifts to share.
In our fast-paced world, the gift of time is perhaps the most valuable gift of all. Older people often have more time and more patience than younger people. Just imagine how many children, teenagers, young adults, and busy parents would love to have someone listen to them.
As we age, we still have interests. The things we like to do – football, carpentry, photography, gardening, shopping, reading – can be ways to help others. Watch a football game with a homebound senior to give their caregiver a break; listen to an elementary student read a book, help someone sort through their old photos, do some shopping for someone else. What you love to do can be a blessing to someone else.
A member of our church reminded me of the way to help others that really should be number one on our list. This woman, who lives in a nursing home, had read in the church bulletin about a new ministry starting up, one she was very interested in. She called to tell me she would be praying for it daily, a fact much appreciated by those working in the ministry. Taking the needs of others before God’s throne is the most powerful thing we can do for anyone.
Finding new ways
When we lose our usual ways to volunteer, how can we find new ones?
- Take stock. Do an inventory of your abilities and interests, giving it serious prayer and thought over several days. Use this sample form or your own listing or write in a journal. The idea is to look at all you have to give, and places or people to serve that already interest you.
- Talk to a friend or a volunteer director. Other people often see more in us than we see ourselves. A friend or a pastor can help you see what God has given you and help you find opportunities to use those gifts. Many community organizations, some senior centers, and some churches now have a Volunteer Director on staff. These people love to help you find a way to serve that matches your abilities, interests and schedule. The website www.VolunteerMatch.org] can also help you find volunteer opportunities in your area.
As we age, we may think it’s time to retire from volunteering. After all, we’ve put in our time and already done our part. But sometimes we find that we need something to fill our days, or we’re lonely, or we wonder if there’s any purpose to our life, or we realize we need help counting our own blessings. Helping other people speaks to all these needs. Helping others fills empty hours, gives us new friends, purpose and an appreciation of our blessings.
For young and for old, volunteering should be a good fit-it should match your abilities, your interests, and your schedule. As our circumstances and abilities change, what we do will change, but there will always be someone in your family, in your neighborhood, in your community or in your church, who needs what you can give.