Silver service: Barriers to volunteering among the over-75s …and how to overcome them

Rates of volunteering fall sharply in the over-75s, yet evidence shows that older volunteers may benefit the most from it. In this post I draw on findings from IVR’s evaluation of the first year of Abbeyfield’s Residents as Volunteers project, which specifically aims to recruit over-75s from their residential homes to volunteer both inside and outside the home. I will discuss what barriers exist and how they have been overcome in the project so far.

Rates of volunteering among the over-75s

The table below shows that volunteering rates for 65-74 year olds are roughly the same as for all volunteers but that rates decline sharply among the 75 and over group – with further evidence suggesting this continues above the age of 80 (pdf, 870KB).

Table: Rates (%) of formal and informal volunteering 2015-16 (Community Life Survey, 2016)

Group Regular Formal All Formal Regular Informal All Informal All volunteering
All volunteers 27 41 34 60 70
Aged 65 to 74 31 41 38 60 69
Aged 75 and over 24 32 36 48 55

So, what are the barriers to volunteering for this age group and how have they been overcome on the project so far?

Health barriers

Almost half of over-75s (45%) cite illness or disability as a barrier to volunteering in national surveys, and this also came up consistently in our evaluation – particularly regarding mobility issues. Importantly, many people felt that their health prevented them from being able to commit regularly, with one resident saying ‘sometimes I’m very, very tired and sometimes I’m not – this is where it’s important not to feel pressurised because it just makes matters worse’.

Some health barriers are difficult to overcome, but the project has successfully found ways to make volunteering easier for residents, including developing opportunities within the home that overcome mobility issues. These ranged from informal activities like cooking to more formal ones like telephone befriending.

Being too old

Interestingly, national data shows that an even greater barrier (57%) is simply ‘feeling too old’. Again, this came through strongly in our evaluation – manifesting in two different ways. Some people felt that they had little of worth to give (sometimes because of ill health), with one saying frankly: ‘I’m past it basically’. Others felt that they had given enough service to society throughout their lives, feeling that ‘we can leave the volunteering to the younger ones… we’ve done our share, we older ones’.

The project has addressed the first issue by adopting an explicitly asset-based approach, where the time and talents of the older group are recognised – by them teaching others to knit or harnessing their administrative skills, for example.

The second issue has been more difficult to address, but I think it comes down to many people seeing volunteering as a form of service. Instead, the project should focus more on volunteering as mutual aid (‘chipping in’ to help each other out) or serious leisure (pursuing your interests while helping others). Why would anyone think they have had enough leisure time?

A narrow view of volunteering

Another related ‘cultural’ barrier in recruiting volunteers was that they had a narrow ‘charity shop’ view of volunteering as being formal, outside the home and requiring regular commitment.

To challenge this, the project promoted a much broader view of volunteering, although this often required considerable developmental work with residents. The project has been successful at developing a wide range of non-traditional roles in the home that challenge these narrow stereotypes, including running a knitting group, making videos or testing the fire alarm.

Insufficient demand

Finally, lack of demand has been a barrier. Partly, this is because residents often have few social networks outside the home and are therefore rarely asked to volunteer, but also because of a lack of suitable opportunities in local organisations.

To tackle this in year two, the project should focus on the needs of residents that other residents can help with (mutual aid again!), and should work with local organisations to develop older-volunteer-friendly opportunities. This could address the health barriers as well as tackle some of the ageism that exists in society.

This post just pulls out some of the key barriers from year one. What has been most interesting is that the cultural barriers (feeling too old or having a narrow view of volunteering) are just as important as the more practical barriers (such as ill health and transport). Year two of the project began on 1 June, with ambitious targets to recruit resident volunteers across the country (what better time to start than Volunteers Week!).

If you’d like to find out more about the findings from year one please join us at our conference on 28 June in Taunton.

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Avatar photo Matt is a senior research officer at the Institute for Volunteering Research (now part of NCVO) where he has worked since 2008.

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